Tanging for bees has been around since mankind first yearned for swarms. Old drawings show beekeepers banging pots with metal spoons while the bees obediently fly into the keeper’s hive.
For some reason, the lore of tanging has staying power. And many beekeepers have stories about the time they tried it and their swarm answered the call.
Bees and loud sounds
But here’s the thing. Other beekeepers say loud noises can repel bees or even cause established colonies to abscond. I’ve heard tales of colonies decamping after encountering barking dogs, pressure washers, fireworks, and screaming children. So why would clanging metal be any different?
When I’ve voiced this discrepancy, I’ve been told, “No! The crash must come from copper!” Some say only cymbals are effective. Others say the timing is key: the swarm must be airborne for tanging to work. To the believers, everyone who fails is simply doing it wrong.
I’ve also read that the sound mimics thunder, making the bees think rain is coming, so they land before their wings get wet. But metal on metal is clangy, thunder is not. More to the point, bees are not stupid.
Tanging just because
On numerous occasions, I’ve seen airborne swarms settle into one of my bait hives. They did this without any siren-calling from me. But I suppose if I had quickly retrieved a copper pot and banged upon it rhythmically, I could have claimed success. No?
Perhaps not, but I think that’s exactly what’s happening. In some cases, people happened to be tanging away just as a swarm decided to settle. It’s the old question of correlation vs causation. More than likely the bees settled in spite of the racket, not because of it.
Likewise, when people claim they recalled a swarm to the hive by tanging, I think of all those times when I’ve seen a swarm leave and return, no tanging involved. In those cases, something is usually wrong. The queen didn’t leave with the swarm or she wasn’t able to keep up for some reason. A swarm needs a queen, mated or not, to survive, so returning swarms happen frequently.
As American as apple pie
Tanging seems to be an oddly American thing. I say that because it surely didn’t start here; it began long before honey bees were brought to the Americas. But tanging worked its way into American folklore and stayed there — fake news before social media.
Several knowledgeable historians have suggested that tanging was never meant to entice bees. Instead, it was meant to inform other humans that a swarm was spoken for. It was a way of staking claim to property, as was often done with land acquisitions in the American West. “I got here first, I marked it, and now it’s mine.”
Others insist tanging was a way to say, “This swarm issued from my hive, so it’s my swarm, even though I caught it on your land.” We will probably never know for certain.
Tang, the word
The word tang, at least in this genteel usage, means a loud ringing sound, twang, or clang. It has plenty of other meanings, some useful, some less so, that are dependent on the company you keep. For beekeepers, though, it simply means the cacophony resulting from hitting a pot with a spoon.
Since I want to give equal time here, be sure to let me know how many swarms you caught with this method, and how long it took to regain your hearing!
Honey Bee Suite