bee stories swarming

The iterative method of swarm capture

Part way up the ladder I stopped. The cardboard box I carried kept catching in the branches. The box was too big—I knew that—but I liked it because it was deep. I was hoping it would restrain the swarm longer than a shallow box. Standing on the ladder was not the best place to try new things, but what the heck.

Much to my surprise, the ladder was steady and felt right. As soon as I stepped on it, I knew it would be okay. Engineers pride themselves on designing systems that “barely work,” and my husband, being one, did himself proud: although it barely worked, it worked just fine.

The swarm hung from a branch but was wrapped around the trunk, playing hard to get. Once I got the box under the swarm, I used the hive tool to scrape the bees from the trunk into the box. It was a big swarm, and I felt like I got two-thirds of it before it started to rise out of the box. I closed the lid and climbed down.

My husband had promised to steady the ladder from below, and he had been patient while I struggled with box, bees, and branches. But as I started down the ladder enrobed in a haze of bees, he said, “I’ve got to leave.”

“No!” I said, still worried about the ladder and the now heavy box. “Don’t go!”

“I’ve got to. Bees all over the place!” he said, running toward the creek.

“What the (deleted) did you expect?” I hollered back. “I’m not picking berries up here.”

Once on the ground, I carried the box around to the back of the house and dumped it into the bait hive I set up last week. The mass of bees seemed to orient and examine the surrounds.

I let the remaining part settle for maybe twenty minutes, then I went back up to get it. To make things easier, I took a plastic bag instead of the box. The swarm seemed a lot bigger now, and I began to think I’d captured only half of it. So I swiped as much as possible into the bag and added it to first group.

By the time I went up the third time, I was comfortable on the ladder, but I was still having trouble scraping the bees into the bag because of all the little branches. This time, the weight of the first clump of bees caused the plastic to fold over on itself, so the ensuing clumps missed the bag completely. I dumped what little I got on the third try into the hive and, again, waited for the swarm to settle.

Seeing the trouble I was having, my husband suggested I use the butterfly net.

The butterfly net! Why didn’t I think of that—it was deep, easy to handle, and I could ease it over the swarm before I began to scrape. Excellent suggestion.

The swarm seemed even bigger than before, but I was undaunted. I climbed a fourth time, fit the net over the swarm, and knocked it in. The net was so heavy the handle bent like a bow. I flipped the net over to lock the bees inside and maneuvered it down the ladder. I couldn’t believe the weight.

I dumped the bees into the hive assuming I was done. Bees clouded around the hive, the ladder hadn’t collapsed, and the tree was still standing—all good things. I went to the front yard and sipped a glass of water. But when I looked into the tree, I was amazed: the swarm was still clearly visible. I decided to get more of it.

So for the fifth time, I ascended the ladder and came down with a load of bees. But this time, before dumping them in, I decided to have a look in the hive. I opened the lid and peered down through the frames, and what did I see? A dozen bees, maybe twenty. The rest were gone!

In all my swarm catching days, the swarms always stayed where I put them, but these bees were going right back to their tree, to the very same branch. This was new to me. I decided that I must be missing the queen each time. She must be nestled in a branch and protected from my scraping and swiping. Or maybe I killed her. Bees were dying in this process, and maybe she was a victim. Would the bees go back to their branch without her? I wasn’t sure anymore.

At that point, I remembered there was some queen mandibular pheromone (QMP) in the freezer. QMP can be used to hold a queenless colony together until a queen can be obtained. The stuff was ancient—maybe ten years old—and I can’t even remember why I had it. But I got it out of the freezer, put one of the plastic straws in the bait hive, and went up the ladder for the sixth time.

This time, the clump of bees held. As soon as I dumped them in, they clamored over themselves to get to the lure, smitten by a piece of pheromone-laced plastic. They didn’t try to kill it; they were enthralled by it.

So up I went the seventh time. I got a good load, brought it back, dumped it in. It was like magic, but not the kind I expected. The bees flowed out of the net, but when they hit the top bars, instead of going down between, they bounced as if on a trampoline. In one clean motion, they glanced off the bars, lifted, and flew away. The bees cooing over the QMP were the only ones left in the hive.

If insanity is defined as repeating the same action while expecting a different outcome, I was well on my way. This had to stop. I gave up. Discouraged, I closed up the hive and returned to the front yard.

I stood there, hands on hips, eyes on the swarm when suddenly the noise increased. The swarm expanded, slowly at first, then rose into the air. I stood amidst the chaos, trying to perceive its direction. I was almost sure it was moving toward the house . . . yes . . . over the house and . . . yes, you won’t believe this . . . into the bait hive. The same hive I tried seven times to get them into; the one they flowed from less than five minutes before. Like a mob of teenagers, it had to be their idea, not mine.

So what happened? Had the swarm been considering the bait hive all along? Would it have gone there had I left them alone? Did the QMP have anything to do with it or nothing at all? Why did the bees boomerang back to their branch all the time? Did they have a queen? What made this swarm so different?

