An early swarm becomes two

One of the things I like best about the west coast is the height of the trees. They grow quickly and they grow tall. But as a beekeeper, what a pain.

Yesterday was no exception. I was chatting on the phone with my sister-in-law when I happened to glance out the back window. The sky had begun to flicker and the odd sensation caught my attention. The light, it seems, was being tweaked by thousands of bees swarming past my window.

I hung up the phone and reached for my camera on the way out. Unfortunately, most of the action was over by the time I got outdoors. One side of my double-queen hive had swarmed. I thought it was about a month early for that, but since I don’t think bee, I got it wrong.

The chaos divides

Oddly, the swarm split into two parts. The large part, perhaps 70% of it, chose the young western hemlock near my garden. It is young—I can remember when it was a sapling—but it’s about 50 feet tall or more. I could see the swarm swirling around some of the upper limbs and settling in.

A much smaller portion opted for a kiwi vine about four feet off the ground. I don’t know why the swarm split. It was confusing because the swarm was all one big commotion at first, and then it seemed to divide. And it did. I’ve seen them split in two as they were landing a branch, settling mere inches from each other, but I’ve never seen them split while still in the air.

I prised apart the swarm on the kiwi because I suspected it didn’t have a queen. Indeed I couldn’t find one, so when I dropped it in a nuc box, I added a frame of open brood so they can build a queen if they need one.

The aftermath

This morning when I went outside to check on things, I found a few dozen bees that had resettled on the kiwi. They were stiff and immobile, but not dead, so I collected them all and put them in the nuc with the others.

I started off this spring thinking I wouldn’t have much swarming because my colonies were weak from the long winter and repeated cycles of warm and cold weather. But I was wrong about that too. Just when you think you understand the little critters, they prove you wrong once more.

Honey Bee Suite


The large part of the swarm landed in this hemlock, about 40 feet off the ground. © Rusty Burlew.


I converted an enlargement of the hemlock to black and white so you could see the bees a little better as they were just beginning to settle in a cluster. © Rusty Burlew.


The smaller part of the swarm landed in a kiwi vine, about four feet off the ground. It looks like a study in randomness. © Rusty Burlew.


I like this photo because it dispels the myth that bees will not swarm when they are carrying pollen. © Rusty Burlew.


The next morning a few bees had re-settled on the kiwi vine. These bees were stiff and immobile. It was easy to pick them up and move them to their new hive, where they slowly recovered as the day warmed. © Rusty Burlew.

Bee with me . . .

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  • I’m wondering if this is going to be a swarmy year. In southeast Missouri, I got a swarm call back around March 20, and last week I got called for another. I had to let the second one go, but it got me thinking about how swarmy this year will be. I’m a first year beek, I don’t have a network setup yet, so to get 2 swarm calls within 3 weeks, wow.

  • I’ve often wondered about pollen laden bees in a swarm cluster. They make me imagine what’s going on in the hive when the swarm casts. Are they just returning and get caught up in the excitement? Is there some kind of communication going on that splits them up (your staying, but you turn around you’re coming with us!)? Is there an air traffic controller at the entrance with a bright vest and cones directing traffic? Ive often thought about putting a video camera at the entrance of a swarming hive to see if some of the returning foragers turn around and cast with the rest. Anyway, good picture. =)

  • I am a backyard beekeeper in Alabama. Awesome picture. We have had a lot of our bees to swim this year. Working hard to keep them in their place.

    Helen Keeton

  • Same thing happened to me two years ago. It was a very impressive sight. As I recorded the swarm emerging from the hive like a cyclone. I was hoping that they would settle on a small apple tree but they went up a madrona tree then up 50 feet in a fir tree. I ran inside to get a better camera but when I returned in 3 minutes they had disappeared.

    Hopefully they found a nice home in the woods.

    Thanks for the great info,

  • Hi rusty!
    Great pix! I was away this weekend at my mom’s. I came home today to see my girls (one TBH right now) and saw a cluster of about 200 bees on the ground. I watched and prodded and sure enough a beautiful queen came to view, I’m pretty sure my queen from the TBH. I picked her up and put her on the landing board and she walked right in. I’m wondering if it was a mini swarm or a supercedure and she got kicked out, or if she just decided to go for a stroll. Have you any thoughts? I will do a full inspection soon to look for queen cells. Swarm season coming early this year I think 🙂

    • We had a small ball of bees settle in our lemon tree 4 days ago. Today we went out to check and there were TWO balls of bees! It’s a dwarf Lemon so the balls are about 3 ft off the ground. We checked them out for awhile but they started getting anxious and we backed off. We’ll let them stay there for a few more days before next steps.

