honey bee behavior

A September swarm it was

Yesterday, shortly after I posted “Bearding or swarming?” and asked for your opinion, Joan wrote back with this photo:

I went out to the bee yard Sunday morning at 0600 and those bees were still in the bearding position. I thought then that they must be robbers/visitors. Frantically I tried searching online what to do. I just didn’t believe that I had that many bees. Mid afternoon, checking them for the billionth time, they had swarmed to the same exact tree and limb that my May swarm did.

Now I was really upset, still trying to locate some help/advice whereupon I went back out and they were gone. I would say they hung out two hours on that limb. So I suited up and prepared my smoker as there were still lots of bees flying. Sure enough there were still lots of bees in the hive.

After considering all the comments and seeing the photos, my opinion is that the swarm was not hers. I think the swarm was attracted to the scent of her hive and landed there. Then, after reconsidering, it regrouped in the nearby tree before finding a permanent home.

I agree with those who said the hive didn’t seem big enough for all those bees, especially since the top box was just a feeder housing. Plus, Joan says the original hive is still quite full. Yes, I could be wrong, and those who point out that overcrowding could cause a late summer swarm also have a good point.

At any rate, it is an interesting case. There is no way that swarm is going to survive a Pennsylvania winter at this late stage unless they end up in a hive that already is full of stores. Maybe that is what they were thinking when they descended on Joan’s hive.


The swarm left the hive and rested in this tree for about two hours. Photo © Joan Johnson.


  • I agree. Swarm cells would be a prime indicator and/or eggs after Wed of this week. If I am thinking right the queen cells, if there are some, should be unhatched for at least a few more days. I had a hive swarm here in TN on the 23rd of August. Missed all the indicators. Didn’t find the swarm but had 6 swarm cells in my top box when I inspected. Started a nuc with some of the cells.

  • My neighbor and bee helper just reminded me that my strong hive looked “coated with bees” back in July. I had already pulled 5 frames of eggs and brood from them, two for neighbors and the rest for an unsuccessful split.

    I thought it was the heat and said, of course, “Too late to swarm.” But they must have done so, on a day I wasn’t home to notice. When we pulled a super, I didn’t want to “bother them” checking for brood. Three weeks later, they had a laying worker. They must not have left a viable queen cell behind: we found several empties.

    After the “haul and dump” exercise for laying workers, they rejected a purchased queen. Next I gave them a frame of eggs from one of my spring packages. They’ve made a good queen cell which we’ll be checking shortly. If that doesn’t work out, at this point I’ll combine.

    Along with “Never too late to swarm” the other lesson here has to do with “How often should I check my hives?” For me, that has a short answer: soon enough to know if you’ve lost a queen, and that should be two weeks, maximum.

    Best of luck, Joan, and thanks for adding to our store of knowledge on what bees will and won’t do!!

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, Kentucky

  • I, too, am seeing unusual late swarm behavior in my two hives (Wisconsin). Feeling I was safe from swarming, I stopped inspecting the hives on a 10 day schedule the second week in July. The last week of July one hive swarmed and the first week of August the other one swarmed.

    My post swarm inspection showed there were only a few cups and one swarm cell with a flap dangling, but the hives were still bubbling over with bees. My inspection yesterday showed one bottom-of-the frame sealed queen cell on the hive that swarmed the last week of July (none on the early August swarm hive) and about 6 empty queen cups in the middle of two frames, lots of empty brood cells, two frames of solid pattern sealed brood and a general defensive behavior (just do, don’t think!).

    Now I am trying to figure out if the sealed queen cell is a misplaced supercedure cell or if they are about to issue another late swarm. We are also in moderated drought (feeding syrup) so it seems they would not swarm under these conditions.

    I am a third year beekeeper. None of this behavior is covered in any of my zillion books, and the frustration of trying to do what’s necessary is leaving me just shaking my head! All this after about 100 pounds of honey extracted from each hive. What am I missing here?

