May 25, 2023

Vanishing Swarms: Now You See Them, Now You Don't! (127)

Vanishing Swarms: Now You See Them, Now You Don't! (127)

If you've been a beekeeper for any length of time and especially, after your first year in your own bee yard, you've seen a swarm, looked away to pick up something - maybe your camera, turn around and they're gone! Just like that. Swarms are simply...

If you've been a beekeeper for any length of time and especially, after your first year in your own bee yard, you've seen a swarm, looked away to pick up something - maybe your camera, turn around and they're gone! Just like that.

Swarms are simply amzing and awe inspriring. We marvel at their role as pollinators, essential custodians of the delicate balance that sustains our ecosystems, sometime inspite of our own destruction of that same environment. Passing swarms are a testament to the marvels of nature, and the interconnectedness of our own lives with the natural world.

Sometimes we know where they came from, many times not. Often, all too often, they are gone way to quickly... leaving us to ponder the lives of bees and wishing them well on their journey and their new home.

On today's podcast, Jim invites Jeff Ott from Beekeeping Today Podcast, to talk about the Vanishing Swarm.

How was your swarming season. Let us know!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 127 – Vanishing Swarms: Now You See Them, Now You Don't! 


Jim Tew: Listeners, I had one of those beekeeping moments yesterday. At a social event on Sunday afternoon, I went out just to stretch my legs on a nice early spring day and walked right headlong into a swarm in flight. To my knowledge, I was nowhere around a beekeeper. You know what I did? I went crazy. What are you going to do, put them in your hat, put them in your car, put him in a grocery bag? I don't know what I'm going to do. Well, not to worry, because I don't know what happened to them. I'm here with a good friend of mine, Jeff. Jeff, introduce yourself.

Jeff Ott: Hey, Jim. Thanks for inviting me along in this fun topic. I'm Jeff Ott from Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Jim: Tell me, Jeff. Have you ever felt my agony of all of a sudden without any warning, no preparation, no equipment, you're in the middle of a biological moment?

Jeff: Yes, I have to answer your question quickly. This has been the year of swarms.

Jim: Well, I keep waiting for it. I haven't picked up any yet. I got my traps out, but I feel like someone fishing, nothing's taken my bait, but I'm not going to give it up. If you're okay with this, can we talk about some of the attributes and characteristics and frustrations of swarming for a few minutes here?


Jeff: I'd love to talk to you about swarming because it's at top of my mind right now.

Jim: Yes. It actually is in mine too. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Jeff: I'm Jeff Ott from Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Jim: We're coming to you to talk to you today about some of the peculiarities, and frustrations, and exhilaration of honeybee swarming.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, host Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a longtimer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: Jeff, it was a social event. It was a birthday party. I must tell you, I've done this before. I just can't help it. I've been keeping bees for decades and decades. I'm an old man, but a swarm can just roll back the years, can it? It can just make you young again. It can make your heart race. It can make you completely and totally rearrange your priorities. I was at a birthday party and the woman whose party it was for the celebration was about to read her celebratory cards. The sky was blue and it was a nice day, and there was a bottle to pop in the car that I was going to go get. When I stepped out, I was literally in the middle of a swarm.

Now, I want you to talk, but let me say this. It's not a beekeeping area. There's no beekeepers there. There's no reason to expect a swarm to be there. It was one of those high-intensity gated community places with houses right on top of each other, condominiums, and apartments. There is no trees, no soybean fields around it, where I was completely shocked. Doing what all beekeepers do, I stuck my head back in the door of the apartment where we were at, the condominium and said, "There's a swarm out here." There were two other beekeepers there. This was a small party, about 10 people, and 4 people jumped up as the lady was beginning to read her cards like somebody had screamed, “Fire,” and rushed outside.

Jeff, in the 20 to 30 seconds it took me to go back in the apartment and just say one word, “Swarm,” those bees were gone. They were 98% gone. I've experienced this before. A swarm has the attribute of seemingly just vanishing. Once it gets in the air, once it gets this engine up to temperature , once it's got its communal mind made, poof, it's gone. Tell me you've experienced that.

