A perfect swarm

A week after the flurry of swarms abated and the summer solstice passed, I decided swarm season was over. As in other years, the swarms happened all at once—a storm of swarms—and now all was quiet.

Although it was late in the day and beginning to get dark, my husband suggested we walk to the upper hives. This was more for exercise than anything else. At first I hesitated, but then I agreed to go.

It was a beauteous evening, warm and peaceful. We trekked up the hill, passing bait hives and swarm traps. We stopped briefly at the top of the hill and then retraced our path.

My husband was ahead of me on the way home. Suddenly I heard an “Ohmygod!” Based on his tone, I assumed he stepped on a slug.

But when I caught up, he was staring at the swarm trap we had passed minutes earlier. Hanging beneath it was a picture-perfect swarm—huge, symmetrical, and so quiet we had missed it earlier. We were amazed.

Because it was getting dark fast, we literally ran down the hill, loaded the pickup with a bait hive, an eight-foot ladder, and a few tools. We drove up the gravel road to a spot not far from the swarm.

I prepared the hive as my husband erected the ladder. When he lifted the trap from the nail, the swarm remained all of a piece except for a few dozen bees that clung to the tree. With military precision, the bees were all parallel with heads towards the sky.

With a solid thump against the hive, I dumped the entire swarm into the top box. It dropped like lead. I have never handled such a docile swarm. It stayed put with very few fly-ups. Maybe it was the time of day or the rapidly dropping temperature. I don’t know for sure, but it was cool.

Early the next morning, I found no bees at the entrance but many bees ringing the outside of the hive near the top. A few had migrated back their former spot beneath the swarm trap. I thought perhaps they wanted an upper entrance, so I made one.

Within minutes, the bees were fanning madly at the new entrance. Within two hours everyone was inside the new hive, including the group from the swarm trap. Now, a week later, the bottom entrance is bustling and the inhabitants are as busy as . . . well . . . bees.


A perfect swarm. The eight-foot ladder in the foreground gives an idea of the height.

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  • Have you doubled your hives at this point? Your APUs have been so swarmy! Pretty amazing, considering all the swarm-prevention stuff you did earlier in the year.

    • Jess,

      You needn’t remind me! I sometimes think they just like to prove a point. I combined some of the swarms for lack of equipment, but I got three new hives out of it. One is so big (made from two swarms) it has already filled a honey super. It went from empty frames to filled super in about six days, so I can’t complain.

      How are your bees doing? Are they behaving?

      • Queen cups only, no swarm cells so far, thank goodness. I took yesterday off work so I could do a full hive inspection (who does that??) and was happy to see some of the most beautiful honey comb in existence ever on this planet. Ever! I disregarded bee space and left 7 frames in an 8 frame super, and honest to goodness they built honey comb that is over three inches thick. I hope to get back in there with a camera this weekend. It is unbelievable. I got 1 bee stuck in my hair, but didn’t get stung. For me, that’s a good day.

        • Really cool, Jess. I’m so glad you’re finally getting some honey. I’m happy for you.

  • Rusty,

    When my colony swarmed this year it was in a tree 30 feet in the air. I had to cut the top off the tree and bring it down to catch the swarm. In doing so some of the bees were shaken off while climbing down the ladder. After I installed all the bees I could in a box about 12 feet in the air I noticed a cluster of bees forming. I assume that was bees from the original swarm settling down again but I do not know. That occurred on July 19. I prolonged the swarming by cutting out swarm cells. All I did was delay the onset.

    I guess my question is these are bees that left with the original queen, not a secondary swarm. Is that correct? I took a peak in the box today to see if there was any eggs yet and I could not see anything. I may be a few days to early yet to see anything. I just would not want to see the original colony go queenless.

    I am a little nervous as most of the brood comb is back filled with nectar and is being capped. I need a laying queen soon so she can fill in with some eggs. I still have a medium super on top that is partially drawn but the bees are not paying much attention to it.

    Other than sitting back and letting nature take its course do you have any other suggestions?


    • Jeff,

      Pardon me for being dense, but I’m having trouble picturing 1) your bees climbing down the ladder and 2) you doing an installation twelve feet in the air. That’s not right, is it? We’ll come back to that part later.

      Yes, the cluster was formed by the bees that you didn’t manage to get in the box the first time. That happens. If you put your new nuc near the remaining cluster, they often move into the nuc with the others in a day or two. Did you find a queen after you did the transfer? What ultimately happened to the small cluster in the tree?

      If you think this is the first time your bees swarmed this year then, yes, it would be a primary swarm. Being a primary swarm, it should have the original queen. But, ten days is a long time. If the swarm has the original queen, she should have started laying as soon as some comb was available for her to lay in. It is possible the queen was lost during the transfer into the box, or it is possible she was injured. Alternatively, the swarm could have left with a virgin queen. If that happened, it would be awhile before she was mated and ready to lay.