    • Carol,

      I’m nearly through my fourth year of blogging, and one thing I consistently notice is that if one person is having a problem, hundreds of others are having the same problem. This year seems to be the year of the late swarm.

      Your capped swarm cell could be a supersedure cell . . . or not. If you think the colony might swarm, you could split the hive for awhile, moving the old queen into the split. Then later, you could recombine by removing one of the queens and using newspaper. Remember, though, it is late for a virgin to mate. I wouldn’t trust a queen to get properly mated at this time of year, especially in the north, so I would be wary of using the new queen. I would stay with the old one.

      You could also try cutting the cell and putting a queen excluder under the bottom brood box. I wouldn’t use this method earlier in the year, but with the days getting shorter and colder, they may soon give up on the swarming idea.

      You could also cage the queen and leave her in the hive. Then cut the cell and watch carefully to see if they build another. If they don’t, you could just release her again.

      You could also build a bait hive nearby and hope that if they swarm, they go there. (Lots of wishful thinking here.) But, if you see a lot of activity around the bait hive, that might be a clue of an impending swarm, and then you could take one of the other steps.

      Be sure to let me know what happens!

  • I set up a bait hive the day I discovered the capped queen cell. Today, two days later, I am seeing inspection activity around the bait hive. When changing out the feeding jar this morning the hive was much less defensive than inspection day. I couldn’t find the new queen from the late July swarm on the last inspection two days ago (lots & lots of bees in there) so I doubt I could find her today either (5 mediums & 50 frames to go through!).

    If, and that’s a big IF, they swarm and take the bait hive I plan on requeening the original hive with the late possibly poorly mated queen. My bait hive is well stocked with stores so I hope it’s attractive (an early dead out from “operator error” last early winter, not disease or mites).

    What are your thoughts? Truth is I am approaching burn-out and running out of time to cut and paste the cell or even find the queen to cage her. I have a cut up excluder I could put on the bottom entrance but would I also need to do that with the top entrance? I am assuming the answer is YES so will get out the hacksaw and get on it in case you think this may work to buy me a bit more time.

  • I did a Taranov split today somewhat spontaneously. I’ve had the board ready since spring just waiting for the swarm season. Little did I know I would use it in September. Anyway, I set it up and started pulling 50 frames and gently brushing off bees onto the sheet. They went air born immediately even after being sprayed with sugar water. Orderly walking up the sheet? NOT!

    I decided I would abort the mission after box 2 (of 5) but noticed some were starting to collect under the lip of the board where I had a washcloth stapled. The bees were very defensive but I kept going. Three of the five boxes had brood in a beautiful solid pattern. I ended up with a small collection of bees under the Taranov board, slightly smaller than a package. That surprised me since there were sooooo many bees. I decided then to take box number three with its bees and 3 frames of solid brood and give it to the split. I think I still have time to build the split before it gets too cold for feeding syrup but will probably follow the syrup with sugar cakes.

    Now my question is: Will the old hive accept a new queen if I can get one installed before the queen cell hatches? Would the new queen kill the queen in the cell? You said the new queen may be poorly mated considering the season. AND I can’t find the queen amongst all those bees.

    Question #2: Am I crazy to have done this?


    • Carol,

      Answer 1: They will accept a new queen as long as it is introduced in the standard way. If the new queen is introduced before the virgins hatch, she will most likely kill them. If the virgins are allowed to hatch first, you don’t know who will prevail.

      Answer 2: No, great idea.

      Regarding the small cluster under the board: I would not expect a large swarm this time of year. Remember, the brood nest is shrinking, so the number of nurse bees is also smaller. The nurse bees are the ones who have never been outside and who will cluster under the board instead of flying over the divide. It all makes sense.

  • I caught a small swarm yesterday in Ohio. I think mine was from a weak hive that decided to replace the queen and leave. Two days ago I notice a hive was gone, it was weak and had a old queen. There was nothing left but comb. It also had wax moths so I think they decided to abandon the hive with a new queen. It could also been from another hive but it is only the size of my fist.

