Studies in PermApiculture: Swarm Traps

This post will explain how to make a swarm trap for around ten dollars that can be assembled and hung in under five minutes.  Swarm traps are interesting and I believe this trap is superior to a more complex wooden box that is strapped to a tree.  This trap is easy to assemble and disassemble, lightweight and easy to transport, reusable, and very inexpensive.  Ideally, our hives would be populated by wild swarms without the need for a trap, and while this is always possible it doesn't hurt to provide the bees with an intermediary home as they may not find the desired hives as easily. 

Swarms are natural events in the life of a honey bee colony.  In fact, a swarm is the colony reproducing at the level of a super-organism and ought to be treated as a vitally important occurrence.  Swarms often indicate colony strength, given that the colony would not produce a second queen and reduce the available workers by nearly half unless it could sustain such a loss in bees.  

From the perspective of the bees, swarms are vulnerable colonies.  The bees have no food other than what they are carrying in their stomachs, and the queen has not been fed for some time prior to departure.  They must find a new home quickly in order to survive.  From the beekeeper's perspective, swarms are ideal colonies as they represent the colony's choice for strong new offspring.  Furthermore, swarms emerge from local colonies, as bees cannot survive long enough to traverse long distances, and this local genetic stock is better prepared to confront the nuances and complexities of the immediate ecosystem. 

Catching a swarm is a bit of a misnomer.  When beekeepers refer to catching a swarm, what they are really saying is that they have offered the swarming bees an adequate temporary home, whereby the bees will take shelter until the beekeeper can move them to a hive.  Trap is a slightly better word, but this too implies that the bees are restrained in some manner from moving freely.  As all beekeepers know, bees will largely do as they please and do not take kindly to impositions.  It seems that we do not have an adequate term for this tool, and so swarm trap will have to do for now.


The following are the materials for a single swarm trap.  All can be found easily at local hardware stores or big box stores, and I've included the prices that I paid.

  • Two (2) 11x12RD (3.40 gal/12.9L) Molded Fiber Containers.  I used Western Pulp brand at $3.29/container.
  • Paracord, nylon and poly blends.  I bought fifty feet for $2.97.
  • Carabiner.  I found one for $0.98.  You can use the cheap non-climbing ones as there will never be enough weigh in the trap to jeopardize the limit on the carabiner.
  • Pipe insulation.  You can buy individual tubes for under two dollars a tube, but I bought a four-pack for $4.20 because I'll be making a lot of these traps.  A single swarm trap requires no more than 2-3 inches of pipe insulation.
  • Screws, screwdriver, scissors, lighter.  You should have these things on hand in any home.

Total cost: $14.73.  Note that this cost includes a massive amount of extra paracord and pipe insulation.  Future traps will not require these expenses and should total around eight dollars.

Making The Swarm Trap

Step one: Making the lash point

The first step is to cut a length of paracord to use as a lash point for the carabiner (this is what will hold the trap to the line).  I found that a good length was from my hand to the center of my chest.  Cut the cord at this length and burn the exposed frayed edges to seal the cord.  Then tie one end into a bowline knot.

Thread this through one of the holes and bring the cord around to the opposite hole and back into the inside of the bucket.  Run the loose end through the loop of the knot and out one of the remaining two holes, then across the outside and back in the last hole.  It should look like this:

Tie the loose end to the loop with a standard knot.  Pull the exposed cord taught on the outside and it should form two equal sized loops; this is where you will clip the carabiner when the trap is finished and ready to be hoisted.

Step two: Securing the buckets

This step is much easier.  Basically, we are going to secure the buckets to one another with four screws.  I like to line the screws up with the holes so that I know they are even, but in reality you can put the screws anywhere along the joint, so long as the two buckets are firmly attached.  Keep in mind you will need screws long enough to breach both lips of the buckets.

Step Three: Filling the Holes

Another very easy step in which we cut pieces of pipe insulation and stuff them in seven of the eight holes.  Remember that the bees need a way in and out, so leave one of the bottom holes exposed for them.

The trap is finished.  What we need to do now if find the ideal location, preferably one we have already scouted and know is appropriate, and do the following:

  • Cut a new piece of paracord, much longer this time, and burn the ends. 
  • Tie a bowline knot in one end and attach the carabiner to the loop.
  • Throw the carabiner with the attached cord over the exposed item in question, and allow the carabiner to fall within reach by flicking the cord.  Alternatively, if you can access the place with a ladder, by all means do so.
  • Attach the carabiner to the top of the trap and hoist it up, securing it firmly.

That's it.  The total time it takes to make one trap is under five minutes.

Getting The Bees Out

If/when the bees do occupy the trap, wait until dusk (workers from the swarm forage during the day and return at dusk) and simply untie the hitch and lower the trap down until you can hold it.  Seal the last hole with another piece of pipe insulation or duck tape (the tape does not affix well to the material of the buckets, so use a good amount if going this route) and take it to the hive.  Ideally you would leave the trap there overnight, as the swarm inside still believes it is in the previous location and you want their internal compass to 'reset.'  If you leave it there overnight, return to it around dawn.  Carefully and gently unscrew the screws and separate the buckets.  The bees should be clustered/balled in the top part of the bucket where the cord is lashed.  Place this bucket on top of the open hive, make a fist with your off hand and place it on the top of the bucket and hit it firmly but gently with your other fist.  The bees should be dislodged from the trap and into the hive.  If the queen is dislodged, the rest will follow in short order.  You can use a feather to brush any stragglers off the inside of the bucket and into the hive.  The trap can then be reused and one should consider placing it in the old spot where the swarm found it as this would appear to be a good spot.

Good luck and happy beekeeping!