My swarm arrived 38 minutes late

Just after midday on Monday, a swarm lifted from the hive that sits in the shade of our pump house. I often wonder what the bees think of water pumps cycling at all hours, but they don’t seem to care. The colony that lives there usually winters well, builds up fast, and produces lots of honey.

I knew the colony was about to swarm. The bees had been noisy and crawling up the outside walls during the day. It was only a matter of time, so I wasn’t surprised when liftoff occurred.

Priming the bait hives

The swarm settled about fifty feet up a Douglas-fir where I could barely see them through binoculars. It was 1:30 pm. I retrieved my bottle of Swarm Commander and sprayed each of the three bait hives. Within an hour there were about 30 scouts at the hive behind my house and about 5 at one of the hives in the drain field.

The bait hive behind the house was on a stand. The lower part comprised a deep and a medium above a bottom board, and the entrance was reduced to about three inches. Above that, I placed a plywood divider, cut to fit. And then, on top of that, another single deep. The opening for the second deep was above it: three holes cut into a three-inch shim. Above that was a telescoping cover.

I offered the scouts a choice

The purpose of all this was to give the bees a higher entrance. I thought a swarm might prefer the higher of the two hives, but in any case, they had a choice and could move into either. I sprayed both entrances with the pheromone lure, and told my husband the swarm would move in by 3 pm the next day, Tuesday.

For a while, I thought they would prove me wrong because by five o’clock Monday evening, 80 or 90 scouts were milling around the bait hive. But all my swarms spend at least one night in the trees, and sometimes as much as a week. As I watched them, I realized they were examining both the upper and lower hives, with a majority—maybe 70%—at the upper one. In spite of all the activity, I figured they would need to sleep on their decision, and they did.

The swarm arrived on moving day

The next morning, Tuesday, I was away from the house until lunch time. When I got home, about 30 scouts were examining the hive, and later about ten. I knew that was a good sign. It seems like the scouts disappear right before the swarm. I figure they go back to the cluster for the board meeting and final vote. At 2:30 pm, no bees at all were present at the bait hive.

At 2:57 I realized my camera battery was dead. I quickly changed it and hurried outside, but there was nothing. Three o’clock came and went, but still no bees. I waited until about 3:10 and then, frustrated, went inside to answer email. How dare they be late?

Nearly a half hour passed before I heard it. I reached for my camera and ran outside, checking the time on the way. It was 3:38 pm. Whatever took so long?

The swarm split in two

A great cloud of bees spilled out of the fir tree and migrated toward me. Milling and darting, they looked like birds against the blue sky. But as I watched them enter the hive, I realized what the confusion in the boardroom might have been: they hadn’t decided which hive they were moving into. Thousands of bees were flowing into both entrances at once. That wasn’t going to work, not with just one queen.

My multi-unit experiment had been a failure. So although I seldom interfere with a swarm, I decided to yank the divider from between the two hives. It took just a second to turn the two small ones into one big one. Meanwhile the bees kept pouring in. By the time 4:30 rolled around, you could look at that hive and never know it was anything but business as usual.

Predicting the time of arrival

You may wonder how I could predict the time of arrival as well as I did, but it’s no secret. I always look at the time when I see a swarm. Here in my area, swarms seem to issue from a hive between 12:30 and 2 pm. Swarms that are treed tend to move in to their new home at about 3 pm after having spent at least one night in the branches. Why? I have no idea. It’s just something they do.

I have to say, I love catching my own swarms. It is so much less work than splitting because they do all the figuring for you. You don’t have to decide how much brood to move, which queen cells to use, or where to put the old queen. All you do is set up a few sites for them to examine and let them take care of the logistics. Plus, it’s fun to watch. In comparison, a split is terribly boring and predictable.

To give credit where it’s due, a fresh bottle of Swarm Commander is the secret ingredient. Sprayed on recently used combs, it tripled the catch rate I got with plain lemongrass oil. Worth every penny.

Honey Bee Suite

A few scouts before the swarm moved

This is the initial set up: two hives separated by a solid divider. I thought the bees might like a choice. You can see a few scouts on the day before the swarm moved in.