    The swarm has a new queen and I am hoping they start drawing comb. I gave them food and would like to put them in my observation hive for the winter.

  • I noticed one of my colonies acting like it was about to swarm today. Bees crowding the bottom board, many other bees very much behaving the way I expect scouts to behave, flying into the few empty supers I had brought along with me. I moved the supers back to my car about 50 yards away and five minutes later I had bees all over the place, in my car, everywhere. I had to roll up all the windows and move the car out of the area, but many still tried to get in. They weren’t defensive, just landing on and flying into everything, even the little milk crate I use for moving my gear around. I’ve had defensive bees follow me back to the car, but these bees just seemed curious. I had to leave all my gear and extra supers behind because the bees were all over it. I’ve never seen anything like it.

    I didn’t have time to investigate or deal with a swarming colony even if I did. I put an empty honey super on top and I’m hoping for the best.

    • Phillip,

      Had the supers been used before? To me, it sounds like robbers looking for food. Of course, if the supers were new that wouldn’t hold.

  • There is a swarm in a chimney. If I don’t do anything, they will die. So I’m going to go get them tomorrow. What should I do to give them the best chance? I don’t want to put them into another hive and upset the balance of the hive that has been growing since April or May. I got a nuc in April and split it with a new queen in May, so now there are 2 colonies. I’ve been feeding syrup the last week or two. Would it help if I put a super on top of the old hive.

    • Suz,

      I’m not sure I understand. Which colony is getting syrup? Which is the old hive? Why do you want to super it?

      But to answer the first question, if you get the queen along with the bees, and if you manage to get the combs, you can tie the combs into frames and put them in a new brood box and set up a colony from that. If you don’t get the queen or the combs, you will probably have to add the bees to one of the existing colonies, which it sounds like you don’t want to do, but would work just fine if you used newspaper.

      Or you can try ordering a new queen for the chimney bees, but it’s getting late in the year . . . but you can try.

      Sorry, I don’t understand the rest of it.

  • So strange. I have had 5 swarms out of my hives over the past 3 weeks. I have captured all 5 and combined 2 of them into my weaker colonies. The goldenrod is blooming like crazy, and there is still loads of nectar and pollen being collected, so I am holding off on the feeding.

    I only had 1 hive with swarm cells, but it seems to still have plenty of bees.

    No evidence of a large Varroa population.

    I’m pretty embarrassed to write this, but it is getting crazy.

    Thanks for any help you can provide.

  • I had two hives swarm in the last two weeks in Michigan. Goldenrod is blooming, but should I feed them sugar water? I don’t normally feed my bees but I know they will die for sure unless I support them a lot this fall. Also, I don’t have extra frames of drawn comb. Will they draw enough comb this late in the season?

    • Teresa,

      If your bees will starve without additional feed, then I think you should feed them, but I wouldn’t expect much newly drawn comb at this time of year. If the hives swarmed, there is probably room in the hives to store food. And as colonies shrink the brood nest before winter, they also gain more storage area. If you feed them, they will know what to do with it.

  • Hi – This isn’t a september swarm, but a late June swarm. I had set some swarm catchers that I made around our 40 acres outside of Denver in the mtns (7000ft). I caught a swarm and then moved it to a top-bar hive that I had built. Currently, I can watch the bees come and go (there are a lot of blooming flowers), and I have a bowl of syrup on top of the hive that they empty daily. I checked on them after two days and found them all huddled in the corner of the hive. I then left them alone for a week before opening the bottom to look in through the screen to check on them. To my amazement still nothing had been done. They were are just huddled in the corner. I am really confused at what is going on? Any ideas? If I missed the queen wouldn’t the bees have left?


    • Andrew,

      I’m guessing, but it sounds like you don’t have the queen. Without a queen, they are not a colony but just a bunch of lost bees. You say, “If I missed the queen wouldn’t the bees have left?” But think about it. Where would they go? The queen holds the colony together with her pheromones, but without that unifying factor, they don’t know what to do or where to go. Eventually they will probably drift away, but in ones and twos, not as a colony.