Jeff: I've experienced that, yes. If you’ve come out in the middle-- well, it doesn't matter where you are. If you’re at the very beginning of the swarm or you're stuck in the middle somewhere, once they got their direction set, they are gone, and it doesn't take long, like you said.

Jim: The sad thing is, as a bee guy, as a bee person, you can read the tealeaves. If you're just showing up and that swarm is in the air, you've got one of two ways to go. It's either landing or it's leaving. If it's leaving it, you missed it. It's gone. You may think, "Well, I'll try to follow it. I'm going to go where it's going." Well, you probably got to fly 25 or 30 feet in the air and you probably got to be traveling at least 25 or 30 miles per hour. It's the strangest sensation. Here's all this activity. There are tens of thousands of gentle bees in flight. They are literally everywhere and I promise you, inside of 20 seconds, they are 100% gone.

Jeff: It is exhilarating to step out in the middle of that or be in the middle of that, and as exhilarating as it is, it's as frustrating if you're on the ground with your head cocked up, half trotting, trying to catch them or see where they land because they always go out of view faster than you can catch them.

Jim: Yesterday, I thought, "Oh, maybe it's going to land. Maybe it’s going to,” my granddad would've said pitch. “Maybe it's going to pitch on a nearby limb.” I wandered around that community there for a short distance looking up in trees, trying to see if that swarm was landing, and then I realized the owners of these apartments may not really want you walking around their yard, looking in windows, looking up in trees. Someone's going to call the police to you. I promptly scampered back to my condominium dwelling in this high-intensity area and the story has an unhappy ending. I don't know what happened to it after we left the party and we apologized for my rudeness, I did ride around doing the things. Someone was watching me do that. I was a strange character. I can promise you that.

Jeff: Well, your friend would only have to say that, “Well, Jim's a beekeeper,” and everybody would say, "Oh, man, that’s it.”

Jim: “Oh.”

Jeff: "That's it.”

Jim: “There you go.”

Jeff: “Okay, okay, thank you.”

Jim: “Yes, okay. That explains everything.”

Jeff: And everyone's comfortable then. It's expected behavior this time of year. It's been a busy swarming season this year, I think. Well, I am speaking for myself. It's been a busy swarm season.

Jim: How many of you picked up?

Jeff: Well, three and they're all mine.

Jim: I was going to ask. I was going to, "Wait, are you going volunteering it or do I have to ask?"

Jeff: No. I'll admit to it. I went into the season with -- oh, I had plans, man. I was going to be on top of it. I was going to be Jeff the Beekeeper and the bees had different plans. As a friend of mine says or he has in his signature in his email, he says, "Bees don't read the same books we do."

Jim: They do not.

Jeff: No. I like that. My bees have taken off and I just was not set for them. I have to admit, I was looking left and they went right and it's been a foot chase ever since.

Jim: Well, in a way, you can't deny this, it’s a form of management, of beekeeper management. You made splits, you've requeened some of your colonies.

Jeff: It is true. I've induced a brood break for the IPM varroa management.

Jim: Some would say that you're on top of things. You've got more bee colonies than you had, you've got new queens, and you've disrupted varroa development populations.

Jeff: I need to reposition my marketing statement. I am on top of my game. I am letting the bees do what they want to do. Not to torment my treatment-free friends, but I'm in the middle of the treatment-free beekeeping management scheme.

Jim: Yes, I think you're leading the pack. You're letting the bees be bees and you're enjoying life doing other things, but we're rambling here. We're rambling. 100 years ago in a land far, far away, long, long ago, I was in Venezuela working with Africanized bees on wide-open natural plains. They grew sugar cane there. There was nothing out there. I was sitting there, we were monitoring Africanized bee swarm movement across these plains. There was suddenly a sound of an airplane and I could not see any aircraft anywhere. Suddenly it just seemed like it flew right over me. It was invisible. I thought it must be really high. It must be a big plane, really high, but it sounds like it's just right up there.

