Saturday, April 16, 2016

More Musings about Swarms and Trap Hives: Learn from My Mistakes

Almost all beekeepers learn from trial and error. I know I have. I’ll admit that I’ve made more than my share of mistakes when dealing with swarm traps. Learn from the messes I’ve made and maybe you can avoid yourself some grief.

My preferred method of getting new hives is through catching swarms with trap hives, as I explained in my previous post. Swarms are plentiful in Honduras and easily caught. Bait boxes work very well.

However, I prefer to use top bar hives  for my beekeeping and I have to work with ornery Africanized bees. I don’t have all the conveniences in Honduras that I would have back in the United States. These issues have probably caused me to have more than my share of bad experiences.

So, here are some things that I have learned and that you should maybe keep in mind.

Wear a veil. Or at the very least have it on hand.

Sealing up the entrances on my trap hives is usually an easy process—I just puff a bit of smoke and stuff the sponge in it. It’s sealed and ready to move. Because of this, I often don’t want to bother with a suit or even a veil. It doesn’t matter that my bees are Africanized. The trap hives are easier to carry without having to put on the cumbersome equipment. 

But just about the time you think everything is good the sponge gets knocked out of the entrance or the bees find a hole someplace. You start getting zapped. And worse yet, since it’s night, the bees crawl and cling to you. They won’t simply fly away. You take some back with you to the truck—and they usually end up stinging you just as you’re taking off your veil or suit. 
So I usually tie on my simple mosquito net string veil. I’ll keep it pulled down comfortably around my neck but it’s easy to pull up if necessary.

Take the smoker. You never know if you’re going to need it. You can’t trust all the bees will be inside, even though that’s what you hope for. More times than never there are some outside the entrance that need a little coaxing to enter. Other times there’s a lot of them hanging outside.

Remember the sponges. Don’t forget to bring something to stop up the entrances (or enough in case there are several traps you’re moving). I prefer pieces of sponge since it seals the entrances nicely. 

If I happen to forget them I can usually find some old plastic bags lying around on the ground that work in an emergency. In a worst case scenario, you use some grass or leaves (although I don’t trust them staying in the entrance like other material).

Carry an extra sponge or two in your pocket. Too many times I go to stuff one in the entrance and I drop it. It’s easier to pull another from your pocket than to climb out of the tree for one.

And then also be careful that it doesn’t come unplugged. Be careful about what it might brush against—even something like your leg. Again, there is nothing worse than having the bees come out at night since they crawl and cling to you.

Bring a feed sack for those leaky boxes. I check the box for holes before hanging them. But for whatever reason I end up getting some again. 

Bringing along some big feed sacks was the solution. If I think there’s going to be a problem with the bees coming out of the trap, I will slip it into the bag and tie it shut. It’s extra insurance against having problems and gives me a bit more peace of mind when moving them to the apiary.

My wife will sew one and a half feed sacks together to make the bag big enough for my traps.

Bees in a bag—the solution for a leaky trap hive.

Duct tape. The fix it all (or maybe I should say “seal it all”). 

Check the boxes for holes before hanging them. It’s easier to fix those problems before bees move into the box.

Otherwise use that duct tape. You could also bring along some plastic bags for stuffing into smaller holes or cracks.

Move the swarm traps carefully. These are top bar bait boxes that I use. The combs aren’t going to be inside a frame. If the bees have had time to grow their nest, they are going to have combs of new wax that could be heavy with brood. Fragile.

The new swarms will take some movement and swinging around, but it can’t be excessive. If you bump it just right, you will have comb breakage. Watch out for those tree roots or rocks that you might trip over. Set it down carefully so it doesn’t tip (nothing is flat on the coffee farm where I have an apiary).

Moving them in a vehicle can be tough, especially on the back roads of Honduras. The roads have lots of ruts and lots of rocks. It doesn’t matter if you go slow. There is lots of jarring. If a trap needs to be moved up to my coffee farm apiary, I will actually ride in the back and hold the trap hive, trying to cushion the jolts on the worst parts of the road.

I actually like to move them better with my scooter. I can strap two trap hives easily to the back on a little platform I made. It’s easy to dodge ruts and rocks and go more slowly to the apiary.

The result of tripping on a rock.

Check for comb breakage. If you think you had some combs break or collapse, try to get into the hive the next day. It can be saved if you don’t wait too long. I usually see the combs falling in such a way that most of the bees can crawl out from under them. I normally see a minimal number of bees getting crushed. You might lose the queen but if there is brood, the bees can raise another. 

Get a headlamp. Pick up one of those little LED flashlights that you can strap to your forehead. It helps a lot to have both hands free. Otherwise have a small penlight that you can maybe put in your mouth.

It also helps to have one with a red light. Bees can’t distinguish that color. For them at night, it’s as if there isn’t even light. 

Careful though with a normal white light. It will attract any bees that have escaped. You might pick up a sting on your head.

Check the flashlight batteries. There is nothing worse when you are out in the woods taking down a trap hive and the batteries die. I learned this the hard way.

