Honey bees have their own agenda

The backyard hive just after the first swarm left.

After a few years of beekeeping, it’s natural to assess a colony and predict what will happen next. But this year, as so often happens, I totally misread a colony that lives in my backyard. Twice. Or more, depending on how you count.

The backstory

Last fall, during a pre-winter inspection, I checked all my colonies for honey stores. They looked good, and I thought each had plenty of food. Nevertheless, I provided each colony with a no-cook candy board as an emergency backup. The colony in the backyard ate through the candy right away, so I gave it some supplementary sugar patties. Two weeks later I went back with more sugar, but the patties were untouched.

At that point, I used my infrared camera for a more thorough check, but all I could see was the faintest red glow. The image reminded me of the last embers of a dying campfire, still slightly warm but destined to fade. After shooting pictures from all four sides, I decided the colony was history. In November, I strapped it down and stopped adding feed.

As the winter progressed, I monitored my other colonies on a weekly basis, but I skipped the backyard hive, figuring I would clean it out in spring. I never went near the backyard hive until one day in early February I noticed two little worker faces peering through the entrance. At first, I thought they were robbers, but it wasn’t warm enough to fly. Curious, I popped the lid only to find the sugar cakes missing.

Building them up

It was the weirdest thing. I briefly lifted the candy board and peered between the frames, but I could see no bees. None. But I added a candy cake and decided to see what happened. Five days later it was gone. I added three more, and they disappeared. Someone was feasting for sure, but who? And where?

I added that hive back into my weekly feed check and kept giving them more. After a couple weeks, I added pollen patties which disappeared as well. By late March, bees were boiling out of the entrance. Within that six-week period, my smallest colony (which I called my dead colony) became the biggest.

Swarm season

By early May, I knew my dead colony would swarm. As a proactive swarm-control measure, I split the colony in two, taking the top box and placing it atop another stand in a different location. As of yesterday, it’s doing great and is expanding into a second brood box.

The backyard hive just after the first swarm left.
The backyard hive just after the first swarm left. All photos by Rusty Burlew.

But did that stop my dead colony from swarming? Far from it. On the following Monday, I heard a ruckus and saw a swarm leave the hive and land about 35 feet up in a Douglas-fir tree. On Wednesday, as I was working in the garden, I saw a second swarm leave the hive and land in the upper branches of a pear tree. On the following day, as I was photographing the swarm in the pear tree, a third swarm left that hive and landed on the other side of the same pear tree. Then it rained for three days and three nights.

Bees have their own agenda. This swarm was high in a Douglas-fir tree.
Bees have their own agenda. This swarm was high in a Douglas-fir tree.

Who gets to live where?

On the first sunny day following the rain, my husband said, “I think you have bees in your top-bar hive.” The thing is, my top-bar hive had gone empty last fall. After living there continuously for ten years, the colony had succumbed. When I went through the hive last fall, I could find no sign of disease or indications of varroa, and I was able to harvest many jars of honey. I think they most likely died of queen failure, although I will never know for sure.

In any case, I planned to demolish the hive this spring because it is ancient, falling apart, and in the densest shade you can imagine. As I’ve mentioned before, that hardiest of hives receives zero hours of direct sun per day, which is why the entire thing is rotting and falling apart. The legs are getting wobbly, too, which worries me.

In any case, when my husband reported bees, I looked and found, yup, bees. I went back to the swarms and couldn’t find the fir-tree swarm, so I think they moved into the top-bar hive. I didn’t see them move, but that’s my best guess.

We ate lunch together, and then I left to check on the pear tree swarms. Just as I walked outside the first one rose from the tree and headed northwest. I followed them as they crossed over the house and began circling the newly occupied top-bar hive. They began to go in—some actually made it in—but they stopped. After a while, I saw them in the bed of the pickup, on the tailgate, and covering one taillight. Later, I noticed they had gathered together on a low limb directly over the tailgate. Amazing! Easy pickings.

This swarm, which had been in the pear tree, was now over the pickup tailgate. How convenient!
This swarm, which had been in the pear tree, was now over the pickup tailgate. How convenient!

