honey bee behavior

Bearding or swarming?

Even when you know the difference between bearding and swarming, telling them apart can be tricky.

I have written before about how bearding and swarming are often confused, but now I’m confused. Normally, at this time of year, I would say these bees were bearding, but that’s not how the story ends.

Last week, Joan, a beekeeper in Pennsylvania, said there were many bees aggressively flying around both of her hives and clustering at the four corners, front and back, of the weaker hive. The weaker hive contained a feeder of syrup in the top box, and since robbers follow the scent of food, I thought that robbers from the strong hive were trying to find their way into the weaker one. I recommended reducing the entrances and making sure the robbers couldn’t find their way in under the lid.

Then Joan wrote back:

I put in the reducers and today there are thousands and thousands of bees bearding all around the one hive. Many have pollen and don’t seem to know where to go as the entrance is reduced to about 3/4-inch. It is very hot and humid in Pennsylvania today with storms predicted late and cool coming by Tuesday. The 2nd hive appears normal looking. I have seen bearding several times before but never like this . . . wish I could send you a pic . . . I don’t think robbing is going on . . . should I leave the reducers in? I’m still a newbee.

At that point, I recommended taking the reducer out of the strong hive and leaving it in the weak one. I still believed robbers were picking up the odor of the syrup feeder in the weak hive and that the stronger hive was bearding due to the hot and humid weather.

Then she wrote back again:

So as you see the bearding here, I can’t get near that hive and 3/4 of them stayed outside bearding all night. I simply cannot figure this one out. The excluder is still in and they have managed to unplug the hole in the top. . . . These bees even stayed out in the rain, not a storm, but fine and short drizzles. Right now they are clustered at the bottom of the hive leaving plenty room for those with pollen to go in and out. Your thoughts?

This is where I screwed up: I didn’t see the attached photo. In the haste of answering dozens of e-mails, it just didn’t register. From her description, I still assumed the bearding was normal for this time of year. She mentioned seeing pollen, and swarming bees don’t carry pollen.

The next day, I got this e-mail:

Just checked again for the zillionth time . . . they are swarmed in a tree in the yard. There are still lots of bees in front of the hive.

At this point, I noticed the attached photo. Does this look like bearding, or does this look like a swarm that settled on its own hive while looking for a new home? Or is this a swarm from some other hive? Or is this a combination of bearding (which accounts for the pollen-carrying bees) and a swarm? I would really like to hear what you think. It really threw me to hear these bees swarmed into a tree, and I’m not really sure what to make of it. Your opinions are most welcome.

Honey Bee Suite

Are the bees on this hive bearding or swarming?
What are these bees doing? Photo © Joan Johnson.


  • Don’t forget that pure sugar syrup is no use to the bees until they have inverted the sugar in the syrup breaking down the sucrose into glucose and fructose that more closely resembles honey. In addition they need to reduce the water content down to under 20%. All of this takes effort, heat and a decent airflow through the combs which is why bearding takes place, especially on a humid day when the volume of water in the atmosphere makes it even harder work for the colony.

    Foragers could have been out and about for hours before returning to a hive that has gone into “sugar conversion mode” so it’s perfectly normal to see foragers with pollen.

    Are you sure they swarmed? I have seen bees move away like this and then come back later…


    • Simon,

      Maybe I wasn’t clear. Yes, I would expect to see pollen collection in a colony where bearding was taking place. What I would not expect is a lot of pollen collection just before a swarm, although there always is some because not all the bees swarm.

      As for whether they actually completed a swarm or whether they came back, I don’t know. I will need an update from Joan.

  • The swarm has not come back. Bees are coming into the hive with pollen. Still very warm with high humidity . . . 87 degrees . . . 97% humidity . . . bees are testy around hive, not wanting me there. Soooo, tomorrow a break in the weather and I will inspect hives. Central PA lies within Susquehanna Valley . . . our weather is unlike the rest of PA due to our mountainous area.

  • Hi Rusty.

    First, you’re such a good egg for taking the time to help those who write you.

