honey bee behavior swarming

Bee sweet and don’t ask me such things!

I was hoping no one would ask the unanswerable question, but it just arrived . . . from my daughter, of all people. She wrote, “Why do the bees hang on the outside of the swarm trap? I always envisioned them going inside.” Hmm.

When I discovered a swarm hanging from the bottom of trap #1, another swarm was occupying the inside. It seemed to me that both swarms had decided on that trap as a place to live, and both had arrived there at more or less the same time. I imagined that the first swarm took the inside and the second was forced to remain outside.

However, days later when I found a swarm on the outside of trap #2, no one else was living inside. It was completely empty. So now I’m confused.

Both swarm traps have pheromone lures mounted on the inside. The lures are attached near the entrance holes so the scent can escape from the hole and attract homeless bees. The lures are new but the traps are old. I don’t know how many seasons they’ve been hanging out there, but I’m guessing at least five. They’ve been wet and dry so many times that they became warped, and the two sections (the base and the cone) no longer fit tightly together.

My current theory is that more scent is leaking from the intersection of the two parts than is emitting from the entrance hole. The bees were clinging to that exact spot in both cases. On the other hand, I would think that when the bees were close to the trap it would be hard for them to tell which end the odor was coming from. Then again, I’m not a bee.

Another possibility is that the bees were using the trap as a temporary resting spot while they looked for a new home. In other words, they had no intention of staying there, only to use it as a staging area the way swarms do. The traps are not particularly far from the hives, so I suppose that is possible. But swarms usually settle very close to their original hive while they house hunt, and these were little far away for that. I’m just not sure.


Are the pheromones leaking out the back?


  • The author of Honeybee Democracy, Thomas Seeley, was a co-author of a paper titled BAIT HIVES FOR HONEY BEES.

    You can download a PDF of the file here:
    but it’s a scanned copy of the paper so it’s not searchable.

    If you read through this scanned document you will find on page 5, top of middle column, a paragraph that says:

    “Dryness and snugness are very important. To prevent any light or water from entering the upper portion of the nest, ALL CRACKS MUST BE SEALED. Duct tape works well for this.” (Caps are mine for emphasis).

    I made the mistake of only reading down to the table on page 4 when I put my swarm trap together. (My bees died this winter but I knew that, with all the new beekeepers in NYC last summer, there would be swarms in Brooklyn this spring.)

    To get the volume that Seeley recommended, I lashed two nucs on top of each other and put them up in a slim tree in my back yard. I cut a limb away so that the trap could be easily seen by passing scout bees but still remain in dappled shade. See the following link for pics:

    For the first couple of weeks the neighborhood bees ignored the swarm trap (though they made continuous visits to my dead-out hive to “rob” honey through a little hole in the old hive).

    After reading the WHOLE PDF from top to bottom, I remembered that the top of the nuc was warped and there were gaps that would along the top edge of the nuc stack that would violate the “dry and snug” recommendation on pg 5. I climbed the ladder back up to the swarm trap and loosened the strapping enough to wrap the cracks with duct tape.

    There were bees living in the swarm trap in my backyard in Brooklyn on the following weekend.


    A few weeks later I found the following on BEE-L that pointed out some recent revisions that Seeley had made to his recommended protocol:

    Dennis Law
    ( aka Paul D. Law )
    Brooklyn South Community Emergency Response Team
    Logistics Section

    Quote from BEE-L

    ———- Forwarded message ———-
    From: James Bruckart, M.D.
    Date: Fri, May 27, 2011 at 10:22 AM
    Subject: Re: [BEE-L] Swarm trap with comments from Tom Seeley talk last evening
    To: BEE-L@community.lsoft.com

    Reading the Cornell pamphlet I seem to be good except for the height (they
    say 15 feet), more shade (mine has half day of sun), and the interior, as
    you both noted.

    Tom Seeley spoke to the York County (PA) Beekeepers last evening about this specific topic.

    Tom said he no longer thinks 15 feet is needed; too much trouble to check and get it down when filled. He now uses 6-10 feet.

    He recommends shade because bees will sometimes leave shortly after arrival if trap is too hot.

    Mr. Seeley is very specific that right size really helps, but then admitted that instead of a 10-frame deep hive body or equivalent, he (sometimes) puts out nuc-size (5-deep frame) boxes because they’re easier to manage. Cautions to add entrance reducer since smaller than normal hive entrance is preferred by the scout bees.

    He also recommended placing the trap at the edge of a wooded area and not necessarily deep in the woods; easier for the scouts to find. Recommended dark color paint since white traps are sometimes used by hunters for target practice.

    ‘Honeybee Democracy’ provides additional information if needed.

    Sincerely, James Bruckart, Chambersburg, PA

    • Dennis,

      I keep a copy of Seeley’s bait hive paper on my desktop for those times when the world feels swarmy. I also extracted major points about bait hives from Honeybee Democracy, and I think most of the changes you recommend were in that book. Seeley is the best authority on swarming that I know of. Still, my bait hives based on Seeley’s recommendations did not attract any swarms this year. All my swarms (and there were a bunch) went to my commercial “flower pot” swarm traps. In other years, however, the bees ignored the flower pot traps and went into bait hives. Go figure.

  • Rusty,

    Perhaps those old flower pot traps with the warped lids could be made more effective again by closing up the water-and-light leaking cracks with Saran Wrap overlaid with duct tape.

    The impression I got from my reading is that when the scout bees are doing their complete recon of the interior of the swarm trap and they encounter a crack that could let in water or light, their reaction is negative.


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