      The other factor is that it is hard to get bees started in a top-bar hive, especially a new one. Do you have starter strips or something to guide them? I find that a colony, even with a queen, will often leave an empty top-bar hive if it is new. Starter strips help enormously, but without a queen, even that won’t help much.

      Anyway, that’s my best guess without actually seeing the bees. If you had the queen, they would have started building immediately, or the whole group would have moved on immediately, but they wouldn’t be hanging out in a bunch.

  • Please help!

    I’m a second year beekeeper, and just had my strong hive swarm! I thought they were doing great. Huge bee beard at night. I’ve been feeding all along since they were started from a package this spring. I supered the hived a few weeks ago, and since they hadn’t moved into the super much, and I didn’t want to disturb the hive bodies too much, I stopped examining each frame a few weeks ago too. Last week I hear a buzzing, but couldn’t see any swarm up in the very tall trees around the hives, Suddenly there is only a tiny bee beard. I looked tonight, and the top deep hive body has lots of capped brood, honey, and a fair number of bees. The bottom hive body has capped brood. It otherwise looks mostly empty. Super light weight. Couldn’t see eggs because of low light. TONS of both supersedure and swarm cells with at least 4 flapped open.

    I’m devastated! Will by hive even survive the northern Illinois winter now? Forget harvesting any honey. I just hope they can build adequate numbers, and get adequate honey stores to not die.

    Aside from stopping checking all levels late in July. What am I doing wrong!?!? Please help!

    • Dawn,

      Strong and healthy colonies swarm, so what happened to you is not surprising or unusual at all. The only thing you did “wrong” is you stopped doing inspections. If you had continued you would have seen the bees start to build queen cells. At that point you could have made an artificial swarm (or split) and captured the bees before they left.

      Your colony will probably make it as long as they get their new queen mated. After about two weeks, you should start looking for eggs to make sure she is mated and laying, otherwise you will have to get a mated queen from somewhere. You say there is lots of capped brood so you should have plenty of workers to prepare for winter. The queen is the main thing to worry about.

  • It’s Aug 30. In Springfield TN. Have two hives started this spring 5.18.2016. All looks good with lots of bees. I just built a swarm trap last week a hung it in a tree near the two hives. Maybe 50 yards away. The trap is 6 ft off the ground on a big oak tree. I added three drops of lemon grass oil to the top of the frames in the top box. Box is facing SE. After a week of in the tree I found lots of bees going in and around the entrance. Looks like I might have a swarm moving in. The swarm trap has two 5 frames boxes with comb on most frames. Is it too late in the year to catch a swarm and have it survive the mid Tennessee winters? The goldenrod should stare blooming in a few weeks. Should I feed them ?

    • Wayne,

      Swarm season is long over, even in Tennessee. Yes, sometimes a swarm happens this time of year but it is unlikely. A swarm in nature would be doomed this time of year, you it basically doesn’t happen unless something is drastically wrong with the parent colony.

      The bees examining the swarm trap are following the scent of the lemongrass and the drawn combs, but that alone will not make a colony swarm. If by some odd circumstance you did get a swarm, the answer is yes. You would have to feed them like crazy and probably feed them all winter as well.

      • OK I will keep checking on them and see what happens. I am willing to feed all winter. I’ll keep you posted.


  • I just found this site. I am having terrible luck, after two tries, establishing my set up here. I purchased 3 pounds and a queen each time. The bees start out fine and do well. We have a mentor that visited the hive and said we were doing fine early on. Then the bees swarm and leave. I am not monitoring enough I see from these posts. Thank you for your advice. I am thinking of joining a group in Madison WI and will try again next spring. Having just one hive is another problem I see that needs correcting.

    • Eileen,

      A couple things come to mind. You say “the bees swarm and leave.” But if they swarmed, you would still have about half the colony left. But it sounds like they all left which might be absconding. My next questions would be 1) did you see them abscond? and 2) what month did it happen? If it happened in the fall and you didn’t see them go, I would lean more toward collapse by varroa mites.

