A Swarm Landing on My Hive! But Is It Bees Swarming or Bees Robbing?

What attracts a swarm to a hive?

We have a hive which has attracted a swarm of bees without any effort, two years in a row.  I hear that's unusual.  But apparently before the varroa mite became common, anyone could easily set out an empty hive and have a swarm move in.  It seems quite reasonable they'd prefer it to a roof, house siding, birdhouse, or some of the other strange places bees decide to live.   Well, our hive seems to be attractive to bees.  But this year we actually got to see the swarm arrive. 

Just to prove I didn't attract a swarm due to my wonderful beekeeping skills, I should also admit I thought a swarm was moving into our other hive too.  It turned out to just be bees robbing.  There were a few differences I noted in hindsight, so I’m writing about them for the interest of any other beekeepers or just bee lovers.

The attractive beehive

To a human, it looks quite awful. It’s an old Langstroth hive; I was given it by a beekeeper who got it from another beekeeper. The combs in it are black with use (some beekeepers think that’s great, others think it’s terrible). But the bees must like it because a swarm has moved into it two years in a row.

I guess our yard must be the bee equivalent of a neighborhood with good schools, though I’m no great gardener, and most of the flowers available are dandelions. Maybe it’s our gardening neighbors, who love having bees in the neighborhood.

I do think the bees should be more picky, though, and inquire about the conditions under which the previous tenants quit living there. Having a hive open for swarms two years in a row means the previous bees died two years in a row. (Most beekeepers would agree that’s a horrible record.) I would assure the bees, though, that it wasn’t murder, or intentional neglect; probably just starvation of a weak colony, since in both years the bees survived into the spring.

Langstroth hive

A Langstroth hive, new and much nicer than mine.  I really like the thingie you can hang combs from. But mine attracts free bees....
A Langstroth hive, new and much nicer than mine. I really like the thingie you can hang combs from. But mine attracts free bees.... | Source

The bee swarm moves in

In early May I noticed activity around the hive when there hadn’t been any for weeks.  I didn’t think their activity looked like robbing, but even though a swarm moved in last year, I thought surely that was too unlikely to happen again.   But by evening, I was convinced it really was a swarm. 

At first it was a few bees that looked like they were checking out the property.  A bit later, there were more bees flying around, and for a couple hours, there were always one or two dozen bees flying around outside, while other bees were crawling into the hive, and very few ever coming out.

We never did figure out for sure where the bees were arriving from.  It was sort of like a bus stop when a school or workplace a short distance away lets out – you don’t see a crowd coming at any one time, but if you look at the increased activity and the flow of people coming on foot and leaving on buses, you can tell something’s going on.  If you multiply a couple hours by five or so bees entering the hive every second, you get the impression of a good-sized swarm.  

Observations: queen pheromone and maybe drones

My husband wasn’t there at the very start, but he noticed the first bees he did see going in seemed bigger than later bees.  I can’t think of any explanation for that unless drones arrive before the worker bees; I’d appreciate any comments from anyone who might know. 

I saw one or two bees with tails up, fanning the queen pheromone to others.  But there weren’t bunches of them doing that as I have seen when installing package bees.  One thing that made me think the bees were planning to stay was seeing them clean dead bees out of the hive; dragging them to the front porch and dropping them off the edge.  Bees like a clean (by their standards) home, but bees not planning to live there just take the honey and get out, often leaving bits of beeswax strewn around.

It was very nice to get free bees (a package of bees costs around $80, and swarms can be stronger than package bees), it made me feel happy to have a busy hive again, and I really felt privileged to have seen the bees move in, when others with many more hives have never seen it happen.  Of course, having the hive right in our back yard is a major advantage for seeing what happens.

A variety of top bar hives

Top bar hives come in many shapes.  Mine is not this elaborate, but if I were a bee, I would think it was homey.
Top bar hives come in many shapes. Mine is not this elaborate, but if I were a bee, I would think it was homey. | Source

You get more (robber) bees with honey than vinegar

Our other hive is a top bar hive (which should feel much more homey to bees from what you read about them.)   This week I thought I was seeing a swarm move into it, too, but if so they didn’t stay and they took the honey with them. 

