honey bee management swarming

A swarm of European honey bees is relatively docile

Yesterday a reader wrote, “You make it sound easy to catch a swarm of bees . . . Is it?” The answer depends on where it lands.

When a European swarm first leaves a hive—whether it is an absconding swarm or a reproductive swarm—it usually lands somewhere nearby. It seems that the colony regroups while the scout bees go out and try to find a suitable location for their new home. This new location is probably going to be some distance away from the first—nature’s way of assuring the density of bees is not too great in any one place, or to assure future mixing of the gene pool.

If you are lucky enough to find this first re-grouping of bees, and it is not too far up, it is fairly easy to catch. The bees are not defending honey stores, not defending brood, and not defending a home so they are relatively docile. You can take a wooden box or a cardboard box and set it under the bees, clip off the branch where they cling, and lay it in the box. A few will fly around, but most will stay together. Quickly cover the box and take it to a hive.

Other people lay a sheet on the ground and place a box on its side on top of the sheet. Once the bees are cut down they will quickly go for cover in the box, but only on a warm and sunny day. If the swarm is on a fence or hanging on an eave, you can slide your hive tool between the swarm and the structure and the bees will drop with a heavy thud into a waiting box.

Although you don’t have to actually find her, you need to make sure you have the queen. You can tell if she’s there by the way the bees behave. Some bees will fly around in a small cloud during all the confusion but, given some time, they will settle down and form a new cluster around her.

After bees swarm they will stay in the temporary cluster anywhere from 15 minutes to several days. Three years ago I had a swarm land high up in a bigleaf maple. I had to use binoculars to see it, so there was no way I was going to catch it. Just after the bees settled into a tight cluster the weather changed. It rained, and blew, and rained some more. I watched that cluster thrash around on a branch for six days of wind and rain. I was sure it would die. On the seventh day, the sun came out. By the time I checked the bees were gone. I later learned that a state employee had seen a swarm that very day at a nature preserve about a quarter mile from my house. I hope they made it—I’ve never seen such perseverance.

Hiving a swarm that has already started a new home is more difficult, but if you find one that recently left its hive and isn’t too high up, you have a good chance of scooping it up with little trouble.


Honey bee swarm in a tree. Flickr photo by aperte


  • @HoneyBeeSuite And African bee swarms can bee as mean as fire! We’ve been encountering them here in FLA

  • I had a hive that seemed to cap queen cells every week or so. So what has happened is they swarm, a new queen hatches, a ton of new brood hatches, and then they swarm. One week later it happens again.

    I wonder if you agree with my rule: wait at least 3 days before opening a hive after it swarms. I opened one, didn’t remove any queen cells, but now there is no laying queen 10 days later. I may have damaged the queen cell separating the frames between the first and second boxes. The bees, however, did seem intent upon clustering around a queen cell. I ended up combining this (seemingly) queenless hive with one of the first swarms.

    In the other hive that swarmed on Thursday, I saw a queen emerging from her cell. I immediately put her back and closed up the hive. But these bees like to swarm. I suppose I should do a more thorough search for queen cells before nectar flows to keep them around.

    But they are completely gentle. One swarm I caught with no protective gear, and the others with just a veil. I did have one swarm fall off the side of a house into my lap on the ladder, and a few got in my veil. One stung me on the forehead, right in the middle, despite my calmness. I liked your article.

  • Hi Greg,

    Waiting three days is probably a good idea. I have ruined queen cells by opening too soon as well. One time the brood box was just so heavy I had to set it down and doing so squashed the cells hanging off the bottom.

    Do you have plenty of open space above the brood nest? Sometimes repeat swarming happens when the queens think there is no place for eggs. If there is plenty of space, maybe they just like to swarm. It might be genetic.


  • Thanks for the information on how to retrieve a swarm. This is one of my biggest fears, that my bees will swarm. I have a neighbor that would just kill me if a swarm landed on his property and my beekeeping venture would have to come to an end 🙁 I’m hoping this doesn’t happen.

  • Michelle,

    I’m going to write about swarm prevention in the next couple of days. In the meantime, how long have you had your colony? How old is the queen? First year colonies have a low probability of swarming. Hives headed by a new queen have a low probability of swarming. However, it’s not impossible. Make sure there is not a “honey barrier” around the brood nest that is preventing the queen from laying eggs. If she feels too confined she will stop laying and that may stimulate swarming.

    Is there anything (legal) you can do about the neighbor? Promise him honey? Show him inside the hive? Ask his opinion on something that will highlight his amazing intellect and insight? Neighbors are tough to deal with. Let me know it what happens.


  • I was curious. I live on a small ranch, out back there’s an old 40 gal water heater, it has housed a hive for at least 2 years. They’ve swarmed this spring collecting in two separate clumps, one on each end of the water heater. (the heater is lying on it’s side) One the size of a 4 cup measuring cup the other more spread out and around twice as large. I’ve been told only african bees swarm multiple times, but these bees have always been quite docile. (don’t mind me running around the area, snapping pics, working power tools in the shed adjoining their home, capturing a few bees)

    I’m hoping to transfer them into a hivebody, but I’m rather nervous about being attacked by africanized ones… any suggestions?

    • Gabriella,

      European bees can also swarm multiple times. Usually the first swarm is the largest. Secondary and tertiary swarms are much smaller. The way you describe their behavior, I’m guessing they are not Africanized. Africanized bees tend to get very riled up over noise (such as your power tools) and they will often chase you very long distances for no apparent reason.

      I don’t know where you are writing from, so I don’t know how common Africanized bees are in your area. But, based on your account, it sounds like you would be fine hiving these swarms. Just use standard precautions (like a bee suit.) If your bees were Africanized I’m sure you would know it by now.

  • Rusty,

    I am a first-year beekeeper on the Oregon Coast whose hive swarmed 2 weeks ago. Two days after the swarm I got into the hive and removed all the queen cups I could find (11 total) leaving just one. In the process of doing this 2 of the swarm cells hatched. In addition, I manually released a third queen from its cell and returned all three of them to the hive. I then went back and removed the cell that I had left “just in case.” Now, two weeks later I am seeing no brood, just a lot of honey. Am I queen-less? Can you give me some advice? Thank you so much in advance. -Rowan

    • Rowan,

      After a swarm, I usually allow three days for the virgin queens to mature, 7-10 days to complete mating, and another 3 days for more maturation before I expect to see eggs. That comes to 13 to 16 days. If you have bad weather during the mating times—say rain or wind—the time for mating can be greatly extended. I always allow at least three weeks before I get worried.

      However, I never remove swarm cells after a swarm has issued for the simple reason that not all the swarm cells may produce good queens. Also, some of the the virgin queens may not return from mating flights: they may get lost, eaten by a bird, killed by a car, or caught by insecticides. So I always leave the swarm cells. If more than one queen successfully mates, the colony will sort it out by themselves. Better to have too many than not enough.

      In your case, wait for a few more days and then look for eggs. If you still don’t see eggs after three weeks you should consider buying a mated queen from someone. Let me know what happens.

      • Thank you so much for your reply. I guess I was under the impression that if I left the cells the hive would just swarm itself to a point from which they could not recover. Being that I’m not interested in beekeeping for anything other than helping bees, it seemed like an old technique only for honey production. I’m going to check again for eggs tomorrow. I will keep you posted. -Rowan

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