The swarm moved in

This is the bait hive as the swarm moved in. Since the bees were using both the upper and lower entrances, I had to remove the divider board. © Rusty Burlew.

The sky filled with bees

This is the sky as the swarm moved toward me, a full 38 minutes behind schedule.

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  • Rusty,

    Fascinating story. I found it helpful that someone else had observed the same timing of swarms exiting and entering a hive.


  • That is BEYOND amazing! Congratulations! I just requeened a hive yesterday and set a couple of bait boxes, scented with Swarm Commander, in the hope of recapturing any outcasts, yesterday. While I don’t expect much from my experiment here, I am delighted by your story! Thank you – and wow, that’s just the coolest thing ever.

    • Cathy,

      My favorite part is standing in the middle of the swarm as they move in, barefoot in shorts and a tank top. I can’t get over how docile they are. It’s the only time I really trust them.

  • Awesome! Thanks for sharing. I’ve learned more from reading your blog than any other single source.

  • Rusty,

    Thanks for the delightful description and relaxed approach to swarms. It’s refreshing compared to the interminable ‘fear’ and ‘swarm prevention’ tactics preached by many clubs…not to mention the tip on swarm commander!

    Best wishes.


    • Peter,

      Clubs often make it seem like you’re a “bad beekeeper” if your colony swarms. I believe the opposite is true because only vibrant, healthy colonies have the resources to swarm. Swarm control techniques often weaken a colony to the point where it can no longer swarm, which seems counterproductive. I’d rather concentrate on capturing swarms than preventing them.

      • Keep in mind that your location makes a big difference. If you are in an urban or suburban situation your neighbors won’t appreciate the risk of your swarms moving into their walls. And you don’t want to run the risk of said neighbor buying the insecticide before seeking help to solve the problem.

        I just followed up on a swarm situation where the homeowner was not directed right away to our swarm chaser hotline. When she first sought help. The bees were nicely perched in a tree in her yard. The first responder told her to hire an exterminator to get them off the tree branch. Thankfully, she called someone else who identified them as honey bees and advised her to call a beekeeper. The delay cost her a lot of money because the bees promptly moved into her wall before she was finally directed to a beekeeper. She had to pay her local wildlife management officer for the house call and then when she finally got directed to a beekeeper, the swarm had moved into her walls and she had to pay up to get the wall rescue done.

        • I have to agree with JoAnne on this one. I find the swarming behavior absolutely fascinating, but unfortunately my neighbors do not. And with beekeeping being threatened in my town, preventing swarms is the best MO for those of us who are still allowed to have hives in town. I have learned the hard way that it’s still a good idea to keep a swarm trap around just in case I miss one though.

          • I wish I didn’t agree with these comments about urban and suburban beekeeping, but I do. Being around swarming bees and catching a swarm is probably the most fascinating thing I’ve done in beekeeping. But I know what it’s like to have horrible neighbours who can make my life difficult when swarms fill the sky and then land on a picnic table in their backyards. Not everybody is cool with that, even though the bees couldn’t be more docile.

            Even now where I live in a semi-rural neighbourhood, I get anxious (instead of excited) when I see signs that one of my colonies might swarm. Most of my neighbours (and I only have three neighbours) seem cool with my having bees nearby, but ALL of them have toddlers and small children, kiddie pools and swing sets all over the place, and I can’t help but feel a little apprehensive imagining how they’d react to seeing a cloud of bees descend onto their kids’ swing set while the kids are out jumping around the yard being little kids.

            I look forward to the kids growing up so I can take them over the bees and show them how much fun they are. Until then, I worry about swarms.

    • As I currently do not have money to build more hive bodies, I’m limited to the six TBHs I have now. One split and one swarm later, those were filled this spring and I realized, as my bees kept filling their space and showing obvious swarming signs despite comb shuffling (like increasing amounts of queen cells), that I was just going to have to let them swarm and let those swarms go. *shrugs* No other option as I am not set up nor do I have the time during this busy farming season to even try to sell nucs. Fortunately, I live in a rural area with plenty of woods around.