  • I cannot see the swarm in the hemlock. Are you showing flying bees? If there is a swarm there, can you add a red circle around it?

    Great post, though.

    • Rich,

      It’s up there, but I couldn’t get a picture of it, only the bees flying around it. The next morning, it was visible with binoculars, but not with my camera.

  • I have an observation hive that has swarmed four times recently which is just fine. That is what bees do. I might add that I was able to capture all of the swarms and hived them.

    I took special care to see what bees swarmed and found that it was a cross between all the bees at different stages of their lives. Some carrying pollen, drones, young bees (I could tell because of how hairy they were), older bees.

    My question, which probably nobody can answer is who, or how, do they determine who is going in the swarm and who is staying behind.

  • I was wondering if it were possible that you had two queens (and therefore two swarms) leave at the same time? The primary swarm went up into the hemlock, while the secondary swarm went to the kiwi? If she were a virgin queen, she would be smaller and possibly pass unnoticed. If so, would the swarm you captured still raise “just in case” queen cells? I suppose you would find new eggs beforehand if there is a vergin queen in the mix….

    It would be interesting to know the outcome.

    • Tyrel,

      Anything is possible and I think you may be right. Yesterday I got a mated queen to put in there. Being cautious, I went through every frame again and, sure enough, I found a queen in there this time. It hasn’t been long enough for them to raise one, and this one hasn’t started laying, so I assume it was a virgin that came with the swarm. She was pretty big, so I’m guessing she’s already mated and will start to lay shortly.

      I lost the swarm in the hemlock. I saw them leave about 24 hours after they settled in, but once the got into the woods, they were gone.

  • Myth indeed! One of the signs of imminent swarming is bees with pollen leaving the hive.

  • Hi Rusty, what a beautiful swarm of bees 🙂 I would appreciate your advice to a problem I have. Trying to cut a long story short and I am a new beekeeper. I hived a swarm (my first) just over six weeks ago into a new hive box. I had some frames in but not enough to complete the box. My mentor told me to leave it alone which I now feel has compounded the problem. The bees have built their comb under the inner cover and to the left side of the box where there were no frames. Now they seem reluctant to draw comb and move towards the center of the hive. Through some ill advice, now the combs and one frame (because of bridge comb) come out when the top inner cover is lifted. They have started to draw another frame with some foundation. I am hoping when they move over to the frames and towards the middle of the box I might be able to cut the combs attached to the underside of the inner cover on the left side of the box where the problem started. My mentor seems not to be bothered about this. What would you advise? You have wonderful information on the website which I have been grateful for. Thank you.

    • Moya,

      Well, my first piece of advice would be to get a new mentor. The whole idea of the Langstroth hive and bee space is to not allow spaces that are more than about 3/8-inch wide so the bees can’t do what yours are doing. That’s basic.

      I would carefully cut those combs off at the top and tie them (using string or rubber bands) into frames and fill up all the empty space with more frames. In a few days the bees will attach the combs to the frames, and a while after that they will remove the rubber bands and/or string. The new combs will be very delicate and bendy, so work carefully.

  • John,

    Your observations are correct: an entire cross-section of the colony leaves in a swarm, all different ages and job descriptions. As for how they decide who goes and who stays? I’ve never read an explanation.

  • Rusty thank you for your advice. This morning I took the plunge and cut the comb attach to the underside of the cover board. Secured the comb with rubber bands and filled the box with frames keeping the frames with brood in the middle. The new combs were bendy but did manage to keep them intact. Again thank you for sharing your knowledge 🙂 🙂

  • We caught a swarm last week! We are so excited we were able to put it in our vacant hive. My husband heard the swarm in the yard but didn’t locate it until into the evening in one of our cedar trees. So far they are eating a quart of sugar water a day. Very active! We hope they will stay with us. Last year our bees absconded so will be crossing our fingers this queen is happy here. Love your blog Rusty, I learn a ton from you.