honey bee management swarming

The swarm saga continues

Crazy things happen with bees, but this is amazing. The day after I lost a swarm last week I was working in the shed getting ready for the holiday when I was summoned with great urgency.

“Rusty, quick, go to the wood pile! You’ve got another swarm.” I couldn’t believe it. Was I going to lose all my bees this summer?

In the trees behind the wood pile I found a great cloud of commotion. The bees were loud and moving slowly north. They passed behind the propane tank, behind the pump house, and were heading toward an alder. Their forward motion seemed to slow and I thought they were going to settle high in that particular tree. Oh great, I thought, just like yesterday a tall spindly alder was going to swallow up my bees and I would never see them again.

But they didn’t settle. I began to worry that if they kept going north they might land in my neighbor’s horse pasture—or the next neighbor’s cow pasture—and I didn’t feel like dealing with it. But the bees started to hover around a young cedar and I knew there was an excellent chance I could get them if they settled there.

From where I was standing, my empty top-bar hive was out of view. It is the only hive I have down near the house and I had completely forgotten about it. It was full of completely drawn comb that was built just last year before it suffered a massive yellow jacket attack. I have pictures of yellow jackets and honey bees rolling around on the ground in mortal combat. Needless to say, the yellow jackets won, and I hadn’t yet decided what to do with the hive.

But as I came around the cedar I couldn’t believe my eyes. The swarm was settling on top of the hive and, in a most orderly fashion, marching through the entrance holes. I still can’t believe it. There—right in front of me—those bees moved in. Within a half hour I had a fully loaded top-bar hive that was purring like a kitten.

So, where did these bees come from? Is it the swarm I lost the day before? Is it a different swarm, but also from my apiary? Did it come from afar? Or did it just move down the hill?

I can’t answer any of these questions. Bees that swarm usually find a temporary resting place close to home, but do not choose a permanent shelter in the shadow of the mother colony. Nature’s way of mixing the gene pool, lowering competition for food, and maximizing chances for survival is to spread daughter colonies a long distance from the parent. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the most favorable housing is found close by and the bees opt for it.

Since my queens are not marked, it is impossible for me to say where these bees came from. From my quick assessment of hive strength, I can’t tell which of my hives threw a swarm. But I have no doubt the first swarm I saw (the one I wrote about earlier) was mine because it settled in a tree right beside the apiary. Later this week I will open everything and I try to figure it out.

Now, here’s the bad news. Beekeepers should never feel victorious. About two hours later I headed out the back door to get a hammer. I was feeling extremely victorious—smug even—about catching a colony by doing nothing at all, when suddenly I heard the unmistakable confusion of a swarm in the leaf canopy above . . . again.

Right away I checked the top bar bees, but they were still there. So it had to be yet another group. In all my beekeeping years I have never seen so many swarms all at once. I’ve spent the last month or more proactively (or so I thought) splitting hives, removing cells, providing extra supers but the bees are swarming like never before. I stood beneath those trees for 40 minutes or so, but never found this most recent group.

I’m not the only beekeeper with multiple swarms this spring. Many folks are blaming the northwest weather—the late spring, the damp days, the dark afternoons. We’ll probably never know. But it certainly is exciting. No matter if you’re gaining them or losing them, there is something primal and compelling about a swarm on the run.


Swarm gathers around an empty top-bar hive. Photo by the author.

Swarm marches into its new home. Photo by the author.


  • what are the chances they would go exactly where you’d want them? that never happens! one of the teachers of the beginning beekeeping class i take said she had hived seven swarms (and that was a month ago, before my swarm and yours).

  • Came out of the house after dinner, just as a huge swarm rose out of the chestnut tree, which is beside our 4 hives and a bee tree. Not sure, but we think the bee tree swarmed, as our hives look perfectly fine.
    Watched the swarm fly over the barn and up into the trees a distance away. Not sure how long the swarm had been in the chestnut tree, and with all the apple trees in blossom, the sounds of buzzing bees is constant here, so didn’t hear the tell-tale sound which usually alerts us to look around for a swarm. Oh well—the season’s only starting. You are right–it’s exciting!

    • I thought I heard a swarm yesterday, but when I followed the sound it led back one of my hives. I stood there a long while, not sure if I was just hearing the hive or the hive and a swarm. Never did figure it out.

  • I came home last weekend from my daughter’s house and there was a message on our answering machine. A lady from the next town over had a swarm of bees in a tree that was near the ground. I called her back, rounded up an empty hive box and my gear. But in the 20 minutes it took me to gather my stuff and drive there, they had disappeared. Maybe next time.

    I have caught and hived up a few wild swarms over the years, some out of trees, and some removed from buildings. My very first hive was taken from between the walls of an old building. The owner was tired of getting stung and gave me permission to cut a large hole in the interior wall. This hive had obviously been there a long time. They had comb from floor to ceiling, and three studs wide! After smoking them good, a friend and I pulled brood comb and arranged it in an empty hive then started scooping bees by the handful. We were fortunate to get the queen, and I had that hive for several years.

    When I was a child, we had a bee tree in our yard that would swarm out into one of our apple trees almost every year. I tried to capture some of them, but neither knew what I was doing nor had the right equipment, so needless to say I was never successful at it. However, this is what started my fascination with honeybees.

  • I started a w fresh perfect new, Warr’e hive with Italian bees it’s been three weeks with two boxes ones just built combs in Portland. it was around 10:45am warm not hot and a swarm went over my hive not sure where or how I immediately thought it was mine, maybe it was I’m still not sure, everything seems fine, maybe its not i feel like i have to check my hive invasively, how can this be I panicked and cried chasing after no avail. What should I do?

  • I have emailed you before was just wondering whether you got my email. You seem to have a problem with beetle in America. We have a product called Beetle Buster em sales@beetlebuster.com.au
    wwwbeetle buster.com.au
    This contraption works I have no beetle problem now. I always read your posts.

    Regards jim hansen
    110 kalimna west road lakes entrance 3909 victoria au

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