      This has given my girls plenty of chances to mystify me though (like they needed more). Some colonies will have a mated queen no time flat while another a few feet away will run through 13 virgin queens before finally the 14th one starts laying eggs (they had a lot of capped queen cells). I do not know where the others went, do not ask me, the bees aren’t talking – there weren’t enough bees for that many swarms. The queens emerged properly, the ends were opened rather than the sides, but it took weeks before there was finally a laying queen in that hive.

  • You have inspired me (again) to give bait hives a try! Thanks. BTW, you have very patient swarms if they stay at least overnight before departing! I am in mid-MD. Two weeks ago I received a few swarm calls, two of which were called in to me while the bees were swarming and still in the process of clustering at their temporary bivouac position. In both instances, I left immediately to capture the swarms. BUT… in one instance I was called on my cell phone within 17 minutes to be informed that the swarm had clustered in a tree but had just left. For good. I turned around and went home. In the second instance, they left within 30 minutes of bivouacking. Ugh x 2.

    • Dave,

      I’ve heard that sometimes they stay only a few minutes, but I’ve never seen it here. On the other hand, maybe I just never noticed them because they were gone before I saw them.

  • Oh, when I think of all the crazy things I’ve done getting a swarm off a high perch! I never thought of freshly baiting a nearby hive. Duh!

    Thanks Rusty!

  • Congratulations. I have not seen a swarm yet. I think you are showing off, but when you’re good you’re good!

  • Thanks for that story, Rusty, I think I will try your method next spring (I am in New Zealand so a few months away). I believe that letting them swarm is beneficial to them and me, as it allows them to fulfill their swarm instinct, and it stops me having to do a split and worrying about whether I did it right for 4-5 weeks.

    • Valeria,

      I think it’s the difference between working with them or working against them. They know how to split a colony much better than I do.

  • Rusty! That is SO cool. Thank you for sharing. My two new packages are rockin’. They’ve thus far survived long travel and a newbee. I added deeps so they would NOT swarm because they’ve built up so fast. Great queens with great assists. Perhaps next year I’ll be ready with a couple of “choices” for them, some pheromone, and let them do their thing. That is with the hope and prayer that they make it through the late summer dearth and winter with no maladies.

    • Elena,

      Just keep paying attention. Spring beekeeping is the easy part; fall and winter can be a challenge.

  • Do you leave all 3 boxes or reduce to just a deep? If all 3 do you have frames with comb in all or just a couple frames? I’m a newbee, just 2 months but looking forward to next year ?

    • Cregg,

      I’m not sure what’s in that stack. I believe the two deeps each have ten frames of old comb. I think the medium may be empty space. I plan to consolidate them into one deep with a super when the rain lets up.

  • I am constantly amazed by the complexity of honey bee “society”. Thank you for an interesting description of a behavior I have yet to observe first-hand.

  • Rusty:

    I’m curious. I thought I read that you had reduced your number of hives to six…? When you capture swarms are you replacing hives or increasing your number? I’d love to try this but am not sure I’m ready for more than four.

    Thank you for the article and great photos.

    • Jerry,

      Ha! I was going to write about that. I was so proud for getting the number of hives down to a reasonable number, but now I’m back up to ten. Ten is too many for me to overwinter. Come fall, I will re-combine colonies. But for summer, it’s okay.

      • When you recombine are you letting the queens fight it out or do you select one of the queens and sacrifice the other?

        • Anna,

          I never let queens fight if I can prevent it. I’ve seen too many cases where the both end up dead or injured. Before I combine, I cage the queen from the weaker hive and save her. Then I combine. If it works, I can dispatch the saved queen. If it fails, I can try again with the caged queen.

          • I have had 10 swarms from 4 colonies (that I have seen and hived–I gave two away) So I’m at 12 right now with a goal of 4-5 to overwinter. While I thought my methods of condensing would be more brutal, I have now committed 2 of my swarms to new beekeepers who have lost their BRAND NEW colonies to EFB and possibly AFB. All from the same supplier. I can share my clean bees and get these new beekeepers started on the right foot–the company has not responded to the customers despite having multiple people notify them that the bees were infected. We know of at least 5 beekeepers and very likely there are more…our state apiarist has been out to investigate and samples are being sent to the Beltsville Bee Lab for confirmation. It’s a sad state of affairs for the new folks…

            • Anna,

              It is a sad state of affairs, although it’s not surprising. We expected to see a drastic uptick in EFB/AFB after the change in the antibiotic law. I’m sure many suppliers were suppressing the disease, and now they’re not. It will probably level off eventually, but not for a number of years.

