Relocating swarms for pollination: How feral bees can be integrated into sustainable farming strategies

Final Report for FW10-040

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $29,975.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: Hawaii
Principal Investigator:
Jennifer Bach
Honeybee Education Program
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Project Information


The tropical fruit and nut growers of the Big Island of Hawaii rely heavily on the pollination services of feral honeybee colonies. With the recent arrival of Varroa destructor, one of the most serious pests of honeybees, the feral bee populations have significantly declined, making managed hives a necessity for large-scale pollination in agricultural landscapes.

This farmer-pollination project provided four selected farmers with necessary beekeeping knowledge and equipment to capture feral honeybees swarms and relocate them into affordable hives to be used for their farm pollination needs. Part of the impetus for this project is to provide pollination services with a reduced cost to the producers. Affordable hive designs such as top-bar hives were made locally from recycled and store-bought materials. Even when made from new materials, the top-bar hive is less than a third of the cost of a conventional hive shipped from the mainland.

Using swarm traps baited with lures has proven to be a viable means of obtaining or increasing pollination hives. Honeybee swarms transferred into top-bar hives had greater success establishing colonies over swarms put into Langsdroth hives.

There has been a noticeable decline in feral colonies on the island since the arrival of a second serious honeybee pest, the Small Hive Beetle. Although no formal study has been done on feral populations, the decline has been significant enough to be noticed by both growers and the general public. Due to intensive honeybee pest pressure on Hawaii Island, it is recommended that farmers catching swarms should work under the guidance of an experienced beekeeper.

Outreach activities included the creation of an informational website that farmers nationally have access to. Two workshops were given and were met with great enthusiasm. Farmers and fruit growers interested in keeping honeybees filled both classes, while more than fifty have signed up for future classes.


On the island of Oahu, where the mite was detected in 2007, vegetable farmers have already noticed a decline in yields attributed to the collapse of feral hives. The Big Island of Hawaii did not experience a significant decline in feral colonies until 2010, when the arrival of a second honeybee pest, Small Hive Beetle, decimated both feral and managed colonies already weakened by Varroa and its associated diseases.

Feral hives in Hawaii, under pre-Varroa conditions, will grow and produce swarms from March to November. A portion of these swarms will naturally become established and form new colonies that will contribute to crop pollination. Currently on the Big Island there are still feral colonies that swarm every year. These swarms can be captured and transferred into managed hives that can be monitored and treated to avoid hive collapse due to mite infestation.

Many of Hawaii’s beekeepers and farmers of fruit, nut and seed crops are still unaware of, and ill-prepared for, the detrimental effects of the Varroa mites on honeybee pollination of their crops. Small- to medium-scale farms, which are the target of this project, will need their own bee hives in order to maintain adequate yields. The growers of such crops as coffee, macadamia and citrus are important contributors to Hawaii's diversified agriculture and agricultural export industry.

Project Objectives:

1) Develop protocols and techniques to be used by farmers to hive feral honeybee swarms that will be used for their farm pollination needs. This project will work directly with selected farms teaching producers to capture, translocate and manage viable hives for their farm’s pollination needs. Each farm will provide feedback and complete surveys that will be developed into an educational resource to be used by other farmers of similar crops and regions.

2) Design, collaborate and construct inexpensive, sustainable hives from local materials and reusable products, while still allowing for modern beekeeping practices such as mite treatments.

3) Provide GPS location points of swarms to UH Honeybee Research Team, as well as provide a sample of bees upon request for honeybee pest virus interaction study.

4) Disseminate information on the relocation of feral swarms into established pollination hives with handout and booklets, workshops and Internet information.


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Materials and methods:

Farmer meetings with the beekeeper established potential swarm and apiary sites. Swarm traps baited with Nasonov lures, to mimic pheromones produced by worker bees, were placed on the farms. Traps were also placed approximately 150 yards from existing wild honeybee nests and near sites where swarms/wild colonies were found in the past.

A variety of styles of locally made top-bar hives were constructed and set on farm sites. These top-bar hives were constructed from store bought materials, recycled materials and/or local woods. Captured swarms were transferred from traps into hives in the late afternoon under the guidance of experienced beekeepers. Colonies remained free from inspection for the first two weeks. After initial establishment, farmers and the beekeeper conducted routine inspections to asses colony health and queen viability.

Hive designs, as well as beekeeping practices, were modified with the arrival of the Small Hive Beetle. Farmers who caught swarms were taught beekeeping practices as well as integrated pest management.

Notes and data were collected on farmer adoption of beekeeping practices, swarm catching, honeybee pest dynamics and pollination dynamics. Booklets were created from collected data, notes and pictures.

Workshops were advertised via newspapers, farmers’ markets,festivals, websites and association newsletters, which created a wait-list consisting of farmers and community members who expressed interest in attending. Two workshops have already been given in two of the islands districts. Both these workshops were fully attended (15-20 participants). More workshops will be required to fulfill the growing interest and needs of farmers seeking beekeeping education and pollination hives.

Research results and discussion:

A significant number of swarms were caught in baited traps during early spring and summer. Three out of four farmers also caught swarms during late summer months. Most swarms were attracted to lure and swarm traps. Beekeepers also found swarm clusters hanging in the open, as reported to them by community members. Colonies were then relocated into top-bar hives or Langsdroth hives by beekeepers and assistants.