      Have you checked the original hive for eggs? Or are you saying that neither the original hive nor the swarm has eggs? I’m still confused, so write back and tell me what you see in the original hive and then what you see in the swarm box.

      Jeff, didn’t you say you’re an engineer? That explains everything.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Sorry, must clarify. The initial swarm landed in a tree 30 feet in the air while waiting for scout bees to return. Rather than one big clump there were 6 smaller clumps over two branches on the red maple. So I climbed up as high as I could get on the ladder and cut the top off the tree. I put the tree top over my shoulder and went down the ladder to the ground. Once on the ground I proceeded to shake the bees into the box. I guess enough bees were displaced from the original clump while coming down the ladder that a small cluster began to form close by at 12 feet in the air a very short distance form the box. Yes I did get the queen. I observed her on the outside cover walking so I picked her up and put her into the box. I checked the swarm 5 days later and all 10 frames were drawn out with 6 frames of brood and eggs so I added a second box. I moved that colony back to my yard this morning and will examine later today. I know that colony is doing well.

    Back to the original hive/colony after swarming. The bees swarmed on the 19th. I was hoping to see some eggs yesterday but I assume it is still to early. I am going to give it until this Monday then check again. I found one queen cup that was opened from the bottom and about a dozen with the side torn out of them. So there was a successful virgin queen on the go. At this point there should be a virgin queen but so sign of eggs yet. If I do not see any eggs by Monday or Wednesday then I may order a new queen. This is all new to me.

    I am concerned that if I wait to long I will get a laying worker and the bees are filling the brood boxes with honey. They will soon be honey bound.

    What do you think?

    • Jeff,

      Sorry for teasing yesterday, but you had me bewildered! Now I understand.

      Wow, lucky you found the queen. That was a near miss. Everything sounds good with your new colony, so that was a job well done.

      Now the original colony. Allow 2-3 days for the virgin queen to mature. Allow a day or two for mating, allow another 2-3 days more maturing time, and then expect to see some eggs. So that is 5 to 8 days. If there was rain or severe wind when she was trying to mate, add those days as well. So you are right, wait until Monday or Tuesday before ordering a queen. The thing is, I’ve had virgin queens that took forever to start laying eggs and others that were pretty quick. Before you order a queen, try once again to find her. She may just be slow. Or she may have been eaten or lost on her mating flight.

      Really, Jeff, it sounds like you did everything by the book and I have a feeling the queen is probably in there. Here’s an experiment: Take a frame of eggs from your new colony and put it in the old colony. If the bees start to draw queen cells around some of the eggs, you know you don’t have a queen. If they just treat the eggs like workers, you probably do.

  • Hey Rusty,

    I added a frame that was a quarter full on one side with eggs. The eggs were laid that day and have not turned into larva yet. That being said there are no queen cups yet and I assume the eggs should hatch within the next 12 hours.

    If there is no queen should they be constructing queen cups yet or would they wait for the larva to hatch? I already had a nuc go queenless and had a laying worker. I wouldn’t want to tackle a 20 frame colony and have to shake them out.

    Thanks for the input.

    • Jeff,

      As far as I know, they always wait for the eggs to hatch first. From there they select the larvae they want to feed. Grafting, for example, is always done with young larvae. But by transferring eggs to the new nuc, you assure that the larvae they have will be young enough to make a good queen. It sounds like you are doing everything right. Keep me posted.

  • Jeff, one of your nucs when queenless? That stinks. One of my nucs has been slow to get going too. I’ll have to keep on it.

  • Another thing to keep in mind is it’s two weeks to the day that the swarm occurred. So there should be a week waiting for the virgin queen to hatch. Then another 2 – 3 days for maturing, than another 2 – 3 days minimum for the queen to start laying. That is in an ideal world and Newfoundland is not an ideal world. Now the last 2 days have been decent so I plan to wait until the weekend before I check, most likely Saturday. That way I can have a new queen in the mail Monday morning, if required. I added a second frame today that had 1 day old brood. By the weekend I should know where I stand.

    The other thing that concerns me is my colony from last year is the only colony in a 60 mile radius. So the only drones to mate with are her brothers + a few drones that came with the 4 nucs/splits. So I may be better off requeening anyway. If I do see eggs down the road I plan to install a queen excluder to check her out and observe the laying pattern.

    Thanks for all your input Rusty

  • Not the same Jeff, but I have a similar “non-swarm” issue.

    I had two of my hives that made it through the winter, but one of them only had a small handful of bees in it on a couple of frames. I did find a queen, and she was laying, but in small numbers (probably due to the small numbers of workers to care for them.)

    The other hive had more bees in it, but I could not find a queen or any eggs or brood. I ordered three new queens, one for this hive, and two more to make splits from other stronger hives. When I went to put the new queen into this hive, I opened it up, and there on the top bar was a queen! She had a half dozen or so workers clustering tightly around her and chasing after her, as if they were beginning the balling process. I captured her and put her in an empty queen cage. I checked the hive again, and still no eggs or larvae. So I set up the new queen cage in the hive, leaving the cork in place until they got accustomed to her.