    With that out of the way, I don’t think a two-deep, new-this-year hive would cast such a large swarm; that is a tremendous amount of bees! Assuming that the very top super is simply housing the feeder, perhaps a swarm tried to take up residence in the mostly-empty top super, was met with aggression, couldn’t quite figure out the entrance, and finally gave up and decided to regroup in the tree.

    I’d love to know how this plays out and the results of inspecting that hive now. And I hope she caught the swarm & got a look at the queen.

  • Rusty, one question I would have for Joan is “Is there an excessive amount of dead bees on the outside of this hive?” I’ve seen a similar situation where a swarm entered another hive. Yes, there was clustering and yes there were fighting bees. And of course fatalities on the outside of the hive. What does the area in front of the hive look like?

  • This is definitely a very late time for swarming as our nectar flows here have been over since late June, but I have collected swarms in October here in Maryland. IMO, this colony was not supered properly. A colony this size should have another 2 deeps easy and should have been split in July. As for the mass of bees that swarmed into a tree, the over crowding probably set them into a swarm mode and that is exactly what they did. Until there is a thorough inspection, all we can do is guess, but this many bees on the outside suggests to me there is massive over-crowding happening. The colony is also pollen bound in many frames as this region is pollen rich and nectar poor.

  • Rusty,

    I just did an inspection of this hive and it looks AOK inside. There are lots of bees, larvae, eggs, pollen, capped brood, as well as capped honey and sugar water in the cells. The bees were calm for me, so I now believe what we experienced were foragers/visitors/or attempted robbers, but they didn’t destroy this hive. I didn’t see the queen, but after seeing larvae and eggs, I went no further.

    My other hive, and I am concerned here, has only 4 frames with drawn comb on the top and 6 without. It is a new hive from a nuc in May with two deeps. Seems late in the season for them to draw comb. I am feeding the 2:1 syrup at both hives. By the way, I am a newbee. This is my 2nd year with bees, so I still have lots of questions as to what’s right to do. Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

    • Joan,

      Perhaps shifting some honey frames from one to the other would help, if you think the other one is strong enough to sustain the loss.

  • Although several people told me I must be wrong, I have seen a swarm invade and take over a weak hive. The bees bringing in pollen may have been at “home,” while the large beard was the swarm from somewhere else. I have learned that anything you can imagine a bee might do, can and will be done some time or other.

  • To Bill C in MD: The top super only housed a quail feeder 3 days; hence the swarm moved in. The 2 deeps below had a strong colony but were not overcrowded. Thanks for your input, tho.

  • I notice that the hive sits very low to the ground and a lot of vegetation surrounds it. There probably isn’t much ventilation in the hive and Joan states that the weather is hot and humid.

  • I’m in awe of this scenario. I also learn something new every day…I never knew a large swarm would take over a smaller/weaker one. When this happens, do they kill the queen of the swarm they invaded?

  • Hello,

    I am new at beekeeping having started this last June. It sounds like swarms don’t happen this late in the season, yet only a few days ago we had to settle a relatively small cluster of bees in their new home. We are not sure if the split was from our 2 months old hive which appears to be doing fine. Any thoughts on this?

    Also, in our hurry to settle the bees, we left the new hive by the tree where it had collected but it is too close for comfort and were wondering if we could move it (by sealing hive for three days and moving it to new location) by the old hive or if we should write off the backyard until colder weather and until they’ve collected enough sustenance if that’s at all possible this late in the season.

    We live in Nixa, MO where the weather was wet most of July and now it is hot and muggy albeit with plenty of white clover to forage. Also, if of significance, we do not have screens for ventilation in either hives…the set up is as basic as the package sold at the store, but we did buy an entrance reducer for the new hive and we are feeding that new hive sugar water but not the new ‘older’ hive…are we stirring the pot?

    I will look forward to hear back your wise words to what maybe a not so wise beekeeper newbie .

