honey bee behavior swarming

Usurpation: when one colony takes over another

In the December 2010 issue of American Bee Journal, Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum describes the phenomenon of honey bee usurpation, which is the taking over of a healthy colony by a summer swarm. Mangum not only describes this unusual behavior in great detail, but provides photographs as well.

Until recently, usurpation sightings have been limited to Africanized bees taking over colonies of European honey bees in the southwestern United States. However, Mangum’s usurped hives are located in Virginia and the resulting colonies did not show any of the aggressive behaviors typical of Africanized colonies. Instead they were “normal” colonies with average European honey bee traits. According to Mangum, other occurrences of usurped hives have been recorded in nearby areas of Virginia and North Carolina.

How usurpation works

According to the article, usurpation works like this:[list icon=”check”]

  • A summer swarm invades an established colony.
  • Fighting between bees is evident.
  • The queen of the established colony is killed by the invading swarm.
  • The usurping queen eventually becomes accepted and begins laying eggs.
  • The summer swarm, which under normal circumstances could not survive the winter, overwinters on the stores collected by the usurped colony.
  • [/list]

It may be more common than we think

In the first usurpation that Mangum documents, the entire process—from the arrival of the swarm until the invasion was complete—took 18 minutes. If this is typical, the process may be more common than we realize. From the outside, at least, the invaded hive looked no different in the evening than it did the previous morning. On the inside, things were unsettled until the old queen was dead and the new one was accepted—a process which took three days.

Mangum cautions that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between a normal supersedure and a colony usurpation just by looking at the queen, so one should not jump to conclusions. However, the possibility of usurpation casts a different light on the survivability of summer swarms.

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  • I just came across this post. Two more articles on Colony Usurpation are being published in the America Bee Journal, starting in Jan 2013. I have had reports of usurpation in others states like NC and MI for example. This bee work was done using my top-bar hives. General information on these hives can be found on pages linked to tbhsbywam.com.

    Dr. Mangum/WAM

    • Hello, I am new to beekeeping this year. I have 3 hives. Two of the hives were swarms that I collected later in the summer so they are pretty small and not well established as of yet.
      This morning I noticed another swarm underneath the hive box several bees dead around the huve and on the ground. And multiple bees fighting with each other. How do I know if a swarm is trying to take over my hive verses if they are robber bees?

  • Just watched usurpation take place. I had two nucs housing spare queens. It’s getting to the end of nectar flow so I combined them. The double screen had been removed but the occupied frames had not been condensed.

    Just out checking on them and watched a moving swarm go right to the hive and move in. In less then 10 minutes the hive looked normal. When I looked inside the hive is now 4x the size of the original two nucs. Full enough to warrant a super to alleviate crowding.

    NW Oregon, 6:30pm, 7-29-14

    • Scott,

      Is that ever cool! I’m sure most of us will never see a usurpation no matter how many years we keep bees. To actually see it happen is really a stroke of luck.

  • https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=724593907612703

    In this situation, it would appear that the invading queen was killed during the attempted take-over. A few days after the invasion, two different kinds of bees were living peacefully side by side in this hive, but several months later, I see only the light-colored bees.

    The invading bees strengthened a fairly weak late-swarm colony The additional bees helped bring in more food to store for the upcoming winter than the original colony would have been able to do, and thus gave the colony a better survival chance. Even without a new queen, this colony will be stronger after winter than it would otherwise have been.

  • I have a usurption occurring as I write this, and it’s only March! This swarm arrived yesterday morning and showed NO interest in two nearby bait hives. It spent the night and then first thing this morning, at about 8:00 am, it dissipated slowly and went to TWO nearby hives. It was not pretty. Eventually, most of the bees went to one hive. But while checking on everything for the zillionth time today, I noticed a small clump of bees on the ground directly underneath the limb where they spent the night. I’m trying to get them onto some brood comb and into one of the bait hives. Stay tuned . . .

    Ok, off to read Dr. Magnum’s articles!

