Moving Our Swarm

The new nuc standing beside the other 2 bee hives

The new nuc standing beside the other 2 bee hives

Friday, the morning after we spotted our swarm in the possum box, Frank went to work converting our honey frame storage/carry box into a nuc to hold the swarm. He finished in time for lunch. Lunch was followed by the heavens opening and rain dashing our back yard. Not good weather for swarm capture mainly because we planned to borrow some frames from our other hives to stock the nuc. I thought insects were supposed to predict all kinds of natural events (earth quakes, cyclones, meteoroid collisions) yet still this silly queen decided to swarm on a peacefully sunny day right before a week of wind and rain. I am neither impressed nor amazed.

Saturday (yesterday) dawned with more heavy rain (what was the queen thinking?). By lunch the weather gods were kinder: showers, clouds and wind – no storms. By this time we figured our swarm had been without food for at least 48 hours. Bees don’t like to be without food for too long, they have a nasty habit of starving to death. Our established hives were okay with their honey stores but the swarm had no comb, much less any honey to fall back on when the weather turned.

By about 3 in the afternoon we decided the weather wasn’t going to get much better before the swarm perished so it was time to act. I kept telling myself, “British beekeepers would think this weather is gorgeous – a balmy 20 C and nothing more than the occasional drizzle.” Which reminded me of why I love living in Sydney.

We geared up and ventured out to deal with these wayward bees.


All dressed up to retrieve the swarm

Nuc with 4 borrowed frames

Nuc with 4 borrowed frames

Part of the swarm - the rest had fallen into the nuc

Part of the swarm – the rest had fallen into the nuc

The bottom of the nuc after dumping the swarm and shavings into it

The bottom of the nuc after dumping the swarm and shavings into it

First Frank climbed the ladder to get that possum box/swarm home down. It wasn’t hard but I could have never managed the weight and balance trick so if he hadn’t been around, I would now be lying with a broken back under an unhappy swarm. Luckily he was around and he got the box down and plugged the entrance with a rag (gotcha bees).

With the swarm in easy reach, it was time to put some frames in the nuc. We stole a frame from each of our supers (2 from Hive 1 and 2 from Hive 2) to seed the nuc with 4 frames. The frames we stole were a mix of empties (built out comb but little or no honey), honey (a bit of capped plus some nectar) and brood (thank you Hive 1) mainly capped with a ring of good honey. Since the swarm should adopt and protect the brood, we hope this will make them love the nuc and not abscond. The nuc is now a perfect environment for a swarm with stored food and brood but still with plenty of room for the queen to lay and the bees to collect pollen and nectar.

We positioned the remaining frames in the established hives (9 frames per super which will hold 10) in the centre of each box leaving empty space on the outer edges of each box. The club apiarist said the bees are less likely to build burr comb this way. Pray he’s right (are you listening bees?). We didn’t want to buy 4 (or any) new frames because we have quite a lot of wax moth and don’t think storing frames out of the hive makes sense. The 4 borrowed frames will almost certainly end up back in the established hives after the swarm is dealt with.

Then came time to move the swarmed bees into the nuc. The swarm was docile enough but tipping didn’t spill them (bees really can hang on to each other). Frank turned the possum box upside down and shook it hard to cause the bees to fall. They did . . . along with a whole pile of wood shavings that we had placed in the bottom of the possum box as bedding – oops. We scooped some shavings out of the nuc and ended up causing a lot of bees to take flight – oops. In the end we put the lid on the nuc and left a pile of shavings inside.

Quite a few of the bees landed on the branch of the tree where the possum box used to be (and glared down at us, unimpressed with that wood shavings fiasco). Frank climbed up the ladder with a box and tried to capture them. About 20 made it into the nuc as part of this exercise (ie, it was a total waste of time). We eventually added some styrofoam to the open area of the nuc to try to make the hive small enough for the bees to regulate the temperature and left them to do what bees do.

An hour later we went out to see a bunch of bees flying around the nuc and landing on the top (swarming again?). While we watched some signal must have been sent because they all marched down to the entrance like an army on the move and within a couple of minutes the top was free of bees. We looked up and the tree was also empty of bees. The entrance to the nuc was busy with all kinds of activity and shavings kept being pushed out (I swear I could hear them grumbling about clumsy humans).

It looks like the capture of the swarm was successful!

Nuc with the possum box in front to allow stragglers from the swarm to move to their new home

Nuc with the possum box in front to allow stragglers from the swarm to move to their new home

We still have one or 2 concerns about this little colony. It does seem very small. We’re not sure it’s big enough to be viable. The brood frame we put in the nuc should help boost numbers quickly. That’s assuming the brood survives which leads me to our 2nd concern, the temperature. Last night it dropped below 16 C. This is a freakishly cold snap and unusual for Sydney summers. That brood needs to stay above 34 C to survive. Could such a small colony keep the brood warm? Will we soon be dealing with “chilled brood”? Oh dear.