This was many years ago when my oldest son helped me take a trap full of bees to an apiary I had just outside of town. It was maybe a 20-minute walk. We hung the trap on a stick between the two of us, to avoid comb collapse and make carrying it easier. We were in the field walking toward the other hives when my flashlight started to die. It also started to drizzle, meaning the moon was covered by clouds. 

I decided to just leave it off to the side of the path and I would go back early in the morning to deal with it. We got back to the gate of the field and the flash light died completely. I couldn’t see a thing. I have terrible night vision. Then the lights go out in town also. It’s now pitch black. 

My son had better eyesight so he basically had to lead me. I remember thinking that coming up on the road was a small bridge. I kept hoping we wouldn’t go off to the side and down into the stream. We finally got to the houses on the edge of town and stopped at the first little store where they had a candle lit.

The lights came back on after about 20 more minutes and we got back home.

Think twice about using cardboard trap hives. They will work. And they are cheap. I’ve used cardboard for the sides of the bait box to reduce weight. I stapled some plastic to it in order to make it more rain proof.

After a certain time, however, the bees will begin to chew it up. I remember one trap hive where the bees completely chewed up the cardboard, leaving just the plastic. It was kind of unnerving moving that one, knowing I could have easily poked a hole through the plastic and let some angry bees out.

Don’t keep the bees in the trap hive for too long. Although my swarm boxes can usually hold a new colony for three or even four weeks, there is a limit. The box is not that big and if the colony grows enough they will want to swarm.

Queen cells. This is what happens when you keep the new colony in the swarm trap for two months instead of transferring the bees to a permanent box sooner. The colony built up big enough and fast enough to where it swarmed again.

Get permission/advise the landowner. Permission is just common courtesy. But after you have that permission try to let the landowner know you will be out there checking the traps. 

My wife and I went out one night to take down and move a bunch of trap hives—around 12 of them. At one of the spots, I stopped by the owner’s house and let the wife know that I would be coming back at night to take the bees out of the tree. She said that wasn’t a problem. The problem was that she didn’t tell her husband.

I’m just getting the trap hive to the ground when three people showed up, one carrying a shotgun (or maybe just a 22). He wanted to know what was going on out there in his pasture. Right at that time some bees started to escape. “Get back. The bees are coming out,” thinking more about his safety than the fact he had a gun in his hand to use on me.

It all turned out fine after I was able to explain the situation.

Make a knot that is easy to untie. If you can’t get the knot untied, you end up cutting the rope. Then you have the risk of not having enough sting to easily lower the bees to the ground. (This also implies keeping a small knife in your pocket.) Or worse, you can’t see decently since it’s at night and you cut the wrong string. The trap hive then just about falls out of the tree.

Protect the trap from birds and mice. They like my trap hives as much as the bees do. I now nail/staple some half inch wire mesh over the entrances.

Nail this on the inside so the sponge can still be stuffed in the entrance to seal up the trap.

The result of a bird wanting to use my box for its nest. 

Carry the heavy traps between two people. This is especially useful if you have to take them any distance. I slip a long stick under the hanging/handle stings. One person is on either end of the stick. Sometimes I will even put two traps on the stick. It is also easier to buffer the jars to the traps this way.

Trap hive locations need to be planned. Don’t put them too close to someone’s house if you know they may be uncomfortable with the potential bees. But other times you have no choice.

I once noticed bees flying around the eaves of my house like they were checking it out for a new nesting site. So I decided to hang up a trap hive under the roof. Better they move into that and not the roof itself.

It probably went like that for four, maybe five days. Finally, the swarm arrived, but right as the neighbors where breaking the piñata for their granddaughter’s birthday. Just across the fence, maybe 60 feet away. Everyone ran into the house and then I had the neighbor knocking on my door.

After I explained what was happening everything was good. I even set up the ladder and got right next to the bees to show them there was nothing to worry about.

It’s bad timing when the swarm arrives just as the next-door neighbors are breaking the piñata for their granddaughter’s birthday.

Choose carefully how you hang the trap hive in the tree. It has to come down eventually It’s a lot more difficult when it’s full of bees and you have to do this at night.

So envision how that will be at night before you decide to hang it.

Hang it in a place where it is easy to get at it. Make sure you’re not going to put yourself in danger of falling. Make sure you can easily reach the entrances to stuff them up. Make sure it’s going to be easy to lower the bait box down.

I mentioned in my previous post about setting a trap hive in the crotch of a tree. It was a nice stable spot but the weight of the big swarm that moved in wedged it there. The tree also had a slippery-type of bark and you had to keep one hand on a branch to avoid falling.

It was a bit of a nightmare to lift it up and out of the crotch and down to the ground. We actually ended up breaking all the combs and we lost the hive.

The trap hive wedged in the crotch of a tree.

Notice the bars on the left with the yellow wax from the trap hive that had the comb breakage. They ended up going into the other new hive next door.


For information on using trap hives with top bar hives and Africanized bees, see my previous post,  Musings about Swarms and Trap Hives: Getting “Free-bees”

What tidbits of information can you add for dealing with trap hives? Please share with a comment.