honey bee behavior

An open-air colony in Oklahoma


Open-air colonies seem to be everywhere these days. The bees living in this particular colony, hanging from a large oak in northeastern Oklahoma, have a history of dwelling in trees.

Both the new colony and the parent colony belong to Lorieann Bradley of Kellyville, Oklahoma. The parent colony has lived for many years in the hollow of an oak tree on one side of her pasture. On June 12, Lorieann looked up to see a large swarm hanging from the limb of an oak tree on the opposite side of the pasture. The swarm was about 300 yards from the original colony and positioned high above her chicken coops.

“I hoped it was just resting while the scouts looked for a suitable place for their new home,” she said. But “now there is a large open-air colony established on the branch!”

So far, the colony is doing great. “We have had several storms roll through with very high, 50-60 mph, winds. I checked on the colony this morning, and it seems they weathered the storms just fine.”

Preparing the colony for winter

Lorieann is now considering whether to cover the colony for winter or move it to a new location. Unfortunately, the combs are about 20 feet in the air and a fair distance from the trunk. She wonders how much weight the limb can handle, especially if she adds a canvas cover.

“The last few winters have not been too bad,” she said. “Some freezing temperatures, thin ice on the ponds, maybe an ice storm, and then it warms up to the 50s and 60s. Kind of crazy!”

The pictures below show the original colony which still lives in a tree hollow, the swarm, and the open-air combs. Lorieann is looking into options and promises to let us know what she ends up doing for the bees.

The big surprise

For me, the most interesting part of this story is that Lorieann is not a beekeeper. I was amazed by this because she wrote her questions and explanations with more nuanced understanding of honey bees than most of the questions I get from established beekeepers. She should definitely join the fold.

In the meantime, I know she is looking for advice and suggestions on how to protect this new colony, so anyone with experience or good ideas should chime in.

Honey Bee Suite


Here you can see the hollow oak tree where the original colony has been living for a number of years. The honey bees smear propolis around the entrance to reduce the number of pathogens entering the nest. © Lorieann Bradley.


The swarm settled on a limb about 20 feet from the ground. © Lorieann Bradley.


A beautiful swarm in a gorgeous tree. © Lorieann Bradley.


Instead of moving on, the swarm decided to build in the oak tree. Swarms are primed to build comb, so it didn’t take them long. © Lorieann Bradley.


  • Wow! What an incredible sight that is. I don’t have any advice on how to protect that open air colony, but it would be incredible to get some of that genetic stock. Obviously those bees are thriving without any kind of mite treatments. Do you know how far the colony is from other beekeepers? I’m curious if the bees are isolated enough that they aren’t getting mites introduced from other colonies.

  • The second picture looks like it was taken in my back yard, as one of my hive splits swarmed and landed in a large oak tree about forty-five feet up here in North Carolina. It appears they are there to stay since it’s been eight days since they left the new home that I had put them and a new queen in. It is not practical cost-wise to retrieve them due to the cost of renting a man-lift.

    Lorieann should call a beekeeper that does swarm removals if they are only twenty feet off the ground and let them save the bees from the winter cold. I just removed a hive over eighty feet up at one of the zip line towers under construction at the US Whitewater Center outside of Charlotte where the company provided the man-lift for the removal. Under the swarm, I have put up a bait hive twenty-five off the ground using my extension ladder and another one ten feet up on a ladder and here I sit waiting and watching.

  • It appears this colony has chosen a healthy oak, and with years and years of tree climbing and tree trim and cut work, I’d feel safe going out on that limb at 200lbs . So I’m betting it is plenty sturdy enough to hold the colony, honey and a canvas covering.

  • I live across the state from Kellyville. I don’t think the hive will survive without some protection from the wind. I think the wind could be as much of a threat as the cold. She should contact Greg Hannaford. He is a beekeeper in her area and get some advice from him. Greg and his wife run about 75 hives I think. Greg is a wealth of information and “for the bees”. She needs to contact the Northeast Oklahoma beekeepers to get Greg’s contact. Look on Facebook and ask for Greg. There are many beeks in that part of the state.

  • Fabulous pictures! And fascinating behavior.

    My suggestion is that Ms Bradley contact a local or state beekeepers’ organization, and the nearest agricultural extension college. They will all want at least to see this phenomenon, and the entomologists may want to get genetic samples of these survivor bees. She may find not only expertise but some willing hands!
    Hope there’s a follow-up article.

    Northern Kentucky

  • My husband caught a hive just like this one this summer. It was high up and on the end of the branch. He tied a tall sturdy ladder to the racks of his work truck and used ropes hooked over a higher branch to lower the hive and cut branch into a hive body. A few days later we took empty frames and pieced the comb into the frames with large rubber bands. The hive is in its new home and thriving a month later.

  • A few years ago, I helped a beekeeper remove an open air hive from a tree over a cliff (tricky!) and we were successful. However, like removing a hive from a building, it was a sticky mess! He vacuumed as many bees as possible and cut the combs off the tree one by one. I tied them in foundationless frames with string. The vacuumed bees were added to the combs and by the time they perfectly chewed and removed the string they had anchored the combs to the frames. I have a photo of it somewhere.

  • I live in NE Oklahoma and helped remove a smaller hive like this last month after it was damaged from a wind storm and another last year established under an awning in the open. Others in the area have found them too but no one around here has reported seeing one surviving the winter. A local expert says it happens when they can’t decide where to go. That’s as good of a theory as any but not possible to prove. My theory is that we have introduced enough Southern queens to encourage this trait even in some of the local stock. The same expert believes that local stock doesn’t exist anymore and all hives are 1 or 2 generations removed from managed hives. That doesn’t fit my experience. In the end, I wouldn’t want the genetics.

    Some of the beekeepers have cut the limb and tried to make a box around the hive and limb. The next year the hive is moved to a framed box to comply with state laws. The limb pictured is too big and small hive beetles love July cutouts in this area. A cutout with minimum comb and feed is still better than leaving them there. They don’t have a chance against our wild weather where they are now.

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