bee biology swarming


Saturday offered a ton of work. We had bushes to plant, fences to move, potatoes to mound, weeds to pull, and branches to prune. The day was overcast, unseasonably humid, and we kept noticing bees all over the place, many more than usual. I got stung just for peeking in the mating nuc.

Late in the afternoon we were lugging garden tools up the steep path that runs past the swarm traps. A few bees were poking around the openings, but I’d seen bees examining the traps all week. I didn’t think more about it until I noticed one trap was attracting quite a following: a dozen or more bees were inspecting the real estate. Seriously, they carried little tape measures, clipboards, and paint swatches.

My husband suggested we check the hives to see if everything looked normal. As we walked I explained that if anyone was going to swarm, it would be the colony I was prepping for the glass-jar honey super. I’d already taken two splits to keep it from swarming, but nothing seemed to dissuade that bunch.

“Can you tell if they swarmed by looking?” he asked as we approached the hives.

“Probably not,” I said, “but if there is a swarm nearby I will hear it.”

I had barely finished that thought when I knew.

“Listen! Listen!” I said, turning in a circle and trying to pinpoint the sound. Sure enough, as soon as I knew where to look, I saw the bees. They were not hanging from a tree as I expected, but airborne, a mist floating toward the trap.

I ran back to the trap via a short-cut path through the woods. When I got there, I was alone, and for a moment I was unsure. Could I be wrong? Damn. I couldn’t be wrong.

Sure enough, they began to arrive. First just a few, then a dozen . . . a hundred . . . a thousand. The slow-moving column of bees, about 35 feet high and eight feet wide, began to condense on the trap like moisture on an icy glass.

I swear, there is nothing more exciting than a swarm of bees following your plan. The bees alighted on the trap until it was coated with them, dripping with them. Then, like water down a drain, they spiraled around the entrance hole and disappeared, slurped into darkness. Within a few minutes, every last bee was sucked down a hole in a paper mache flower pot hanging from an alder tree. How strange is that?

Stranger still is how they all fit. You could stand right under that trap and never know someone was inside—let alone thousands of someones. Honestly, honey bee magic never fades. Every single time I watch a swarm, it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. Bar none.

But was that swarm the highlight of my beekeeping weekend? Not even close. . . .



Honey bee magic, but the best was yet to come. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Very nice Rusty. I have been able to be part of the swarm scene this year. These have been Saturday swarms. The one my wife and I caught this Saturday was a little larger than a grapefruit. We got there at about 12:30 and saw it in a crab apple tree about 12 ft up.

    We were looking at it and the homeowner said that it was a little larger just about a half an hour ago. Then we noticed that it was getting smaller and more bees were airborne. I got a deep hive box with a solid bottom board equipped with eight frames (the two in the middle taken out) and set it on the ground under the tree. The two inner frames were of full drawn comb. Immediately the bees started to fly around and go in to the box through the inner cover.

    The swarm in the tree soon dissipated and all want into the box. This took only about ten minutes. Wow! That was easy. It is amazing what they can do!


  • Oh…
    Just as the popcorn was ready, you do that?! That is a teaser!! You started writing TV screenplays?!

    At the end of this scene, I see Rusty looking up at her treed flower pot looking as smug as, The Plan, actually worked.

    But wait! These are BEES!! And Rusty! It’s like.. like.. like Wile E Coyote catchin’ the Roadrunner!!

    Okay, that’s better. The soundtrack just changed…


    Kent WA
    … awaiting the next episode.

  • Rusty,

    Seems like a good point to ask my questions: how soon after housing a swarm could I expect the queen to start laying?
    One of the local guys said they have to get stores on board to feed the new brood, which makes total sense. But then I thought (and not sure I have ever heard this mentioned) – does a swarm bring nurse bees with it? They would have to.
    What a wonderful, mysterious creature is a swarm.
    Thanks, and GREAT pic BTW,
    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

    • Nancy,

      Yes, a swarm brings nurses. Swarms are composed of a cross-section of ages and “occupations.”

      I’ve seen queens lay as soon as a few square inches of comb was built; I’ve also seen them wait for a few days. They must read different manuals.

  • What a sight! I’m envious. I’m also nervous about opening up the two hives I’m starting. Unfortunately, I got the packages the day before I was leaving on a two-and-a-half week trip. All I had time to do was dump them in and remove the cork from the queen cage. Now I’m back, but haven’t peeked in yet. It’s been a rainy morning so I’m waiting for the sunshine to get them out and about before I open things to see if I even have queens or not.

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