Honey bees swarm in spring when their colony grows large and overcrowded with bees. It is their way of relieving congestion of the colony and it is also how their species creates new bee colonies. When it is time to swarm, the queen and roughly half the bees leave the colony in search of a new place to live. Swarms often take breaks on their journey to their new home and may be found resting in a tree or bush.
Swarms are easy for beekeepers to catch and relocate because, at this stage, they seldom have comb. A true swarm has not settled in its new home and so they will not have started to build. They are just a cluster of bees. Without the complication of comb, a beekeeper can easily scoop, shake or lower the swarm into their equipment and bring them back to their apiary.
The best time to catch a swarm is as soon as you find out about them. A swarm of bees is, by definition, unsettled and will not stay put for long. A swarm may rest in one location for only an hour or they may stay for several days, but the beekeeper has no way of knowing which it will be.
I’ve often rushed out to capture a swarm only to have it leave in the short window of time it took me to get there. During the swarm season, I like to keep everything I need to catch a swarm in my car. That way I can get to them more quickly.
Capturing a swarm of bees is magical. No matter how many I catch, I am still filled with childlike glee when they start to swirl around me. One of the things that make the process so enjoyable is that swarms are almost always docile.
Established colonies tend to be defensive. They may sting to protect their home, their brood, their honey, but a swarm of bees has no home, brood or honey stores. Therefore, they have no reason to sting. It is also said that swarms are less likely to sting because they are full of honey. Each worker carries a small amount of honey inside her honey gut. This honey will help to fuel the work of building a new hive.
It should be noted that on occasion, a swarm will be defensive. Many beekeepers catch swarms without wearing bee suits, but new beekeepers especially should beware of this possibility.
It should also be noted that while most swarms will start out sweet, they will almost certainly become more defensive once they become established. If you are in an Africanized area, this change can be dramatic. Initially, there is no way to tell if you are catching an Africanized swarm or not. It can take several weeks before the bees reveal their true nature.