Hiving the swarm

Hiving that swarm was the easiest thing I ever did. The truck was parked right next to the top-bar hive and I think the swarm became confused when it found the hive already occupied. I don’t know if bees get confused, but that’s what it seemed like. So when they gathered to re-group, they settled on a low branch that was right next to the top-bar hive and over the tailgate. Sweet. I clipped the branch and put the bees in a box, not losing a single one.

I installed them in one of my Langstroth bait hives that was ready to receive bees. Twenty minutes later, a few were orienting, and it seemed like they would stay put. As of that moment, I still had the dead hive plus three others: the split, the top-bar hive, and a second backyard hive. So cool.

A second swarm in the pear tree.
A second swarm in the pear tree.

A popular hive

Later that afternoon, I was sitting on the tailgate watching the top-bar hive and wondering why it was so popular. I was also trying to guess how two swarms had gotten their wires crossed and tried moving into the same hive. I’ve seen it before—two swarms vying for one swarm trap—but it’s always surprising.

The top-bar hive has always been popular, which is especially surprising considering its location. My theory has always been that it’s inviting to bees more than beekeepers, which is probably its best feature.

Now the weird thing

As I was sitting there contemplating, I heard a familiar sound. I turned around to see the second of the two pear tree swarms coming over the house and heading right for me. I couldn’t be, I reasoned, so I crossed into the field beyond the tree line, hoping to see where the swarm was headed. But it didn’t cross the tree line. When I went back to find it, it was circling the top-bar hive. Unbelievable.

I watched them circle, hoping they would pick a low-hanging branch like their predecessors, but they didn’t. Instead, they accumulated on the top-bar hive and began marching in. At first, I saw a bit of fighting, but very little. Within forty minutes, it was all over. One colony had moved it with another. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.

A swarm approaching from the side moves into the top-bar hive with a previous swarm.

So many questions

Did each of these three swarms independently decide on the top-bar hive as their next home? It seems unlikely, but if they did, why didn’t they make a last-minute check to see if it was still available? Maybe that’s a human concept, and bees just assume the space will still be unoccupied when they show up.

Furthermore, why did the last swarm decide to just ignore the previous tenants? Lots of people say usurpation is more common than we think, but seeing it is mindboggling. And who gets to be queen?

At any rate, things are calm now. Everyone seems busy and the blackberries are soon to burst forth which means work will preempt house hunting. But it was fun, even if it presents more questions than answers.

Honey Bee Suite


  • I just loved this post. Sometimes I feel like I do nothing right and occasionally I feel as if I’m on top of everything but the truth is that it’s the bees who are in charge.

  • Such a great story! You are far more fortunate than I. One of my over-wintered “Condos” has been as productive as the hive you describe. Despite hauling off honey frames, removing frames, and adding new frames to create space. Basically doing everything to keep a lid on numbers, it swarmed on May 13. Swarm took to a tall maple tree above the apiary. 5 days later after inspecting the hive and removing all queen cells (to nucs) I gave the hive a new 2020 nuc with a mated queen separated by newspaper. 4-days later after carefully inspecting the boxes below the added nuc I found 4-empty supercedure cells!!!!!! How did I miss them?? The new queen was still in her box upstairs. Later that afternoon – a second swarm leaves the hive!!! A cast. This meant I lost my new queen or I had a virgin queen I never found. The latter was the case – the new queen is still in the hive – laying thousands of eggs. But – shows you just how difficult it is when trying to manage very productive hives.

  • Great story. Bee’s are amazing. We caught two swarms out of what we assume was the same hive last month. They both landed 20 feet from the main hive in the same bush. We assumed the old queen left with the first swarm so the second one must have had a virgin queen? We were not sure how that works so we left the 2nd swarm where it was caught for two weeks in case the queen made a mating flight. We finally got both new hives home and they are doing great.

