The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Plain Talk Beekeeping

The Mysterious Two-headed Swarm

- August 1, 2023 - James E. Tew - (excerpt)

Where do they come from and where do they go?

The swarm — when you least expect it
I was recently at a birthday party attended by a small group of senior citizens. Now, there’s an exciting event! On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, after eating pieces of finger food and drinking some sugary punch, I made a lame excuse to step outside.

My intent was just to enjoy the day a bit, but unexpectedly, I walked right into a bee swarm in flight. It was immediately outside the front door of the condominium. Experienced beekeepers know the scene while inexperienced beekeepers can look forward to acquiring their own future swarm events. Great numbers of randomly flying gentle honey bees were everywhere. It was a biologically wonderful moment for me.

I was 100% unprepared for anything beekeeping. I was at a party on a Sunday afternoon and I was on a short walk in a densely populated retirement-home community. I had nothing that I could use to deal with a swarm in flight. Even worse, it was a large, nicely formed cloud of bees.

Well-read beekeepers know the fundamentals of honey bee swarming. A crowded colony headed by a 2-year-old queen, during spring months of the year, is likely to cast a primary swarm. As a clear indication of future swarming, queen cells will be hanging from some of the brood-frame bottom bars. Beekeepers are admonished to try to stop swarming before the colony begins to make preparations. This is a typical aspect of springtime bee colony management. Many beekeepers know all of this, but I feel that there are points to be made on both ends of the swarm event that are neglected.


Where does a mystery swarm originate?
As I innocently wandered into that swarm in flight, my first thought was, “Where could this swarm have possibly come from?” I was on the edge of a typical condominium retirement home complex. The complex was bounded by soybean fields and suburban/commercial businesses.1 I personally know the area, so I knew that there were no beekeepers in the immediate vicinity.

The swarm was traveling slowly. Would you not feel that it had just issued? So maybe — just maybe — they were about to set up a bivouac site and cluster somewhere nearby. Readers, you must understand what most beekeepers feel at these moments. Forget all that information about crowded brood nests and mature swarm cells. We are not at that point in the swarming concept just now. This swarm is on the move and there is little that I can do about it. At this point, these bees are beekeeperless. They are the masters of their own fate.


There’s a swarm out here!
With tens of thousands of bees flying all about, I took precious time to scamper back to the front door, stick my head just into the room, and shout, “There’s a swarm out here!” The birthday woman was reading her birthday cards to the group, but I rudely torpedoed that setting. In mid-sentence, two other beekeepers in the group bolted for the door. I assume that the birthday woman went back to card reading, only with a slightly smaller group.

I’d seen this happen before and I knew it would probably happen again. In the thirty seconds that it took me to dash to the door, make the announcement, and then get back to the swarm area, the swarm was 90% gone. Gone where? That’s a bee swarm question for the ages.

The three of us stood there, disappointed, and curious, as the last few bees flickered from view. Poof, the mysterious swarm simply vanished. All those bees and all that commotion — and now nothing. Not a single bee remained three minutes later.


Careful! Someone may call the police.
The swarm was here and now it was not. That’s all I knew for sure. Maybe it was clustering somewhere nearby. Maybe it developed typical swarm flight speed of about 20 miles per hour and was now a thousand yards away down near the Walmart store. Maybe the swarm queen was not in the group so the swarm was returning to the original site — wherever that was. Everything was a question but nothing was an answer. Again, the bees were here, but now they were not. That’s all I knew.

Being a dedicated beekeeper, of course, I began looking either for the hanging swarm or for the swarm’s departure point. As I walked through the dense housing complex, it began to dawn on me that I could very well have a difficult time explaining to homeowners why I was wandering through their yards peering up into tree canopies, staring at landscape shrubs, and looking along the roof edges of their houses. I began to accept the fact that this bee swarm was never going to be mine. Ultimately, I have no idea what happened to this group of pioneering honey bees.


The two heads of swarming
In a descriptive way, every swarm has two heads — a departing event and an alighting event. For every beekeeper who painfully stands by as a swarm escapes from their colony, there is potentially another beekeeper who is excitedly trying to make that swarm theirs. Both heads of the swarming process are dramatic, each having great numbers of bees in the air at different times and at different locations. I had the unfortunate case of being in the swarm transition phase, having departed but not having alighted. I savored the moment, but I had to move on with my bee life. This swarm was not to be mine. There was nothing else that I could do.


A note
In all my years of keeping bees and hiving swarms, I have never captured a swarm that was led by a marked queen. Yet, I frequently hear from beekeepers who have acquired such a marked queen. I will continue to check out any future swarm queens that may come my way.


Meanwhile, back in my home apiary
As is common for me, I experienced some winter kills last winter. I always clean deadout equipment, but I leave it in my bee yard. If I store it inside, the mice and wax moths go crazy for it.

I sense that swarm traps work more than they do not, but I have stopped climbing ladders trying to get traps in trees or on poles. Criticize me if you must, but as the years have passed, I have found that an empty deadout hive sitting on a hive stand can occasionally be attractive to scout bees. Am I being efficient or am I being sloppy? I like to think that I am double-dipping by using …