We think the swarm came from Hive 2 because there seemed less bees there when we were borrowing the frames for the nuc. We’ll keep an eye on both hives and the nuc (but not too close of an eye to disturb them; maybe bi-weekly?) with a goal of identifying who has the good queens and who has the dud. We’d like to merge the swarmed hive back into its original hive when we’re sure the original hive has a new, strong, healthy queen. Time will tell.


About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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25 Responses to Moving Our Swarm

  1. You should be OK if you managed to move the queen into the new box, the others always follow. sounds like you did, so hopefully all should be well and she will start laying again and build up the new hive. wishing you luck. and by the way 16 degrees C I wish!!

    • We didn’t see the queen but the bees behaviour suggests she’s there. I know, we’re so spoiled complaining about 16C 🙂 Do you think a small swarm can stay warm in that temp? I worry….

      • Well English bees can. We have been down to minus 4 degrees here and our bees are still alive, but yours may be a different strain of bees. But I would have thought so, if they have got feed which you have given them.

        • Thanks, I hope you’re right. Ours are definitely European bees (though whether Italian or German or whatever, I’m not sure). And they have enough food to fuel a whole colony so we’ve given them every chance.

          I know bees in general can survive temps well below freezing but I’m guessing that’s when there are 50,000 of them to keep a hive warm. If there are just a few thousand of them (I’m not even sure our tiny little swarm has that many) it has to be harder to keep warm – there just isn’t enough mass to create heat for the brood. We’ll have to keep an eye on them and see if the brood looks okay (not that there’s anything we can do if it isn’t). By Saturday it’s supposed to be 35 again so that might be a good time to open up and have a peek.

  2. Fascinating, sounds like a pretty neat manoeuvre. In the wild the swarm would have perished if it had been unlucky enough to move in bad weather, I had forgotten that they can only take limited reserves with them. 16 degrees sounds nice and warm if they have food now.

  3. Emily Heath says:

    20 C is positively balmy! 7C predicted here tomorrow.

    I’m puzzled – the photo of your ‘nuc’ looks like a full sized hive here. Our nucs are less than half that size and only hold 4-5 frames max (like this Are you going to leave the four frames in with all that spare space? Usually it’s best not to give a small colony too much space as they have to work harder to keep it warm. But maybe this is a difference between British and Australian beekeeping styles, as you guys have it so much hotter!

    • You’re absolutely right – it’s not a real nuc but a full size box. Before closing it up we put styrofoam down the middle to make it a 1/2 box so they could keep it warm. It’s a cheat way but should work.

      Honestly I’m not sure if anything will work if it doesn’t warm up. I think 16 C is too cold for such a small colony. Maybe we shouldn’t have put in any brood. I think the bees can keep themselves warm enough to survive but the brood might die if it gets too cool and then we’ll potentially have a disease problem.

      • Emily Heath says:

        Ah I see, yes the styrofoam is a good idea! The brood will at least help stop the swarm from absconding, they will be reluctant to leave brood.

        • That was our cunning plan. But we’ll be none too pleased if they can’t keep it warm and we kill off a full frame of brood. My attitude is, if they survive, we’ll end up with 3 queens laying for a while so probably have more brood in the end anyway.

  4. I don’t know anything about bees and beekeeping, but it is very interesting to read about it. I’m looking forward to hearing more as this all plays out.

  5. Wow! Thanks for posting! I just got my first book on beekeeping a couple days ago, and making my first trip to a bee supply here in town this week. I’m so excited to learn and interact with such an incredible little bug. Reading anything on them is absolutely fascinating.

    • Ah, so it’s not just me. I keep going back to the library getting more books on bees. My friends must be talking about my mania behind my back. They are absolutely incredible. Good luck and the bee supply – when are you getting your colony?

      • I want to have them when the season begins here in the United States, but I don’t know if I’m too late to place an order with my local supply. I’ll be popping into a shop soon and figuring that out. Wish me luck!

        • Definitely good luck! I can’t wait to watch you get some hands-on (well, gloves-on I suppose) experience. I assume you’ll be posting about it so I’ll “hear” about it when it happens.

  6. Glad it all worked out!

  7. Linda says:

    I’ve heard so many hilarious (and horrible!) stories about people trying to catch swarms…at least yours didn’t give you too many problems!

  8. Pingback: A Happy Swarm | Laura Rittenhouse's Gardening Journal

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