    Bonnie Mogstad

    • Bonnie,

      I assume they must be virgin queens, after the first one. I plan to look for eggs periodically. If I don’t find some in about 10 days, I will give them eggs or combine them. Haven’t decided.

  • Reminds me of Michael Thiele’s concept of Locapiary.
    It is good to have empty hives for bees to choose.
    Great story!

  • The reason you have such great stories is that you have the gift of paying attention all around you. Your additional gift of words just makes it more awesome.

    I try very hard to stick with admiration, but sometimes I’m slipping perilously close to evil envy.

    (PS. I pooh pooh your 35 foot high swarms. Ours are always 60 feet up or so. And they NEVER move into empty equipment. Heavens no, the trees across the swamp look so much more inviting.)

    • Roberta,

      Well thank you, I think. For the record, I have lost many swarms to the wilds beyond. But sometimes I get lucky.

  • TRUTH in the title even for this new beekeeper! Swarm took over a hive, same base hive swarmed again within days but 60 feet up and poof went on their merry way somewhere. Thanks for the comfort that we weren’t alone in the guessing game!

  • Wow. This is a great account.
    Just shows us how bees don’t read the books and do the darnedest things!

  • That is definitely intriguing! I’m in central Virginia, and there have been so many swarms this spring that local beekeepers are having a hard time keeping up. I have two hives and a nuc, and they’ve swarmed 3 times that I know of, the first time March 11, which is very early. A friend keeps a swarm trap near my hives and has gotten 3 swarms from it, the last not coming from my hives. Every year, I try to “guess” what the bees will do – sometimes I guess right, and just as often they surprise me. I started saying a couple of years ago that “the bees will do what the bees want to do” and that has proven consistently true. Thank you for your posts, Rusty – yours is my favorite online “bee” site.

  • Wow! I can’t imagine what that was like.

    I had 2 colonies that came out of winter very weak and small, maybe 2 frames each. I ended up combining them and let them figure out the queen part. They slowly grew, nothing spectacular, I didn’t even expect a honey harvest from them. Then, on Monday, they emitted a swarm. But apparently a swarm with 2 queens. When I checked that colony on Tuesday, I found TWO more queens just walking around!! Bees will be bees.

  • Bees are weird. It’s a total adventure. Every time they do what they do that isn’t in a beekeeping book, a beekeeping book writer drinks.

  • As always, a fascinating story with a very successful ending Rusty!! Thank you. I was wondering if the scouts from your original backyard hive, now divided and accompanying their respective swarms, all had your top bar hive in mind, as their final destination?

  • I’ve kept bees for a few years now. This year by far has been the craziest ever. So many “ first time” experiences with the bees. It has been my year for new learning experiences.

    I’ll share one of those new experiences with you.

    TANGING. I’ve seen videos, I’ve heard others that have successfully done it but still raised an eyebrow about it. Twice this swarm season I was in the right place at the right time when I had hives swarm right in front of me. Thousands of bees flying. The first swarm was heading skyward as I ran into the house, grabbed a metal soup ladle and a metal bowl. I run back out banging as loud as I can, standing in the middle of the yard watching the bees going higher, and as I continued to bang away decided “ well, at least I tried it”. Next thing I know they start dropping lower back down into the yard and started clustering in a small dogwood tree at eye level from me about ten feet from where I was standing. I couldn’t believe it.

    The second time, a few days later, different hive, different location, I watched a swarm exit their hive, fly their crazy swarm flight, and head to a tree above the hive looking like they were going to cluster up about 30 feet up. I grab my hive tool and a metal can I carry my smoker in and started banging, banging, banging. They did not actually cluster, but the swarm was getting tighter and I thought, “Well, at least I tried”. Next thing I know (I’m still banging) they come back down and return to the hive they had just left. That was another first for me, to see them return to their hive. I split that hive a few hours later, made up nucs with several of the extra queen cells inside, added QC to a couple of earlier splits that needed them, and moved old queen with her split to a new location.

