Bees for Development
Colonising hives in many parts of the world is normally left to nature, to luck or chance that the swarming bees will choose to come and live in the hive you have set out rather than any other nesting site.
In many places, especially where there is plenty of forage, this strategy is effective. However, one of the biggest problems that people complain about is getting their hives colonised. Collecting a swarm can help to reduce the element of chance in getting a swarm to colonise a beehive. This can only really work in bee hives that do not have fixed combs. However, it is also true that fixed comb hives colonise more quickly under natural circumstances so this is a technique that is more likely to be needed where other hive types are used.
The biology of swarming has been described on the page on swarming. After the colony has emerged from the parent hive, it will settle in a ball on a suitably safe tree branch while the scout bees investigate possible nest sites that they might choose to colonise. It is at this point that the beekeeper can interfere and collect up the swarm and introduce it to the hive of the beekeeper's choice.
A newly settled swarm is full of the honey stores it has taken form the parent colony and is normally very docile. However, if they have been trying to decide on the nest site for several days they will be frustrated and more aggressive so it is important that the beekeeper wears suitable protective clothing and uses smoke for the swarm collection (or capturing) operation.
The beekeeper should also be sure that enough planning has occurred so that the swarm may be successfully collected. The site for the new colony should be prepared, the hive cleaned and everything made ready to transfer the swarm once it is collected. A suitable container for collecting the swarm is needed. This may be a box or a basket - baskets are best because bees have hairy feet and can cling onto the fibres of a basket very comfortably. The swarm should be collected towards the evening time. The first step in the process is to spray the swarm gently with water. This will cool them and make them more docile and less likely to fly away. A helper holds the basket directly underneath the swarm. The collector then gives a sharp shake to the swarm, or cuts the branch carefully so the whole ball of bees, the swarm, drops neatly into the basket. When the bees drop into the box it is essential that the queen is included as well. If she isn't in the swarm then the bees will all stream out of the box and gather again in the place where the queen has settled.
The basket should be turned upside down onto a large cloth and propped on some sticks to allow a small entrance. This will allow all the bees that are still outside to come in and join the colony. Take a short rest at this time until the bees are all well settled in the basket. Once the bees are settled and quiet, the basket can be tied up in the cloth and moved to the site of the beehive to be colonised.
Remove some of the frames of the hive enough to make a space just enough to shake the bees carefully into the hive from the basket. Ensure the queen and as many bees as possible are in the hive then spray them gently with water and replace the top bars as quickly as possible.
The absconding habit, especially in African bees, makes collecting and keeping swarms less straightforward than in temperate bees, where this technique is a well established method of colonising a new beehive. Some people recommend finding the queen and putting it in a matchbox. This difficult operation is unlikely to be successful and easier techniques would be better employed. Firstly, the entrance should be blocked or the bees will be very likely to abscond. This can be done with grass, which will gradually wilt and allow the bees out naturally after a few days, or with a queen includer of the correct size. A small (4mm) paper clip is often recommended for this purpose. Bees will be more likely to stay if there is some comb in the colony, especially if there is some brood in the comb too. It doesn't matter if the brood is dead the bees will still find it attractive - but if the brood is alive, put in from another colony, the bees will be very reluctant to leave it. Once the bees have started building comb and the queen has started laying the colony will not leave the hive unless there is shortage of food.
In some places beekeepers use swarm cather boxes in places where bees are known to pass reliably. This is a useful technique for catching swarms. Even in this case, a brood comb included in the catcher box will help quicker colonisation.
List of Articles available on this topic (5):
Instructions on bee-keeping
Practical Beekeeping - Swarms and Pests tips
Kasimba, C. & Latham, P.
Practical beekeeping - top-bar tips
Kasimba, C. and Latham, P.
Problems with bees
Using flexible pipes to remove bees from inaccessible places
MacRobert, G. F.