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Swarm catchers

Lead Summary

HCP columnist

We had just finished a leisurely morning walk with the dogs and were looking forward to tilling the garden and finally planting my long floated starts. The creek valley had dried out, the sky was clear blue, and the forecast did not call for rain for several days. I was ever so ready to get good and dirty.

As I came out onto the cabin deck, ready to get started, Greg stood there smiling and pointing out to the orchard. I followed his gaze and yes, there it was, a good sized swarm about ten feet up in one of our fruit trees. My garden would have to wait, for just a while, I supposed.

In anticipation, I had already set up a hive deep out in the apiary, for just such an occasion. We knew what to do. I dashed by the sugar shed and got my spray bottle of sweet water and handed it to Greg. He walked out to the orchard to spray the sweet water onto the cluster of bees. We knew that they would immediately calm down and began to clean the sweetness off of their sisters.

I, meanwhile, walked over to my row of hives and took the cover off of the empty deep I had waiting. I removed four frames and set them off to the side. I then returned to the sugar shed and put on my favorite bee suit, a gift from a retired beekeeper. I felt securely wrapped in its protective cover, and safely surrounded by the good wishes of my retired friend.

Greg and I knew that swarms rarely linger longer than 24 hours, and we did not really know how long this one had been there, so we knew that it was important to get right to work.

Once I was suited up, I grabbed the five-gallon slotted bucket attached to the top of an eight-foot section of PVC pipe, and walked out to the orchard. It was hard to keep calm, but calmness is important when working with bees. They seem to sense beekeeper distress, and so I try to be a slow methodical keeper, but this was likely a hundred dollars worth of bees
hanging on the orchard branch, and I did not want to lose them.

I felt the adrenaline coursing through my veins, but I moved slowly and I think that I appeared calm.

The bees were clustered in a large gelatinous mass, looking like about a gallon’s worth of undulating bugs, hanging below the branch.

Greg suggested that I hold the bucket up underneath them, pull it back, and give the branch a good thwack, so that the bees would fall into it. I placed the bucket lid between my knees and held the PVC pipe with both hands. Unsuited, Greg stood back a bit. I held my breath, pulled the bucket back and gave it a good solid thwack, against the branch.

I felt the swarm fall, as a mass, into the bucket. I pulled it down and snapped the lid into place. Only then did I dare to glance over at Greg. He smiled, “Well done!” I looked back up at the branch. Only a few bees remained. Hopefully, I had the queen.

I carried the bucket of bees up to the empty hive, and standing beside it, I took a deep breath. I felt like I was getting ready to jump into cold water. I again thwacked the bucket, but this time down on the ground. I felt the mass of bees fall to the bottom of the bucket. I quickly removed the lid and dumped the mass into the space left by the frames I had earlier removed. I marveled that they looked bigger than I had expected.

But there was no time to linger. I brushed my gloved hand across the lump of bees, spreading them out across the bottom of the hive. I did not want to squish their piled mass as I set the frames back in place. Quickly, I replaced the frames, one at a time, down into the hive body.

Finally, I replaced the inner and outer lids, and then I stood back to watch. I smiled. I knew that we had the queen. I watched as a line of worker bees formed at the hive entrance and started to fan backwards, signaling to any stragglers that the queen was inside and that the swarm had found a new home. I looked back out at the orchard and watched as several of the bees that I had left on the branch flew over the hive, landed at the entrance, and marched straight inside.

I pulled off my glove and looked down at my watch.

Less than half an hour had passed. This was one swarm chase that had gone exactly according to plan, much like in the books. Mission accomplished, and now it was time to head down the hill and plant that garden!

Christine Tailer is an attorney who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at

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