    At our monthly beekeepers’ virtual meeting I shared my experiences (and the video my husband took of me acting like a crazy woman). A week later I get a call from one of our members. He’d had two swarms occur in one day. He watched the first one fly off to never-never land, then remember TANGING. He said he could have kicked himself for not trying it. A few hours later, another swarm happened. He was ready. Banging away. That swarm clustered up within feet of him.

    So…… even if it doesn’t really work, it sure doesn’t hurt to try.

  • Rusty, I love reading your articles…I always learn something! I lost both of my hives last fall, so I just left them overwinter as they were. This spring, I got a package of Sasketraz, thinking I would try something besides Italians. When they came, I left some old frames of honey in each side of the brood box, and put some new frames in the center. I placed the queen cage as usual and a few days later, she was out. Then it rained for 10 days. When the sun finally came out, I couldn’t find the queen, any eggs or larvae. There was no new drawn comb anywhere. But, I did see about 5 supersedure cells. I assumed that either they didn’t like the queen that came with the package, or she left with part of the hive. A few days later, I noticed a LOT of bees around the 2nd empty hive. I went in, and I saw lots of bees but no queen, eggs, or larvae. I didn’t see any supersedure cells in that hive. BUT, I did see what looked like large salt crystals in MANY of the open cells. At first, I thought there were 4 or 5 eggs in each cell. But as I looked closer, it looked more like salt crystals. And, when I turned the frame, the “salt crystals” fell out. So, they aren’t stuck to the cells. I am so disappointed I feel like completely closing up shop. Any idea as to what happened, and what the “salt crystals” really are? That hive, also, was full of bees. It looked like they had broken into the honey cells. I assume these are robber bees…

    Thanks for any insight you can give.

    • Dee,

      It’s hard to say. My first thought was the white crystals could be fecal material remaining from a mite infestation, but I doubt they would fall out of the cell. My second thought is they could be sugar crystals leftover from feeding syrup.

      As for your queen problem, the package may have contained a rogue queen, which happens sometimes. So part of the colony may have split into the second hive. I’m guessing, of course, without being able to see what’s going on. But as you surmise, it could also be just a bunch of robbers clearing out the old honey.

  • Love this post. I cant believe they landed right over the pickup truck nor that the third just moved in with the first. Bees always amaze me with new things!

    I caught my first ever swarm last night. They were about 40 minutes away from my home and I got the call just before 8 pm. I rushed there and had a veiled jacket and some gardening gloves. Unfortunately, the swam was on the ground in a mix of weeds and grass and sticks! I brought a box with a large Ikea food grater in the side for ventilation. I was able to get 80% of the bees in the box in slow scoops and thought all was well. I guess the next day they hadn’t fully survived despite the large ventilation hole (about 5-6″ wide by 3-4″ tall). I dropped the bees off before work and it was not easy since ~1/2 were dead so I couldn’t just dump the box! I got a system of them walking into the hive and me scooping some the climbed the walls and ended up leaving a ramp from box up towards the entrance.

    I figured the queen likely died in the bunch that died so I got an emergency queen and went back after work with the new queen and was happy that there was a decent size of bees hanging off the ceiling. So I put the queen cage near the main mass of bees. I’m hoping that will get them to stay in the new Warre box and that they’ll build tons of comb in it. at least enough for the mated queen to start laying soon after I release her in a few days.

    The second fun story was that I split a hive and they made queens. Then we got bad rainy weather and cooler weather after they hatched. I waited two weeks to check for queen and eggs so I added a frame of brood and thought I saw them making two new queen cells on it last weekend. Well only like 5-6 days later I took a quick peek in to check on the queen cells and found eggs! I can only assume the original cells just didn’t mate properly due to the weather so when it finally warmed up she got mated and now I have a frame of eggs maturing and some uncapped larva. I actually had to move the 5 frame nuc into an 8 frame box as they were fully crowded!

  • This is really fun to watch for, saw the bees marching in. Quite interesting, hope to witness it like that soon. Anyways, you have a nice blog! Thank you.