I have no answers to these questions. I removed the QMP, gave them a frame of eggs and young larvae, a frame of honey, and two boxes of drawn comb. So far, they are still there, but they haven’t said why.



  • I liked the bit with the deleted expletive. I can honestly say I am not surprised by the other bits; the multiple trips to get the same bees, the bees going in after all. The butterfly net sounds like a good idea.
    If it was me I would have been using a bee brush to get them off the branch, less damage. Also I would have tried getting a load then smoking the branch to hide the scent that was obviously up there.

    Anyway, all the best,


  • Oh, my goodness! You’re brave to get up there so many times, and then after all that for them to choose it on their own-it’s true, you have to be a patient person to keep bees. Thanks for sharing!!

  • As I read, I kept going back and forth between “She’s crazy” and “She’s persistent.” I finally decided both are correct. 🙂 I think beekeepers should get free passes in Las Vegas.

    Good luck.

  • Good stuff. Glad everything turned out ok. I have two bait hives set up. The only time bees look at them is when I have them apart running the ants off.

  • Great story! I had a similar incident at work. The brick buildings at the Clarinda Academy date back to the late 1800’s. I was informed of a swarm of bees there. The huge blob of bees was on the north brick wall of a building just above a doorway. That evening, using a ladder, I placed my hive box on the roof over the doorway, sprayed the bees down with sugar water and started scooping bees into the box. The next morning they were all back on the wall again and the box was empty… must have missed the queen.

    So I sprayed them down again and started scooping. There was a cloud of bees flying around me when I noticed that it started thinning. I looked down, and they were landing and crawling into the box. I must have gotten the queen that time. I left it there for a few days then moved it to my bee yard, where they did well.

    Two weeks later, I got another call. There was another swarm in the exact same spot on the wall. I scooped up as many as I could get into an empty bee package and added them to the first hive. A week later, there was ANOTHER swarm on the same wall again, only it was a lot smaller. After I scooped these up, the state sprayed the wall with a pesticide to keep them from coming back.

    • Jeff,

      That is a cool story. Too bad they sprayed the building; it sounds like an endless supply of bees.

      • No doubt! There is a bee keeper here who sets up swarm traps at a church that had bees in the walls every year. He says he catches several swarms a year in both traps.

  • Sometimes (if the branch is small) you can cut the end of the branch off (after the bees… and get rid of it) then cut a small log off with the bees on to put into the box. Needs to be cut with secateurs though – I think a saw would probably upset them too much.

  • I was on my way up a tree in my back yard earlier this year and right after I put the ladder in the tree the bees took flight. I watched them for a minute and they chose a hive I had on the end closest to the tree. I guess the queen in that hive was no more – that hive had carried bees in it until at least a week before. I don’t know why they did it or even if that was the hive they came from, but it was pretty cool to watch; much cooler than watching your bees fly off to an undisclosed location. 😉

  • I wonder if, when surrounded by a thousand bees, you have ever become acutely aware of them. This year seems to be a bad year for me that way. At first, just a couple of swarms proved that they were not going to go gently into that dark box… Then, decorators next door attracted the attention of the backyard bees, who turned so aggressive that we had to redeploy them in a friends garden some miles away where they spent weeks chasing these good folk around the garden. A recent visit found the hive absolutely humming and I found it near impossible to concentrate on inspecting them because of the sheer numbers trying to get through my suit anywhere they could. In the end I got just one sting, where my forehead contacted the headband. I fear I am developing a phobia as I feel a reluctance to visit the hives now. Could this be the end of beekeeping for me?

    • Sounds like you should requeen with a new mated queen, that way bad genetics cant be passed on. Would your hive be part African perhaps?

      • Robert,

        That post was written on May 20. All went well after that and the hive is doing fine. I’m too far north for AHB, at least for now.

  • How soon should we be seeing capped brood after re-queening? We installed two queens on the tenth, and two on the twelfth.(august) Not wanting to disturb the hives to soon we made a quick scan yesterday 8-29, were lucky to see a marked queen in one hive. We felt great about that. Another hive had capped brood with a lighter color cap. I’m thinking, OK, new brood. The other had capped brood but a darker color cap. Could that be brood from the old queen after this much time? Or can a new queen have done that also? The fourth hive had no brood, and they are filling the brood areas with nectar. We have ordered a new queen for that hive assuming they did not accept the first offering. As far as eggs, I guess my eyes have had it after 64 years because I seem to have great difficulty seeing them. And larva we did see in the hive where we saw the one queen and the hive with the lighter colored capped brood. Any thoughts? Also when installing the new queen: smoke or no smoke?
    Doug & Sandra

    • Doug & Sandra,

      Normally, an introduced queen will start laying right away, but she could take a few days to get started. Let’s say she takes 5 days. The first eggs spend 3 days as eggs and 6 days as uncapped brood. Then they are capped. So that is 5+3+6=14 days or two weeks. You put them in on the 10th and 12th. That plus 14 gives you the 24th to the 26th to start seeing capped brood. But a new queen usually doesn’t lay very many eggs right off, she takes a while to reach her stride. In any case, you should be seeing at least some capped brood by now.

