Home is the bee, home from the tree


After spending four cold nights swinging from a Douglas-fir, my errant charges have returned. Watching them reminded me of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem:

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

These are the bees I told you about earlier in the week, the ones that swarmed just as I began to make a split. I already had four swarm traps freshly baited from the previous weekend, but when I saw this swarm, I quickly set up four bait hives around my yard and sprayed them with the Swarm Commander I recently purchased. After that, nothing to do but wait.

I thought the four flower pot-shaped traps were my best bet. They were in previously successful locations and they had brand new swarm lures from Mann Lake. I almost always catch something in those traps, so I thought they had the best potential. But I really didn’t want to lose this swarm, so I sprayed the four empty hives with the little spray bottle of Swarm Commander reminiscent of a perfume dispenser. It definitely has that “come hither” scent.

During the ensuing days, the Swarm Commander-laced hives drew all the attention. Those four hives each had thirty or forty scouts constantly, while the flower pots had only three or four.

Today as I was working at the kitchen sink, water running, I suddenly froze. “What’s that noise?” I demanded. I turned off the water, listened, and once again asked the dog, “What’s that noise?” He doesn’t like bees so he didn’t answer.

To me, it sounded like a small aircraft was about to land on the roof. I grabbed my camera and ran barefoot through the grass.

What can you say about a swarm? Enchanting? Mesmerizing? Intoxicating? Or maybe the coolest freaking thing you will ever see? I will never tire of watching them.

The cloud of bees had more or less coalesced over the kiwi vine. This confused me because there is a bait hive both to the east and west of that vine, about equidistant. So for a few moments, I didn’t know where the swarm was going.

But it soon become obvious—bees began condensing on the surface of the hive like shower steam on a mirror. The swarm was bigger than I estimated, so I walked into the center, added a brood box, and removed the entrance reducer so they would have an easier time marching in. Bees bumped into my face, landed in my hair, and examined my camera but like most swarms, they were totally docile. It took a long time, but they finally settled in.



I first saw the swarm over the kiwi vine. © Rusty Burlew.


Next, it moved over behind the house. © Rusty Burlew.


Finally, it moved into the bait hive behind the house. This photo was taken after I added a second brood box. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • i heard that lemon oil, just a few drops on moss or lemon balm smeared inside hive are good swarm catchers & a lot cheaper, i will be trying both here soon & let you know

    • Christina,

      I tried lemongrass oil for years, but I couldn’t get it to work. I don’t think the swarm lures are that expensive, when you compare it to the price of a package.

      Still, lots of people say the lemongrass works, so if it works, tell us exactly how you did it.

  • I wish I didn’t, but I have mixed feelings when I see a swarm. I’ve experienced at least one every summer for the past three years. I’m in awe of swarms and uneasy at the same time. Not uneasy because I’m afraid of the bees, but because I’m afraid of the reaction to the swarm from people who don’t know what it is. My neighbours freaked out and complained to the city during my first ever swarm, and that stressful experience seems to have set the tone for me. I wish I could shake it, but I can’t. Even last summer when one of my colonies swarmed way out in a field where no one could see it, I couldn’t feel completely relaxed. I wanted to enjoy it, and I did my best, but I also thought, “Let’s re-hive these bees ASAP. Go!”

    I’m moving to a new house with less people around in a few weeks, if all goes according to plan. Hopefully I can experience a swarm like the one you’ve described in this post. I love it that the bees were completely docile. That must be amazing to be in the middle of such a force of nature and feel completely at ease.

  • Fantastic! That must have been quite an experience, but I don’t think I’d want to experience it myself.

  • This is my first year beekeeping and I began following your site a few months ago. I appreciate the insight you share and your beautiful writing style. Thank you!

  • That is totally awesome, Rusty! Thank you for sharing this. How many hives do you care for?

  • Wonderful! I’ve been blessed with five swarms in my small yard. My two hives have been pumping them out. I captured them all, kept two, and gave the others to happy beekeeping friends. In all five cases, I was present from the moment they spilled out of the hive and into the air, until I placed them in their new home. Magical, magical, magical!!