  • I had an odd usurpation happen this week not involving a swarm. I am a new beekeeper, and had only one queen marked with a green dot indicating she was born in 2014. Her hive was doing ok, not great, until last week. Last week I checked and she had only a few brood, and the hive was agitated – buzzing all around the hive. My plan was to give her a few days, but likely squish her, and merge her little colony with a queen right hive. However, when I opened her hive 4 days later, she was gone and only a few bees were in the hive. I opened the hive next to her, which has been my strongest hive all summer, and there she was – my only green dot queen. No sign of the unmarked queen that has been a fantastic layer all summer, so I assume the usurpers killed her. That usurped hive was furious, with 20 bees going for each of my gloves and stinging through a double layer cuff. So it seems as if my weak hive took over the strong hive, not from a swarm. Weird. This is in Indiana, early August.

  • This usurpation happened to my hive THREE times last year … yes, it only takes about 20 minutes and the one swarm came in at 5:30 a.m., covered the whole hive, and fighting was intense. After three days the hive did calm down. I purchased the ABJ articles with Dr. Magnum’s study in them and that is what helped me the most. No one believed me when I told them the hive was being taken over by a swarm. Dr. Magnum’s articles proved for me to experience bee keepers that this DID IN FACT HAPPEN in a hive. My thoughts are that no one knows it happens because it happens so fast and poof it’s over. But I did notice that usually two or three days before the usurpation the bees are agitated, thus, maybe scout bees are entering the hive causing distress way before the usurpation hive even takes over. Just my observation. Thank you Dr. Magnum for such good articles and your studies !

  • I just had this happen to me, and I’m a first year bee keeper. I had a beautiful marked Italian queen and bees. I checked the hive one day and everything was fine. There were no queen cells. That evening, I went out there and there were hundreds of dead bees around the hive. I checked it again the next morning to see what was going on and most of my hive was carniolan, my queen was gone and a HUGE carniolan queen was in the hive. It was very weird.

    • Robert,

      That is really weird. I only hear about usurpation occasionally, not that often in European honey bees. I sure would like to know what triggers it.

  • I live in Orwell, OH. and a couple of weeks ago I noticed that the wild honey bees that occupy every summer the overhang of a shed in my yard, seemed to be fighting with other honey bees. The bees were agitated and a lot of buzzing going on. They ignored me looking up at them, but it was disconcerting to see these sweet little creatures fighting. I couldn’t tell who was the bad guys and which were the good in all the commotion and I wondered what to do about this. How do you stop a bee fight???Now there are no bees to bee seen, they’re all gone, I’ve never noticed this behavior before and I’m wondering if they’ll come back to the shed next summer…….

    • Karen,

      This sounds like a classic case of honey robbing. Your shed colony was probably weaker than normal for some reason. It may have been stressed by a disease or parasite, it may have lost the queen, or may have experienced any number of calamities that lowered its population. Honey bees from elsewhere stumbled across the hive, and finding it not well defended, began stealing the honey stores. This is what caused the fighting. The defending colony tried to keep the intruders out, but the intruders want what the weaker colony has. They will fight in the air, in the hive, or on the ground. Many bees die. Once the small colony is vanquished, the robbers go in and steal every last drop of honey. Any bees remaining in the robbed hive probably drifted off to other hives because they can’t survive the winter with no stores, and anything they manage to build up will be taken. It’s very sad.

      Another colony could take up residence in the same place because used comb is very attractive to swarming colonies. However, that particular colony is gone.

      • Thank you for the information! I’m disappointed that it happened but I guess I shouldn’t be too upset as it is nature doing its thing. I’m concerned about our bee population and the loss of these wonderful pollinators.

  • I’m pretty sure this happened to my hive today. A wild tree hive invaded one of my hives across the yard. Terrible sight to see

    • Heather,

      So interesting. I saw a usurpation this summer, my first ever. A wild swarm moved in with one of my hives. They just took over in a matter of minutes.

  • I watch this happened the other afternoon. I looked out and saw what I thought was my bees swarming so I went to see where they where going. As I watched I realized that the bees were coming to the hive and gathering on the side near the entrance and there were bees fighting. I then thought robbing so I closed the entrance to a smaller hole. I watched and it did not look like robbing as I had seen before, bees flying in front of the hive going in and out. I went inside and looked to the internet on bee attacking another hive and came across this forum. The next morning all is calm with a lot of dead bees.