  • What you are describing unfortunately sounds exactly like what happened. I was going to treat them weeks ago, with powdered sugar method for mites, and did not do it. No I did not see them. It just happened within the last three weeks or so. That is why I am kicking myself for not monitoring closely enough. I will look further into your suggestions, and thank you for your quick response.

  • Just wanted to point out that late swarms are not to be ignored or downplayed.
    Be it September swarms, I’d take them any time and find a good use for them even in fall.

    I re-entered the beekeeping last year with a swarm I captured on a tree on August 25th.
    I feed them and wintered on pure sugar honey and dry sugar.
    They wintered very well and just exploded in spring and never looked back.
    So much for discounting the late swarms as “worthless” that you hear a lot.

    That very late swarm multiplied into three strong hives this season already and I am nervous right now of the original old queen to pull a swarm on me just as we speak (this colony is way too strong for the hive they are in right now).

    I might just do a temporary split away with her (as Rusty suggested above) so to just keep them down for only few weeks that left this summer. Then we’ll see what to do – recombine back OR winter them separately, depending if new queen mates OK or now.

    PS: enjoy reading this blog as it comes up in Google searches a lot, but never wrote here before.
    Sometimes I disagree with Rusty, but that’s OK.
    Keep up the good work!

  • HELP ASAP! New beekeeper. One of my 2 hives swarmed yesterday, September 1st in upstate NY. I caught the swarm in a box and have it. The hive still has a lot of bees in it, and new queen cells that are capped.

    What do I do? I am afraid the hive will not be strong enough now, or get a mated queen for the winter, and I don’t have another hive. Can I reintroduce the swarm and old queen back into the hive somehow?

    • Richard,

      Yes, you can combine the swarm with the mother colony just as if you were combining any other two colonies. If you think there is little chance of the virgin queens mating at the point in time, just remove the swarm cells from the mother hive, and then combine the two parts using the newspaper method. Now that the swarm impulse is satisfied, they will most likely stay put.

  • Thanks rusty! I am worried about the virgin queen, but after seeing how many bees and how much brood was left in the mother hive, I decided to try and keep the swarm! I bought another hive, so I will have to feed though the winter. Have you ever kept a hive purely on feed through the winter? There is a lot for me to learn about feeding. Thanks for this awesome site.

  • Hi. My husband caught a swarm August 29. We had a couple hives a couple years ago and had hive traps up this spring and were shocked when a swarm appeared in our rhodedendron. But we are newbies and have no extra brood and honey comb…. we ordered honey b healthy and mixed w 2:1 sugar water and have bee pollen patty to give them….
    knotweed is blooming, winged ironweed and mums and other blooms plus white clover…. aster is starting to bloom too. They are doing really well I did see the queen I hope and pray. We are in the Ohio Valley. Calcutta Ohio. Really happy to have the bees but don’t want them to die. Please help so we can help them get through the winter. I have a lot of pictures and my neighbor has bees but I really am not sure what I am looking at or just unsure and don’t want to miss judge because of ignorance. Please help us. We need to know what to do next. Or are we doing good…. I don’t want to ASSume….

    • Ronni,

      It sounds like you are doing fine. Keep feeding them this fall, and them give them some winter feed, maybe a candy board. Be sure to do a mite check and take steps, if necessary.

  • Hello: I am a first-year beekeeper and started 2 hives from nucs in June on all new foundation. It’s now late August and one of my hives has twice now tried to swarm (I think) but has returned to the hive 15 minutes later. The hive currently has 2 deep brood boxes and 2 supers partly drawn out. I am pretty sure there are one or 2 capped queen cells on the base of upper brood box frames. I was away for 3 days and THINK there are fewer bees than before but it is not obvious that they have left the hive. My question is should I try to split them at this point? It seems very late in the season. (now Aug 24 and I live in Ontario Canada). I did not see the queen in the upper box and could not see eggs. My plan is to at least check the lower brood box for eggs and queen tomorrow then decide if I should do a split.

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