  • Dear Rusty,

    I really like your blog and look forward to it. I live in England (UK) and started with top bars two years ago so know little but enjoy loads. Following your wrong bees I read in the Newscientist there site newscientist.com/issue/3018 Sweet deceit, about the wrong sort of honey. You may like to read it and share, nothing new under the sun I thought. Please keep up the wonderful work and enjoy your bees.


  • I love your turn of phrase: bees ‘condensing on the surface of the hive like shower steam on a mirror.’ I love this blog page. I tell all my bee friends about it.
    Thank you for all your wise words and tips!

  • I experienced being in the eye of a swarm for the first time a couple of months ago. It took a while to take that grin out of my face, I felt so alive. It was wonderful.

  • Hi Rusty
    Swarm commander is not listed in the Mann Lake site. They list swarm lure ate $2.25 each. The review on Amazon say it doesn’t work. Swarm Commander is listed on Amazon. A bit pricy at $30 and it does come in a perfume like sprayer.

    I have a crabapple tree that is loaded with honey bees on its blossoms but only after the temp is above 50 D f. From 40 to 50 degrees it is loaded with bumble bees but no mellifera…

    • Tom,

      The Mann Lake lures have always worked for me in the past, but the bees seem crazy over the Swarm Commander. The Swarm Commander bottle says enough for 100 bait hives, which would be equivalent to $225 for the Mann Lake ones. So far, I’m happy. One package of bees would cost a lot more than $30.

      Anyway, about the crabapple, that sounds about right. That’s why we need all those native bees! Most natives fly earlier, later, in colder, and in wetter weather. Honey bees are a little prissy about that stuff.

  • When the boys were little we kept bees near the house. One day my middle son, then about 3 years old, said “Mama, the bees are making a funny noise”. As we watched, they were leaving the hive in a great vortex of bees. They landed on a branch above the next door neighbor’s shed. My husband climbed on top of the shed and tried to shake the swarm into a five gallon bucket. He was covered in bees, what a show for the neighbors! The swarm went across the street but then –if memory serves me –we got them back and hived them into the very same hive they had just left, and they stayed put. But watching that vortex of bees take off was, as you say, just mesmerizing.

    • Gabrielle,

      I’ve put bees back in the same place, too. I’ve read that once the swarm impulse is satisfied, they are happy, and will readily go back to the same old place. Strange creatures.

      • But how can that be? There are queen cells in the original hive; will the returning queen destroy them or are they just biding their time for another attempt?

  • In urban Southern California, a lot of us beeks just put out a used deep box, maybe with some old frames, as swarm lures. Works very well. Sometimes I’ll add a little lemongrass oil on a Q-tip, but usually just the smell of a previously used hive box is enough. I love free bees!

  • Do two separate simultaneous swarms ever land on the same branch?

    I caught two swarms last year, one after the other, both from the same branch, and I got two new colonies from it.

  • Love this site Rusty and am learning a lot here in New Jersey. Is a bait hive just a super with frames and comb or is something else added? Thanks will continue to read and have not seen this question addressed. I am sure you can tell I am new at this!!!

    • Anthony,

      A bait hive is usually a single deep brood box or a nuc box that has been baited with some bee-attractive substance. Every beekeeper has a favorite “charm.” You can buy commercially-prepared pheromone lures, which are usually a combination of queen pheromones, or you can try your hand at mixing essential oils. Lemongrass seems to be the favorite. Some folks make what I call “tincture of queen” by soaking recently dead queens in ethanol (Everclear works) and baiting the hive with that. To me, the best lure is a recently-used brood comb. By recent, I mean it held brood in the past 6 to 8 months.

      Since you are new to this, I’m going to send you to my post “English for Beekeepers” before you get too many bad habits. You can start with “super.” Am I being mean?

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m wondering if you put any frames in your swarm trap hives? If so, do you fill them with all the frames, or just put a few in with one being older brood comb?

    Also, have you had any luck using just a nuc hive as a swarm trap?

    Thanks for all the blogging!

    • Russ,

      For bait hives, I use drawn-out frames, a couple in the center will usually do the job. The rest of the frames can be fitted with foundation or starter strips, if you don’t have enough drawn combs. Nuc boxes with drawn frames work just as well.