      Sometimes bees re-use cappings wax, so it is possible the darker caps are re-used wax. It could only be old brood if the old queen was there within the last 21 days. If you only took her out 14 days ago when you re-queened, it could very well be old brood. Remember the brood cycle is 21 days from egg till hatch.

      Filling brood cells with honey is normal at the end of summer. The bees know that will not have much brood from now until spring, so they use those cells for winter supplies. But you should have some small amount of brood somewhere at this time.

      Smoke or no smoke is up to you. I never use it; some people always use it.

      • Thank you for your quick response. We appreciate you sharing your experience and valuable time helping others. Your patience is admirable.

  • I just love the swarm story. The middle of August I walked past my 3 hives to go to my horse barn for about 5 minutes. When I stepped back out of the barn, honey bees everywhere. The sound & the movement was crazy. Those are my bees, I have to see where they end up. Walked out around the back of the hives and into the backyard where they had already started to show a swarm formation on the cedar tree branch. It ended up looking like 3 upside down mountain tops on the branch which was about 2′ above my head. Bees at the bottoms were falling off in clumps.

    Being a 1st time beekeeper, I didn’t have any frames with extra drawn comb so I went back to the hive they had left and stole theirs. I put the hive box on a bench under the main swarm. I stood holding a frame up to the swarm and they marched on like soldiers. Thousands at a time until I couldn’t hold it – down in the hive box it went. Five frames later, I spotted the queen (kidding you not), I spotted the queen come onto the frame of drawn comb and I instantly put the frame in the hive box and shut the cover. The rest of the bees walked onto the bench and into the hive. What a high! This Grandma just had a high on life!

    A customer came into the farm stand so I had to leave. Never did I tell this person that there were 20,000 bees about 20′ away on the other side of the stand wall. They finally left no wiser! I go into the backyard, first I hear the sound again and see bees everywhere!!!!! Speed dial my mentor, he had me just sit tight and watch and see what happens. About 1 hour later, everything was back in the hive. He felt the field bees came back to the hive (found no bees in it) and followed the queen to the tree branch and then into the hive box. We ended up with them leaving 4 times that week but less and less each time and the last time, we found a big new queen and started a new hive which we combined with the original since it couldn’t get strong enough to get thru the winter in New England. What an wonderful experience I never dreamed I would ever have.

  • Thanks for putting this blog together, you have a TON of great information for an interested newbie. I just posed the idea of building a top bar hive and starting to keep bees to my wife tonight over supper and said I wasn’t completely crazy, just a little.

  • Your stories have a great sense of timing and drive. I think bees are smarter then we give them credit for. We need them more than they need us.

  • Whenever we catch a swarm we try to move it off site a few miles or it seems like they will fly right back to the branch or wherever they were originally swarming. Last fall we caught a swarm in the bee yard and instead of transporting the box off site we screened the entrance for about a day and a half and they ended up staying. Another thing we do is spray them with a lot of sugar water and brush them right into a brood box with some frames.
    Good luck!

  • I am a commercial keeper and have enjoyed these stories of your swarm capturing. It brings back memories of my beginning in the business. I use liquid smoke to work and move my hives due to the danger of fire in CA. To make it use 1/3 of a gallon of liquid smoke (purchased at Smart and Final) to a gallon of water. This is a great deterrent to bees gathering back to their place on congregating. Also a quick rap on the base of the swarm on a branch or small tree or post will dislodge them to the ground. Use a sheet to cover grass and place the hive on it. The bees will march into the hive like ants in a few minutes. This is fun to watch. It is also beneficial to have drawn combs in the hive.

  • Rusty, I have a 5′ top-bar hive with 40 bars. I am considering buying a pure russian nuc to install with 18 bars for brood, the rest for honey. Just wanted your opinion, have read over and over russian bees need lots of room or they will swarm. Hopefully with this setup I can rob a couple of frames of brood and queen cells every 3 weeks to make a nuc once they are going strong. They will be in the middle of a field of sweet yellow and white clover. Your opinion on this setup is much appreciated.

    • Gene,

      I have limited experience with Russians. I’ve only had them twice, but I never saw much difference between them and Carniolans. They did fine, but they still had issues with Varroa. I don’t recall them swarming more or less than any of the others, but like I say, my experience with them is minimal.

      As for the top-bar hive, my 23-frame tbh is an endless source of queen cells, brood, and bees when I need them. I don’t collect honey from it, so they have the run of the whole thing. I use it to supply whatever my Langstroths need, so it’s turned out to be “the corner store” for me. I love it.

      I think your system sounds fine. Let me know how it works out with the Russians.

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