One that got away

I catch a lot of swarms, but a lot get away too. Last weekend, I was checking my swarm traps when I saw a small fragmented swarm high in a maple tree. It was in three pieces, but all three together were not much in the way of bees. Still, I wanted the queen, so I considered how to get her down.

Later in the day, my husband and I climbed the hill armed with tree pruners, ropes, boxes, and good intentions, but after assessing for a while, we gave up. The swarm was at the very end of a branch about twenty feet in the air. The maple grew from a steep hillside and the branch was suspended over a nearly vertical slope. Under that was a deep snag of branches and limbs left over from the January ice storm. Even if I could stand on the slope, I couldn’t get under the limb because of the snag. It was a mess.

I snapped a few photos and lugged my stuff back to the shed. In the morning, I ran out for a quick look before I left for the day. The three pieces had coalesced into one knot of bees during the night, but they were in exactly the same place and still unreachable. By the time I got home that afternoon, the swarm was gone. Of course, it had ignored my traps and I have no clue where it went.


A small June swarm in a maple tree.

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  • I went on a swarm call today. I wanted to take their picture before I caught them, and so I shot three pictures. My automatic camera used the flash for one of them. Three minutes later when I got my box and returned to the bee location, they were gone. I later thought about this and wondered if the flash going off right in front of them scared them away. I don’t know if that did it or not, but I’m not going to do that again. 🙁

    • Interesting. As much as we know about bees, there is still so much we don’t know . . . like maybe they’re camera shy.

  • The last time that happened to me I shot the branch right off the tree with my shotgun. The swarm was about 40 ft. in the oak tree. I put my box under the projected drop zone. BOOM. I got about 80%, plus the queen. What a shot, hehe. Thomas

  • I wonder if this is a true swarm? Thirteen days after catching a real swarm I had a double swarm issue from the same hive (about noon). The two second swarms stayed about 40 feet up in a tree for 24 hours but merged into one ball about 9:00 p.m.

    The usual initial resting time is about 30 minutes, just long enough to let the queen rest and send out the scout bees for a final decision.

    I also wondered about the merger… would two queens tolerate that? I called our local “bee whisperer” who said what had probably happened was two virgin queens left the hive for their mating flights and workers will usually follow any queen that leaves the hive thinking the queens are relocating. The queens never joined the waiting swarms after 24 hours so the bees returned to the hive.

    My two second “swarms” were basketball and large softball size but upon opening the hive the next day there didn’t seem to be any fewer occupants. There was, however, a dead small queen on the landing board, indicating the possibility the two queens mated then returned to the hive to duke it out for the single title. I opened the hive yesterday (10 days later) and there is a large well developed new queen (but no eggs yet).

    Giving your picture a little thought, I doubt a hive would even issue such a small group of swarms which wouldn’t be capable of getting another colony started (first allegiance is to the colony, second to the species). Do you think it’s possible your three small groups of bees were a spontaneous instinct to follow that queen(!) then returned to the hive when she (they) never showed up to complete the swarm?

    • Carol,

      My swarm turned out to be an absconding colony. I know right where they came from, although I didn’t at the time. It was a small, struggling colony that was having problems. I meant to re-queen it, but hadn’t yet found a queen.

      But in your comment you say, “The usual initial resting time is about 30 minutes, just long enough to let the queen rest and send out the scout bees for a final decision.” This is not true. A swarm doesn’t even begin selecting a new home until after it has issued and settled somewhere nearby. It is then that the scouts begin their job of comparing potential nest sites. The initial resting may be very short, but may easily run into five days or a week. It averages a couple of days.

      The book “Honeybee Democracy” by Thomas Seeley (Princeton University Press) goes into amazing detail on the whole swarming and decision-making process. It describes how the various scouts advertise their finds to the group and how a consensus is formed. It explains why the process takes so long and what happens in the rare instance when agreement can’t be reached. It’s one of the best bee books out there and contains everything you need to know (and much more) about swarming.

      If I could own only one bee book, this would be it.

  • I was out walking in the woods and came across a piece of bee hive on the ground. It was square shaped and very yellow with a few bees around it. I looked up in the tree and there was a hive all bright yellow and no paper shell at all. It just looked like all honey comb with lots of bees around it. This was at least 40 feet up. What were they? Are they dangerous? The piece in the tree was about 20 inches by 20 inches or so. Can anyone comment? Thanks, Brian

    • Brian,

      Comb hanging in a tree without any “paper” sounds like a honey bee nest, but I can’t tell for sure. Most bees and/or wasps are not especially dangerous although I wouldn’t want to mess with Africanized honey bees. You don’t say where you are writing from so I can’t eliminate that as a possibility. In any case, if you leave them alone they will probably leave you alone.

      • I live in Nova Scotia, Canada and the comb was here in the Annapolis Valley on the North Mountain. Where do they go after the nest falls apart and do they build in the same place year after year? Thanks, Brink.

        • Brink,

          These are hard questions to answer. In Nova Scotia, a wild honey bee colony could not overwinter without protection from being in a tree or building or some type of enclosure. So my former guess was probably wrong, maybe they were wasps. Honey bees spend the whole year in the same nest and may live in it for many years. Wasps build a new nest every year and only the queen overwinters.

  • i purchased one of those extension poles for changing light bulbs very high up. didn’t work for the light bulbs, but, i got a blue water cooler bottle, cut the bottom out, put the neck of the bottle over the end of the pole and now i can get to swarms that are 25 feet up in the air (6 foot of me, 1 foot arm extension, 18 feet of pole.