  • We decided to try swarm catching this year to replace our deadouts. We made 5 swarm traps and deployed 2 at our house, the rest elsewhere. Throughout the rest of April into May, we had some tire kickers. On May 14th, I put two deep boxes from a deadout onto a bottom board, sprayed with Swarm Commander, and put on a lid. Right next to it on a small table (in our pole barn) was a super on each side, turned on edge. The next day we saw a huge swarm coming across the yard and settling in that 2-deep hive. I noticed that even after a few days, there were still lots of bees in the air inside the building, near the box, but uncharacteristically not going in, then noticed there were bees clustered on one of those sideways supers. Upon investigating, I found the queen in the super, working away with a small cluster of bees and the rest of the bees in the hive that were roaring, thinking they’d lost their queen. She must have landed there and not gone any further. I got them all reunited and moved outside the building. (Note to self, don’t leave boxes open anywhere near your swarm trap).

    Swarms like shade. All of the ones we caught were boxes/traps that were shaded in some way. We even had one that moved into a deep hive box, right on the hive stand (thank you), that we had pulled a table over it to shade it.

    A week later we had what I think was an after swarm from the same parent colony in a different trap. And then a few days later another after-swarm. I am very excited to have caught some freebies – free bees!

  • Great story Rusty, amazing how they have their own agenda and will follow it. Our first overwintered hive is doing ok.

    One thing I was wondering about, toward the end, you mentioned a temporary halt to house hunting! I’m curious.


    • Frederick,

      Honey bees often don’t swarm during a major nectar flow because they need to collect it while it’s available.

  • Rusty, I am a new reader of your blog and website since this morning. I am having a hard time pulling away from your posts and articles on beekeeping. They are wonderful! I kept bees for two years in Texas, moved back to my home state of Washington last summer, and just last week someone on our south Puget Sound island came by and asked if I would like a swarm of bees to keep in a hive (she noticed I still had 8 complete hive sets in my yard from my move, but I missed the deadline for purchasing nucs this year). Of course, I said yes! She told me I could keep the hive on her property. Anyway, I checked them yesterday and they have built an amazing array of honeycomb, but I saw no eggs yet. Would it be prudent to check this hive daily, or weekly? Is there anyway to prevent a swarm? How would I start my own “nucs”? I do not know if you have already answered these questions before, so I will continue to look through your blog. Thank you!

  • Hi – I just found your site and am hoping you can help. I am afraid I have really done something stupid and now I thought I should seek advice before compounding my stupid moves. I captured a swarm in May that was quite large. It was an unusually hot day, and after I had them home, I thought I should get them in a hive right away because the cardboard swarm box they were in was really hot to the touch. I dumped them into a large hive box without frames thinking I would get them in a box with frames the next day. When I went to check on them the next morning they had built A LOT of comb, hanging from the top board. I ended up thinking maybe they would be better off for their bottom box to just build it how they want and I could put a box with frames on top for when they are ready. Even though now I see lots of bees coming and going into the top box, they have never built anything out in it. They had almost completely sealed off the top board hole with comb so I don’t see the queen getting in there. Now, my dilemma – just let them alone and hope they eventually start moving upstairs? Or should I take a hot knife and slowly cut through the comb hanging from the top board (inner cover) and then put the next hive box on top of that? I am sure there is a queen in there laying eggs, lots of bees packing in pollen. I hope you can help!

  • Had a new experience with a swarm about a month ago. Queen was one I raised in May and had been laying like a fiend so the single deep they were in was getting packed. My goal was to get them to store in a Ross Rounds super above the brood box so I wanted them crowded. But they ignored it and decided to swarm instead. By dumb luck, I was in the apiary about 1100 when I heard that classic sound that makes you think, “Hey, that sounds like a swarm.”

    Workers were pouring out the entrance and becoming the typical bee tornado around the hive. I got down right in front of the entrance, thinking I might get to see the queen emerge. Fortunately, I thought to have a Butler cage in hand. About 30 seconds later, she popped out the front door and began crawling up the face of the box. I just put the cage above her and she walked right in. Corked it up and stuck it in my pocket. Then, I watched the swarm slowly depart, go about 50 yards, then return. They circled the hive for 10 minutes or so and then condensed back on it and slowly re-entered.

