Will tanging bring your bees to ground?

An airborne swarm of bees. Pixabay.

The ancient practice of tanging has plenty of modern followers. But does it work?

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!

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  • I have never tried tanging and all my swarms disappear into the 60-foot tall trees, so that must be evidence in favor of tanging, right?

    (Wrong, me hearties, that’s just an example of a logical fallacy.)

  • Tanging is a fallacy. The swarm lands whether it’s tanged or not. The fallacy is stated in this Latin phrase: “hoc ergo propter hoc” Translated: After this because of that.

  • I’ve tanged three swarms from my own hives. The tanging produces a very different response than a swarm that decides to return home on it’s own. The mass of bees sort of falls apart in clumps, sometimes landing on the ground. They seem to become disoriented, too. If I couldn’t hear the god-awful noise, and could only see what was happening, I’d think the temperature had dropped to below freezing and some of the bees were succumbing to the cold while others were hightailing it back to the hive.

    It’s hard to describe, but it’s a distinct behaviour. It’s also impossible to film while you’re doing it 🙂

  • Tanging worked 2 out of 3 times for me. I wondered if it didn’t work the third time because they were already out of the hive and some settled in a tree. The two times it worked is was when the swarm was just starting. Who knows? But I will keep trying ?

    • I watched my Moma do it when I was a small child. I now also grab anything metal and sometimes I tell whoever is nearby, if they settle on me, no worries! Never have settled on me yet but within inches of where I stood. If I catch them in the air I most of the time can get them to settle close by.

  • Interesting. You know when our now adult kids were infants, I had an aunt who told my wife, that our kid’s teething pain could be alleviated by rubbing the warm rabbit brains from a freshly killed rabbit on their gums. We never tested her claim. Since I don’t have any copper pots, let alone one in our apiaries, it would seem that for me “tanging” will have to go into the same file as warm rabbit brains…

    Thanks for all your super posts, Rusty

  • I had disturbed a swarm in a pile of brush recently and they began flying around. I remembered reading about tanging so I quickly put a nuc on ground and started clanging two hive tools together and they all went into the nuc. Was it a coincidence or not, it worked.

  • I was at a state beekeepers meeting a few years back. An older man told me (I was about 65 at the time) that to get bees out of a tree after they land you could take a small mirror and reflect the sun onto the swarm and then onto your hive sitting on a white sheet on the ground then on the swarm. Just keep doing this and they were supposed to go to the hive. I finally got a swarm on a high small tree branch so I decided to try it. As luck would have it, it was a heavily overcast day but there was a little break in the clouds and I grabbed the mirror. A part of the swarm broke off the main cluster and began to fall. The little hole in the clouds closed and I was out of luck for the rest of the afternoon. Has anyone heard of this?

    • Clifford,

      I, for one, have not. I wonder if it’s enough light to make them warm.

  • I believe that bees do not have ears so cannot hear the way we do. So, the tanging must send vibrations into the air which they pick up on. I would think it would make them leave in a hurry.

    Brains are really hard to get out of skulls, even rabbits. I imagine the rabbit was cooked for dinner, after the brain was out. My grandfather said to put a little homebrew on the offending tooth. Seems a lot easier.

  • I’ve done it a few times and had it “work.” I’m inclined to try again if I ever witness bees leaving my hives. First, it might work! Second, it provides a cool excuse to watch your bees swarm, which is super interesting always. Third, it’s a fun entree into conversations with neighbors about swarming, which I think is always a good thing. I think the pots I’ve used are stainless 😛

  • Rusty, seriously, you need to turn your blog into a book. Your information is brilliant and your writing is elegant. You’re a modern day Sue Hubbell.

    • Thank you, Lisa. What an uplifting thing to say, and how nice to be compared to a great writer.

  • Yes it worked, at least for me. Last summer the swarm was 40′ in the air getting organized, I ran to the barn and grabbed a piece of galvanized tin and a short piece of 2×2. I vacuumed up the swarm found the queen and moved her into my observation hive as punishment. She just got released back into a 10 frame at the apiary on good behavior.