Success of colony transfer and survival was due to early detection of swarms in traps. Colonies that were transferred from a trap into a permanent hive within 24 hours eliminated the problem of comb/wax being built in trap. If colonies were left in traps for over 24 hours, bees would build comb in traps, therefore wasting energy and food stores on wax combs that should have been built in permanent hives. Farmers that placed traps in locations where they were able to be checked regularly had better success in detecting swarms within 24 hours.

This project also found that transferring colonies in late afternoon or at dusk resulted in increased success of colonies taking to hives. This is because the colony cannot fly at night. Forcing the bees to spend 8-12 hours in a hive overnight made them more likely to start building combs by morning. We also found significant differences between swarm establishment according to the hive style. Successful establishment of swarms placed in top-bar hives was much greater than in Langsdroth hives; 12 colonies established quickly in top-bar hives and 0 colonies established in Langsdroth hives after transfer from swarm trap. We suggest relocating swarms into top-bar hives as a first choice over the conventional Langsdroth hive. Our results show the top-bar to be a preferred home site for feral bees.

Reduced hive expenses included top-bar hives that were partially made from local or recycled material, bringing total material cost under $50. A variety of top-bar hive designs were experimented with. We found that the Kenyan and Golden Mean top-bar hives worked well with Hawaii’s climate variations. A modified screen bottom board was needed to address small hive beetle infestation in some regions of the Island. A covered roof is also needed for protection of the colony from rain and sun in some areas, as well as to prolong the life of materials used to build the hive. The built-in observation window was proven to be an essential component in hive design. Farmers could easily monitor the hive without disturbance by looking through the window daily. This kept the farmers interested in the hive.

The University of Hawaii honeybee research team announced they did not need GPS points of collected swarms, therefore GPS points were not collected.

Due to the recent arrival of a new honeybee pest, the Small Hive Beetle, there has been a significant decline in the number of swarms produced by managed and feral colonies. The SHB spread rapidly over the entire island. According to a survey conducted by the pollination project in cooperation with BIBA (Big Island Beekeeping Association), beekeepers suffered an average of 50% loss of their managed hives after the arrival of the small hive beetle in 2010. Given the current intensity of pest pressure on honeybee populations, it is recommended that agricultural producers work with an experienced beekeeper until pest pressure reaches an equilibrium. Inexperienced agricultural producers taking on beekeeping without the proper understanding of honeybee pest dynamics will have high hive failure. Our objectives were not fully met due to the arrival of SHB midway through our project. The SHB, combined with the Varroa mites, have significantly altered and increased the intensity and knowledge required for successful honeybee management practices. As a result, we do not believe that farmers will be able to keep pollination hives successfully without the continued assistance of experienced beekeepers.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Our selected producers were responsive and enthusiastic in adopting beekeeping practices geared for pollination. After the arrival of the Small Hive Beetle, they quickly got discouraged when their hives began to fail. Producers relied on a beekeeping mentor to guide them through IPM and advanced management. Even with the assistance of the beekeeper, many of our project colonies were lost.

Our first workshop “Beginning Beekeeping & Obtaining Pollination Hives” took place in the district of North Hilo, February 9, 19, 23, 19 and 26. A total of 15 students/producers attended the in-class lectures and two-day field classes. The second class took place in the district of Hamakua every Saturday in July 2011, with 18 participants.

Public talks included presentations at Kealakekua and Kiluea Library, Hawaii beekeepers association, Kaiwiki community association, Mango and Avocado festivals and the Hamakua Agriculture Development Association. An estimated total of 350 people attended these presentations. Some of the titles included “Catching Your Own Pollination Hive,” "Keeping Bees Healthy" and "Securing Pollination for Hawaiis’ Farmers.”

Other Outreach Activities:

-Newspaper articles in Ka’u Times, Big Island Weekly, West Hawaii Today, and the Tribune Herald.

-Website outreach on,, and

Jenny Bach teaching beekeeping workshop
Jenny Bach teaching beekeeping workshop

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Potential Contributions

Due to the continued loss of feral (and managed honeybee) colonies on the Big Island, the establishment of pollination hives will significantly increase the farmer’s yields of crops such as coffee, macadamia nuts and citrus. Farmer-owned pollination hives are still a viable option, but we believe the farmers’ colonies will need continued monitoring and assistance in hive management from an experienced beekeeper, at least for the next few years. There is a growing need for beekeepers educated in integrated pest management, best practices for pollination hives and the importance of feral and managed colonies to Hawaii’s agricultural sector. The development of partnerships between beekeepers and agricultural producers shows great potential benefit.

Agriculture producers that can construct their own pollination hives will cut down their pollination expenses considerably in comparison to renting pollination hives from beekeepers. Top-bar hives are an inexpensive hive that will meet pollination needs, providing producers with an option of sustainable on-site farmer pollination.

Future Recommendations

Additional areas of study include greater research on honeybee integrated pest management for the state of Hawaii. At present, there is not a updated beekeeping manuel that includes pest management strategies for Hawaii. This manuel should include organic beekeeping methods, IPM strategies, management practices for each of Hawaii's micro-climates and crop specific pollination dynamics.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.