    An hour or so later I pulled off a 2-frame split, put it in a nuc box several feet away with queen excluder under it so she couldn’t leave, and dropped her in. Added drawn combs to fill the nuc and checked in a couple of days. She settled right down and began to lay. I removed the “includer” about a week after establishing the nuc. The parent colony had queen cells, of course, and went on to make another queen.

    Then never did a darned thing with the RR super though. probably too late by then anyway. “Pouring” out is really how it looks; a constant flow of bees with no hesitation, coming out the entrance as fast as possible, but a very coordinated flow, a unique sight.

    • Cal,

      Yes, I love that sight. I get so enthralled watching the bees spill out, I would probably never think to catch the queen. That’s a very cool story. Good for you!

      By the way, Ross Rounds are tricky. Sometimes they fill and sometimes they don’t. Just try again next year.

  • Rusty,

    Hello, I am new to beekeeping and I have been reading the wealth of information from your website. Thank you for making it available to us!

    I have a question and I am hoping to find some answers. I have a first-year horizontal hive with seemingly very healthy Saskatraz honey bees (good brood patterns, honey stores, and no signs of disease). Though I saw very few varroa mites (10-15 in total) the entire fall season on the white bottom board, I got nervous and decided to treat the bees with Apiguard. Yesterday Nov 7th temps in OH were in the 70s and will be for the following week. Today I noticed many of the bees seemed confused and were wandering on the front of the hive. These bees are typically good foragers and have been bringing in pollen (goldenrod) even during OH’s cooler weather. I was saddened to see the bees with pollen aimlessly walking on the front of the hive, even passing the entrance.

    Tonight’s observation revealed the bees were hesitant to go into the hive and as temps dipped in the evening the bees seemed to be huddling in various corners. I am very worried this beautiful hive will now abscond. I know these bees are specific to this hive because they are lighter in color than my other hive.

    My question is…

    Can Apiguard fumes cause confusion with honey bees if too strong? Or is it possible Apiguard’s strong fumes make it difficult for the honey bees to be sensitive to the queen’s pheromones and re-enter their hive? (Assuming fumes increased along with the day’s temps.)

    Today was day 1 after treating.

    Any thoughts are appreciated…

    • Kelly,

      First, don’t worry about your bees absconding. That is a totally rare event and it’s especially unlikely to happen in November. You can start to worry about earthquakes too, but they are nearly as unlikely.

      Apiguard fumes are strong and some individuals may react to the fumes more than others. The first two or three days are the worst, and then the fumes will become less. You may lose some bees to the Apiguard, but you may end up saving the colony, and that is the objective.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I am a new beekeeper and just survived the first winter with both hives. Yay! The short version of my question is: Do swarms ever return to the original hive?

    Long version: One of my hives came out of winter packed with bees. When I would do winter “peeks” there were lots just hanging out below the quilt box. Two weeks ago when it became warm enough for a full-blown inspection (4/10) I was not surprised to find about 8 queen cells. I took several frames (including 3 uncapped queen cells with eggs/larvae) and created a nuc. I intentionally left one queen cell in the original hive.

    Today (4/24) I was chilling watching the bees when I notice them pouring out of the hive. First thought was, “Wow! I got to watch my first swarm!” The air was filled with a buzzing mass. Some were landing on nearby trees but most settled back down on the hive, covering most of the front. After about 30 minutes, I realized the mass was getting smaller. Sure enough, in another 30 minutes, most of the bees had disappeared back inside the hive. Any clues to what just happened??

    • Victor,

      A swarm can’t survive without a queen, so if the queen didn’t go with them, they have no choice but to turn back. It happens often. They will try again in a few days. If she can’t fly for some reason, they will wait until one of the virgin queens is ready to go with them.

      • Thanks! Any tips besides trying to be ready next time?

        I also want to Thank You for the wit and wisdom you contribute in the ABJ. Your articles are the first ones I read every month. 🙂

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.