  • As co-editor of BeeCraft (British magazine), I put out a call for reports on tanging and received a few responses. One was from a regular tanger who says she has c50% success rate and thinks that tanging the swarm in organising mode is essential to success. We have also attracted the interest of an academic who plans to have a research student look into it. But it’s a short research season with tiny windows of opportunity.

    We’ll arrange to put the article in front of the BeeCraft paywall shortly. (It was BeeCraft, May 2021, pp26-27).

    • Stephen,

      Thanks for the heads-up. I didn’t see the article previously, but I will look it up. I’m surprised at the number of people who say tanging works because I’m not a believer. Still, I would like to know more details. Maybe the nuances of timing and technique make a difference.

  • Tanging does not cause a swarm to settle. From the days of the Roman Poet and beekeeper, Virgil, the myth persists. The phrase that describes this fallacy of linking two separate events together is “Post hoc. ergo propter hoc.” Translation, ” After this, because of that” After this (the swarm settles) because of that (the banging of a metal spoon against a metal pan).

  • I ended up here out of curiosity of this phenomenon, after hearing about it. First, I looked to studies on the frequency of swarming bees. Just out of curiosity.

    Can’t say whether it works or not. I would like to see what studies might find.

    However, that being said, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
    “Everything is a vibration.”
    “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”
    -Nikola Tesla.

    Everything is all 3 of these things. Vibration is the amplitude or oscillations of a form of energy, frequency is the amount of vibrations or oscillations of energy in a certain measure or meter. And energy is we the power or potential tial of all things. Not just living things.

    The walls of Jericho crumbled after the Hebrews marched around the city a set number of times in a day, each day, for a set number of days, then blasted their trumpets and horns at a certain time and place. This sounds like preposterous fairy tale to someone who believes they’re well educated, without realizing the depths of their ignorance. Modern understanding of science tell us that it’s entirely possible.

    The difference between marching and walking is being in step. If they’re encircling the city a set number of times in a day, they’re moving at a specific speed, and with a synchronized step, the foot steps would be in a specific meter or cadence at that speed. Resonant frequency matching is a legitimate thing. Not to mention the vibration and micro tremors alone could cause microfractures or loosening to imperfections in the stones or mortar. Do that for a set number of days that exceeds the structural integrity of the stone work of the walls… then combine that with a sudden amplification and frequency mismatch… well.. consider that wine glass shattered by the opera singers voice to be a small version of the wall of Jericho.

    I worked in poly-create casting for a couple years. And there was a mold they rarely used (thank heavens) that I was honestly a bit afraid when they did. The vibratory on it wasn’t particulates loud, just loud enough to hear throughout the entire plant. Not a big thing for the large box vibratory. But this particular one you could feel in your internal organs more than you could in you ears or on your skin. It was quite anxiety inducing. Because the fact I could feel my internal organs… that. Can’t be good with tissues in a body that’s 70% water.

    The bees seem pretty well obsessed and very sensitive to the very slightest of things. Such as barometric pressure, moisture, humidity, EMF, scent, energy, vibration, solar radiation, energy…

    When you consider all these things; is it PROBABLE that tanging can have the effect that’s correlated. No, probably not. Is it POSSIBLE? Absolutely. The sound waves (energy, pressure, vibration, frequency, could interfere with them. Kinda like when you’re trying to focus on something and think, communicate, etc.. but someone has Iron Maiden or something playing loudly in the background. Or like when you turn down the radio to read the street signs.

    Just my thoughts. I would love to see actual studies on this.

  • I’ve always called it tintinnabulation. and yes I’m the nutter running up the road ringing a stainless steel cooking pot with a metal spoon chasing a swarm on the wing. if I got to the heaviest part of the swarm on the wing they would always come down and settle into a pile either on a low branch or the ground giving me time to get a box to collect them in.

    • Hi Derek,

      I looked up tintinnabulation and found, “the sound of bells ringing, or a jingling or tinkling sound that sounds like bells.” To me, I think of tanging as a heavier, more robust sound, but obviously it will depend on what kind of metal you use.

      I’m sure it’s fun to chase around a swarm and beat on a pan, but a swarm will soon settle regardless of that. Still, it sounds like a kick. Have at it!