    I came back two days later and replaced the cork with a small dab of MegaBee feeding supplement that I had in the hive. I figured they would chew through that in a day or so and release her. Unfortunately, the weather turned cold for several days after this so I could not check on her. When I did, I found that instead of releasing her, they had sealed the opening with wax, and the new queen and her attendants in the cage were all dead.

    Strangely enough, the other two new queens that I just put a wadded blade of grass in place of the cork (my usual release method) were also both sealed in with wax, but fortunately they were both still alive, so I released them, and they are both doing well and laying. I’ve never had that happen before, let alone three at the same time.

    Back to the other hive… With no queen in one and still few bees in the other, I figured I would just combine the two into one hive, also reducing it to a single deep box. When I checked it three days later, I could not find the queen… assuming the other bees did not accept her as I hoped they would. I added a frame of fresh brood from another hive to see if they would make a new queen if they didn’t have one. Still no luck with that, either. Not sure this one is going to make it! I will keep watching them to see what happens.

    • Jeff,

      That’s one strange story. I’ve never seen bees seal a queen cage with wax, ever. And you had it happen three times? That’s awesome.

      But I got lost a bit. In the hive where you found the bees chasing a queen, you put the queen in a cage, right? What happened to her? Did you use her for anything? Could she have been a virgin?

      • I’ve been keeping bees for over 30 years (started when I was in high school), and that is the first time I have ever seen them do that, too. Totally bizarre! I am just glad that I was able to save two of the three, and both are laying nicely now.

        The queen I took out of the hive and put into a queen cage ended up dying. (I really didn’t think she would last long. I just put her there as a precautionary measure while working with the new one.) I don’t think she was a virgin. I had been watching this hive for over three weeks, and there was no sign of eggs or larva the entire time, nor any queen cells. I was not able to locate a queen at all… until the day I went to introduce the new one to the hive.

        • Okay, that makes sense. I do that too. I keep queens that I’m replacing on standby . . . just in case things don’t work out.

  • Help! I’m a member!!! I’m currently almost finished reading beekeeping for dummies and I’m a bit stumped over a few issues with queen bee rearing. Of course I have my beehive starter kit and am no where near ready to take on breeding queens but the fact that I am not understanding a few things is bothersome and I can’t seem to find what I’m looking for online either. I think I’m understanding the Miller method but I’m not sure what do you do with one colony that’s creating several new queens?? I thought only 1 queen per colony. So what to do when several new queens hatch into a single colony??? Help! I want to continue on reading my book but my crazy brain won’t move forward until I solve this queen rearing dilemma!! Any info would be greatly appreciated! Thanks. April from PA

    • April,

      Bees naturally raise a number of queens in case some don’t survive or are not strong enough to build a colony. Usually the first queen out kills the rest, often while they are still in the cells.

      If you are raising queens that you want to keep, you need to capture the queens before they get loose in the colony. You can take the cells out of the mother colony before they emerge, or you can fit cages right over the cells to keep the queens from roaming around and coming in contact with each other.

  • And above I meant “Help! I’m a “newbee”…” Not a member. Lol gotta love auto correct!! 🙂

    • April,

      I thought the “Help! I’m a member!!!” comment was cute, although I kept hoping you’d say what you were a member of. It certainly caught my attention.

  • Good afternoon!! Thanks so much for the awesome advice! I am so super excited to get my 2 new hives up and growing! So am I right in saying that even though there may be several queen bee cells in a colony I just leave them alone and let nature take its course?? And any additional advice or info you might have to make my first beekeeping season a success is greatly appreciated!! It’s a gorgeous day in the greenhouses here today in PA… CAN NOT WAIT TO GET MY GIRLS IN & WATCH THEM HELP ALONG MY BEAUTIFUL PLANTS & FLOWERS! They will certainly “bee” a wonderful addition to our farm! Many many thanks again Rusty!!

  • Hi Rusty. Trying to find out about a large captured swarm. Caught at 2 pm and moved to bee yard 30 feet from parent hive (last night). Lots of orienting this morning and after a while much nectar coming in. Very busy but there have been about 40-50 bees fanning on front of the bottom board for a few hours now. I thought that they were doing that to help the returning queen get back. But they have not stopped. I just assumed that they have the fertile queen with them but all this fanning. The other 7 hives are not fanning–all in the shade–temp about 73F. I would like to inspect the hive they came from to see what’s going on but I have a case of “beekeepers back” preventing me from doing so. I can never figure these bees out. Thanks.

    Jeff in the Adirondacks

    • I suspect they were fanning to help their mates find their new home. It takes a while to get everyone oriented to the new place. It should stop after a day or two.