SoCal Beekeeping

Swarm or Cutout?  Which is better?
P. Michael Henderson

There are generally two ways to acquire feral bees:  Capture a swarm or do a cutout of an existing feral hive.  Which is better?

I've captured bees both ways.  A swarm is much easier to capture.  The bees are pretty docile and they're often in a place that's easy to reach.  All you have to do is vacuum them up and then transfer them to a hive.  Of course, some swarms are high in a tree and I pass on those for safety reasons.

Cutouts are often more difficult, depending on where the hive is located.  If they're in a wall of a house, I'll usually pass because of the work required to get them out and the repairs needed afterwards.  But, around here, I often find feral hives in a box - such as a cable TV box - in the ground.  Those are easy and safe to cutout.  There's no dangerous voltages in a cable TV box so you can root around in the box safely.

Given a choice, I'll always choose a cutout over a swarm for this area.  Here's why:

A swarm may have come from a European hive and will not be able to deal with varroa mites.  I had two swarms crash in the first year, most likely from varroa.

A swarm has to start from nothing and build comb to begin raising brood.  They also have no food stores, except what they brought with them, so they have to build up honey and pollen stores for the lean times.  Some, especially late swarms, don't make it.

And if they do make it, it takes quite a while for them to build up to the point were you can get honey from them - probably a couple of years.

A cutout of a hive that's a couple of years old, on the other hand, has proven that it can coexist with varroa (or it wouldn't have survived).  They have built up comb - which you take and put in the new hive - so they have brood and honey stores.  If you manage to capture the queen - which is what usually happens - the bees will transition to the new hive quickly and continue building up their numbers from the brood that was in the comb you took.  They have to do a fair amount of "housekeeping" on the comb but they seem to do that quickly and without much interruption of their brood raising.

Since we have Africanized bees in this area, you have to make a judgment about how defensive they are.  A very defensive hive should be exterminated.  But lately, the cutouts I've encountered in this area have been quite docile and yet have the ability to coexist with varroa.  Those make very good hives.