              • But if the nucs being sold were infected (before the change in law), then they would show the disease later anyway since the beekeeper purchasing the nucs wouldn’t be treating them, correct? So the only change now is the nucs are being delivered sick rather than developing the illness later? Either way, it’s horrible.

                • Anna,

                  If the supplier was suppressing the disease in his apiary, it wouldn’t necessarily be passed on to nucs. It could be, but it might not because the total number of disease organisms is controlled. But if the disease is allowed to continue unsuppressed, many more spores will be available to infect the nucs. It’s a numbers game in a way. If you are suppressing, you’re not producing nearly as many spores as when you’re not suppressing. I’m probably not explaining very well.

                  • No, you did great, thanks. See, I imagine they have all these little nucs around, but when described in the context of a whole apiary, I understand.

  • Interesting, I did something similar last week. I place two 8 frame medium boxes on my carport roof with one having a divider (making it a 4 frame box) after the scouts checked out both boxes they chose the 8 frame box. I use 5 drops LGO [lemongrass oil] to 1 oz of bees wax blended together, then I just rub it on two frames (I use foundationless with just a 1/2″ starter strip). This has worked for the last 7 swarm I caught. I think I will try your setup and see how it works here in HI.

  • I witnessed my first swarm move-in this spring. What an experience!

    Like yours, there were two complete hives and they were moving into both. Mine were just two sets of equipment I had stacked in my driveway that hadn’t made it into the garage yet. I was worried they’d just leave when half of them realized the queen was not there, so I removed the bottom board from the center of the stack and they were set.

  • What a fun story. I’m not sure I completely understand the configuration of the two hives. Clearly they’re vertical, but I don’t see the divider that got yanked. In any case very cool.

  • Amazing – my bee buddy and I usually collect our swarms but your method sounds much easier! We may have to invest in Swarm Commander. Our bees are taking a long time to get going this year (UK). They seem to think winter’s coming as most hives seem to be filling the half brood with stores! ?

  • Thanks for sharing. It is good to read a different prospective on catching your own hive’s swarm. Yesterday, I discovered that one of my best hives had swarmed & took up residence in one of my baited traps about 50 feet away. I was mad at myself, as I knew that the hive was packed full & needed attention, I was waiting until we got a break in the consent rainy days we were having here in NC.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Reading “Honeybee Democracy” by Seeley really gave me a new insight into swarms.

    The other day, past swarm season over here, I had a new hive in the back just lying there, waiting for me to transfer a swarm I had housed in a nucleus a few weeks earlier. The hive started getting a lot of attention from bees. In the past I would just think they were looking for food or attracted by the smell if it was a used hive. But this time it clicked! They were scouts! And if they are scouts it means there is a swarm somewhere?

    I went looking for it around the apiary and, sure, there is was, just waiting for me!

    If I hadn’t read the book and figured out those were scouts I would have not gone looking for the swarm and would probably have missed it. Eureka moments are such fun.

    I bought the book a few years back but it was still waiting to be read. And then a year ago I read a couple of posts on swarms by you, referring to the book also. I read it, and although dry at times, it really helped me understand better swarms and what they do. It was cool.


    • Pedro,

      The same goes for me. Before I read Honeybee Democracy, I would not have understood that I was seeing scouts, nor would I have understood what they spend their time doing, and how they communicate everything back to the colony. The book put the whole swarm thing together for me to the point that swarms no longer feel mysterious. Instead, now when I see a swarm I can figure out where in the process they are and what they will be doing next.

  • Swarm capture as short story thriller! Intriguing title followed by nail baiting suspense and a twist at the end! Rusty the story teller eclipses Rusty the beekeeper, awesome:)

  • Rusty, is it possible the swarm held multiple queens, which would explain their splitting into 2 locations initially? I hadn’t realized this was possible until some folks in our group said it’s possible, particularly in after-swarms.

    • Jim,

      It’s more apt to happen in afterswarms because these swarms may contain multiple virgin queens. Part of the bees may go with one virgin while the rest go with another.

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