    • Hala,

      For some reason I cannot explain, there have been many small and late swarms this year. It would take a miracle for these late swarms to build up enough to make it through the winter. Even with lots of feeding, it is doubtful.

      If it were me, I would combine the two groups. You can recombine a swarm with the original hive immediately with no negative results. Once the swarm impulse is satisfied, you can put them right back together. The only thing you have to do is make sure you do not have two queens. Keep the queen that is well-mated and laying (most probably the old one) and remove the other.

      If you decide to keep them separate, consider fortifying the small hive with brood and stores from the larger hive, and feed like crazy. Watch the old hive carefully for brood. If the old hive has a new queen, it might be difficult for her to mate at this late date.

      Also, while feeding the smaller hive, keep the entrance reduced to help the bees with robbers and yellowjackets.

      There is really no right or wrong answer. It depends on how much time you are willing to put into this, and whether you are willing to gamble on one or both hives not making it.

  • Swarming bees can carry pollen. I collected a few swarms this year that had many bees with their pollen baskets full. I don’t know if they foraged for it after or before they swarmed.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I am a first time beekeeper and I love your website. Thank you for sharing all your experiences, and with such eloquent and entertaining writing.

    I have one hive and they have done really well so far but I am a bit concerned about a couple of things: 1) inadequate ventilation and 2) Robbing

    My current setup:
    Indianapolis, IN
    Standard bottom board
    May 26th – hived 3 lb. package (deep, 10 frames)
    June 16th – installed 2nd deep (deep, 10 frames)
    July 7th – installed 1st super (shallow, 10 frames)
    Aug. 18th – installed 2nd super (shallow, 10 frames)
    Standard inner cover
    Telescoping outer cover
    Hive is only in full sun from about 1PM to 4PM.
    A half-acre pond, with large rocks and a fountain, is about 10 yards in front of the hive.

    There has been quite a bit of bearding going on lately since the temperatures have been 80-90F with humidity around 90% for quite awhile now. I know that bearding means they are hot, and not swarming, but I’m wondering what I can do improve ventilation.

    I know I need a screened bottom board but I didn’t know about them until recently. Can I get away without one until winter (when the hive is smaller and lighter) or should I just suck it up and put one on now?

    I propped open the outer cover with a piece of wood, thinking this may help, but won’t this give robbers easy access to honey supers (there are only a few bees on the top of the inner cover but the top super is jam packed full of busy bees)? I have also read about sliding back a super to allow a gap for ventilation but I’m worried about easier access for robbing and rain getting in.

    I’m also thinking about winter and hoping there is enough ventilation to carry moisture out.

    Over the last couple of weeks I have witnessed some attempted robbing by bumbles and yellow jackets, not sure if any other honeybees are robbing. I guess one good thing about the bearding is robbers will have a more difficult time getting in? Everything I read suggests to put the entrance reducer back on but the hive traffic has not slowed down yet and I don’t want to impede their work. Another reason I hesitate to put the entrance reducer on is ventilation. I feel like the current hive ventilation is not the best so I don’t want to make it worse.

    Any and all advice, from anyone, on ventilation and robbing is welcome and appreciated. Sorry for the long post.


  • Need help my bees are doing this I do have two box’s really close together. The second box was the swarm of the first box and I had to take them out of the tree and left the box just a couple of feet next to the other box.

  • We are newbees too…and while all of this conversation is well informing and interesting, the two nucs we received in April have been troublesome. Within the first 3 days the left Hive swarmed and had to be returned to the super. The right hive seems ok but, now they aren’t “bearding” but they aren’t “swarming”. While I read of the difference in the two, I am still utterly confused. The bees come out around 3pm southern WV time and return later but are in a swarm like mode, flying around. Is this healthy or something I need to prevent? Can you help with explaining what is going on?

    • Brandy,

      It sounds to me like your bees are taking orientation flights. These flights usually occur in mid- or late afternoon, so 3 pm is perfect. The young bees go outside and fly all around the area, learning where home is and what it looks like from the air, and what other features are in the area to use as guides. It is totally normal and totally necessary.

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