  • This just happen to one of my hives today. A giant swarm attacked a box that was occupied by a spring nuc pack of Italian honey bees. My daughter videoed a short portion of the swarm as it was on the box and in the air. The Italian hive was the strongest of the 4 new hives that I have. This is in mid western Pa. I am pleased to see this bee behavior and I am very intrested to see what type of bee that is doing the invasion.

  • Just happened to me yesterday! July 27th 2018. I have pictures and video. I’m a first year beekeeper that has been learning the hard way for sure. I have had a hive abscond and now one usurp. It was an amazing sight! Thousands of bees leaving a nearby pine tree and going right for my hive. Walking through the cloud of bees to the hive was surreal.

  • Hello all,

    I am a new beekeeper and had the strangest thing happen. On Wednesday, I got to watch a usurpation happen. I got home and there was a massive cloud of bees over my house. I ran back to my bee yard thinking maybe one of my hives had gotten knocked over by something and the bees were leaving. But when I got there, I watched the cloud of bees descend onto the leg of one my healthy hives. I then watched as the fighting commenced and they began entering the hive en masse. I didn’t know what was happening at first and came in to do some research. I read this article and Dr. Magnum’s articles and figured out I was watching a usurpation. I then went back outside. At this point all the bees were in the hive. I opened the hive and found two big bee balls, presumably the bees balled my mother queen and the invading queen (to protect her per Magnum’s article). I checked the next day, Thursday, and there was plenty of activity at the front of the hive. And I found a dead queen on the ground outside the hive. When I checked today, Saturday, the hive is completely, empty, no bees, no honey, no brood, no pollen, just empty comb. Does anyone know what happened?


    • Brittany,

      That is so interesting and unusual. All I can think of is they absconded after the usurpation, but why? It doesn’t seem to make any sense.

  • A swarm tried to usurp my first hive while I was at work – I have a bee cam so I can watch my hives at work. The swarm failed the takeover attempt on my first hive, so it landed on the tree in my backyard. When I got home, I captured that swarm and placed it in the bait box. Since I didn’t have a queen clip, I did not confine the queen. Four days later, the swarm moved out of the bait box and attempted to usurp my second hive. Fortunately, I got a queen clip and confined the queen in the bait box. In both failed attempts, I have the robbing screens on my hives – thanks to your other post.

    I am planning to feed the swarm today because the bees still haven’t drawn combs since capture. Reading your post about Africanized bees taking over colonies, my fear is realized. The bees from the swarm are not aggressive when I handle them, but I care about my neighbors not getting stung. I live near Dallas, Texas, and there may be Africanized bees in the area. I will probably requeen the hive or combine it with my existing hive. I hate to kill a queen, not knowing it is an Africanized queen. I have caught two swarms in the area before, and both swarms are still very calm. I appreciate your input on this situation.

    • NP,

      If Africanized bees live in your area, then requeening is probably the best idea, just to be safe. If what I’ve read is correct, Africanized bees are more likely to attempt usurpation, so it makes sense to be careful.

  • Just had it happen here in central Texas. It looks like my bees prevailed but not positive, at least there was a thousand dead bees on the ground in front of the hive.

  • I made a post on April 27 after capturing two swarms in my backyard. On May 15, I noticed a small cluster the size of a tennis ball with a queen in front of my split colony, along with dead bees. I immediately opened the hive and found my dead queen along with more dead bees. Apparently, it is true that Africanized bees swarm more frequently than European honey bees. It seems that Africanized bees do not want to build their own nest, but they are readily trying to take over someone’s home.

  • I may have prevented a usurpation. I found a swarm on the sun side of a hive. It had been cool wet and cloudy for days. Within an hour of the sun coming out it reached 60 they appeared. Bc that hive just had a queen born a day or two ago i thought maybe they were the hive waiting for her return from a mating fleet but they stayed there for 3 hrs and i dont think my queen is old enough to mate yet. I tried to coerce them into a box and eventually swept them all into a box. Theyre staying put for the moment. There was some fighting on the front porch but there werent many trying to get in….yet. Im in Raleigh NC. Usurpation?

    • David,

      It’s possible, or maybe the swarm just selected that area to rest while the scouts looked for a permanent home. It’s really hard to tell but fascinating nonetheless.