That hive was empty probably because something happened to the queen in the early spring.  It seemed to be doing very well as the weather warmed, but then the hive slowly declined just when it should have been exploding with new bees.  I didn’t open it for a long time, not wanting to stress the bees, just in case the queen was still there, while we were still having cold days.  Finally, last week I opened it and found a lot of honey and pollen still in the brood combs.  I took some out (leaving drips of honey on the hive floor) but as a few bees (maybe just visitors) were wandering around, I left the rest till when I had my bee suit on.  I also opened up entrances that had been closed for the winter.

Warre hive

I don't have a Warre hive, but I'd like one.  They have some advantages of both top bar hives and Langstroth hives.  Wouldn't you like to live in a house this nice?
I don't have a Warre hive, but I'd like one. They have some advantages of both top bar hives and Langstroth hives. Wouldn't you like to live in a house this nice? | Source

A second swarm moves in - or not...

Two days later, there was suddenly a lot of activity around the hive. As before, it seemed to be bees going in and not coming out. Furthermore, they were cleaning out dead bees – I could hear them dropping from the “front porch” onto dry leaves below. I still can’t see any reason why robbing bees would have done that.

I had to leave, and when I came back in the afternoon, things looked different. There were wax cappings, and dead bees, at the front of the hive, and no cleaning efforts going on. Bees were both coming and going. Bees were still dropping from the front porch, but it seemed to be either a couple bees fighting, or one bee that would fall down and then fly away – I had heard that robbing bees stuff themselves with so much honey they do need extra help taking off.

The next morning, I looked in the hive, and there were no bees to speak of, and the capped-off honey I had seen was gone too.

I can't decide whether I think there really was a swarm moving in to begin with, but maybe other local bees started robbing the place and the swarm decided it wasn't worth staying there - and joined in the robbing before they left, or whether it was only ever local bees on a robbing spree.  Of course the former is wishful thinking, because I do wish it, but it does seem at least as likely as a swarm having moved into my other hive two years in a row.

Robbing behavior that looked a lot like swarm-moving-in behavior

At home in the bee hive

Even while the hive was being robbed, another beekeeper called to ask if I wanted a small swarm he’d captured. I called back to say, unfortunately, yes, it seemed I had a nice empty hive just waiting.

He came over and dumped the swarm in.  So now I definitely have bees in both hives.  They buzzed around for a bit, but seemed much quieter than the bees the previous day, and quickly acted like bees at home. They are welcome, and I wish them well in their new house.

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Comments 21 comments

Winsome profile image

Winsome 5 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

Hi A, it sounds like you are ready for a Bee Movie which you can upload to youtube and then your hub. It would be fun to see all the activity you describe. Thank you for an entertaining and informative article. It has hardship, industry, larceny, romance (if you can call pheromones romance) and a happy ending. Well done. =:)


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you for your Winsome words (I suppose you get told that a lot.) Also thank you for reminding me we did take a video of the bees, which does belong here, but as video is not my area of expertise, it might take me a while to figure out how to upload it. I'll get to working on it.


Jane Grey profile image

Jane Grey 5 years ago from Oregon

I was interested in this topic because we had several bee swarms settle down in our front yard this year. We were told that their scout bees were out looking for a hive or a place they could call home, and within two minutes to two days the swarm could move on, depending on when the scouts returned. We called a beekeeper friend of ours, who came and gently "vacuumed" up the bees into a box, which he then took back to his hives. He told us that the original hive probably got overcrowded, so a group took a new queen and headed out. The original hive was probably only 60 yds. away. It was fascinating to watch the air, thick with bees, gradually clear, and to see a cone-shaped collection of bees growing on the branch.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Lucky beekeeper. The wonderful swarm I saw in the wild this year melted away, not in two minutes, but in the time it took me to bring a box and gloves!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Have added the video we took.


carolinemoon profile image

carolinemoon 5 years ago

Sounds very interesting as a hobby and business as well. Love this hub!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you, carolinemoon. I think it is very relaxing just to go out in the back yard and watch bees coming and going. Sort of like watching a fire in the fireplace. Of course, actually opening up the hive to check on the bees is many things, but not relaxing!

As for the business side, I'd say it's something to do for fun, and if it makes you money, consider it a bonus. I know people who have made a business of it, but I also know some very accomplished beekeepers who sell lots of honey, but who point out that when you take into account all their hours and costs, they maybe just about break even!


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

i always wanted to keep bees. alas my family minds...A very interesting article!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Pavlo Badovskyy - yes, well, I often get loudly reminded not to track any more bees into the house, ever since the time another family member stepped on one that must have hitched a ride in on my clothes.

Russian beekeepers are legendary here in the US, by the way. There are all these stories of Russian beekeepers living way over 100 years because of eating honey with all the propolis in it. I think I heard those turned out to be just stories, though.


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

THat is much more likely a fairy tales about 100-years-old-beekeepers-eating-honey-with-propolis. We eat honey, we use propolis as a remedy from certain illneses but 100 years of life is still an unreachable goal for many bee-keepers :-)


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

oops, i am from Ukraine, not from Russia but 100 years of life is still an unreachable goal for many bee-keepers too...


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Oh, well, we can wish. You should take a look at Wib Magli's articles on beekeeping; he has some about propolis. Maybe you can answer my question there that he didn't know the answer to.

As for differences between Ukrainians and Russians; I can't understand Russians speaking Russian, but I can sometimes understand Ukrainians speaking Russian!


Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili Bisson 4 years ago from Canada

What a wonderful Hub. Just found you while poking around HP. Are your bees still with you?


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you Kaili Bisson, for a good question, though somewhat irritating, because the bee swarm that moved into the Langstroth survived last winter in the Langstroth hive, and look to be doing well heading into this winter. The other swarm was probably too small to survive, and finally died last fall. So, this spring our family drove four hours in a car with a top bar hive nucleus of bees (securely caged, but there are always a few strays hanging around the outside, which is not a pleasant thought in a car with three strapped-in small children), to give them a good start in this beautiful handmade top bar hive, and the ungrateful creatures died anyway! Oh well. I'm hoping the Langstroth bees will swarm next door into the top bar hive next spring.....

Meanwhile, I ought to write another article about helping my friend this spring with her very nasty hive that swarmed and stung me as I was standing there assuring her swarms are friendly and don't sting....

I wonder if I have any authority left as a competent beekeeper!


Pamela-anne profile image

Pamela-anne 3 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

Wow what an interesting hub I almost want to go out and buy a hive for my backyard. Good luck with keeping your bees thanks for sharing your bee story!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest Author

Pamela-anne, thank you. The update on my bees is that the Langstroth hive did swarm this year (my husband got to see it; I mostly missed it) but not into this perfectly nice top bar hive right next door! Oh well.

The Langstroth hive seemed to be dwindling in the middle of the summer, probably because the queen was new and most of the old queen's worker bees died off before the new queen's eggs hatched. But it has come back to look much stronger in late summer, and probably will be okay for this winter.

With the top bar hive, I feel like a homeowner trying to sell what seems to me like a wonderful house, in a market where nobody's buying....


mgeorge1050 profile image

mgeorge1050 2 years ago from West Georgia

Nice article on honey bees. Sounds you always have a lot of activity around your hives. I guess there is never a dull moment in beekeeping.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 2 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you mgeorge1050. I thought the Langstroth hive had finally died this winter, but just today I noticed bees coming out! I guess it is just a colony that really likes to sleep in late.


GetitScene profile image

GetitScene 2 years ago from The High Seas

"I was given it by a beekeeper who got it from another beekeeper." - I don't know why this sentence made me laugh, but I literally guffawed when I read it.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 2 years ago from American Southwest Author

GetitScene, you should find a beekeeping club so you can add some beekeepers to your articles of really strange and odd people.


GetitScene profile image

GetitScene 2 years ago from The High Seas

LOL I'll keep my eyes peeled for one!

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