When the researchers got there, I said, “Something really weird happened. I don't know what that sound was.” They said, “That was a high-speed swarm going over. That was an Africanized bee swarm in full power flying as a mass just above you out of sight.” This is not the first time I've seen these vanishing swarm things over and over again where they just take off. Here they're coming out, they're in the air, they're basically getting their act together.

I don't think we can go into the biology of it here, not the least of which is because I'm not qualified, but they're getting their act together, all these bees and you're the beekeeper. That's your moment for hysterics where you run around and try to get a box together and yell at your wife or your kids to bring something quick and try to remember, did that spray of that water hose thing, did that work or not?

Jeff: You’re banging on pots and pans.

Jim: Banging on-- Yes, I hadn't even thought about that thing. Right, do something besides just stand there and watch these bees fly away.

Jeff: Scratching your chin.

Jim: The thing is you really can't do anything.

Jeff: No.

Jim: At that moment, there is no list of three to four things that the beekeeper should do to get that situation under control. That's the bees doing their thing. They're outside of your purview. They're either going to settle on a bivouac site or they've already got a nest location picked up and they're gone. Now there's the other end of that. Jeff.

Jeff: What's that?

Jim: What if you're in your bee yard and you notice a peculiar amount of activity around that stack of equipment over there. You go over and have a look and you say, “Well, there's 25 or 30 bees here. They just seem to be coming, going, buzzing, doing whatever.” You think, “I wonder if those are scouts. It's the swarming time of the year. Are those scout bees or are those robbers?” If it's spring of the year, you really can't tell the difference. If the flow has stopped for a while, then they will pick up robbing immediately. You can have mixed behavior. You can have scout bees mixed in with robber bees, and you can have both activities going on at once.

I did see that one day and no exaggeration, the next day in the same bee yard, here's this mysterious airplane again. That sound, I've heard it before. I backed out from under the apple tree canopy and had a look up, and right above me was this huge concentrated swarm in flight and in pinpoint precision, it went right to that stack of empty equipment not being confused by the surrounding hives or other stacks of the equipment. With pinpoint accuracy, it knew where it was going.

That's life on the other end of the spectrum. Somewhere was hypothetically a beekeeper who watched a swarm leave while he danced, screamed, shouted at his family, did what he could do, poof, it's gone. Who knows where it went? Well, it went right to Jim’s Tew’s stack of equipment two miles away or whatever. For every swarm that departs, it alights somewhere. You just don't know how the story ends.

Jeff: I happened to say to my friend this spring. He had a hive set there on his stand that he was getting set up for a split. He went out there one day and there was a new swarm in it. It just came up over the hill and into his split box. And it was he was like he won the lottery.

Jim: I just love it. I just love it. That's even better. I don't know why. This would have to be a beekeeper, but that's better than free money.

Jeff: Today's nuc price, that's $189.

Jim: Yes, which is better than $189 though, because you didn't have to go get it, you didn't have to order it, you didn't have to install it, the bees did it themselves. Can you give me a moment to savor this moment? Let's hear from our sponsors.

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Jim: I'm still enjoying the moment, but this whole concept, we’ve talked about swarming before on this podcast. We talked about various aspects of swarming, but swarming is a big thing in beekeeping. It's a very seasonal thing. It's very intense and it's what goes a long way toward giving a beekeeper respectability when you have your own cadre of your own list of swarm stories, ones that you got, ones that you got away, ones that moved in, the one where you went down to the City Square and saved the women and children from these deadly bees. All of those kind of stories become your own. They develop who you are. If we talk about swarming a lot, it's because swarming is on beekeepers' minds a lot.

Jeff: Yes. Well, it's an important part. There's been books written on swarming and how to manage swarming. If you're into honey producing and even pollination, you don't want the swarming, so you spend a lot of energy to prevent swarming. It is a challenge. Airlines are stopped because of swarming. Every spring there's a story out of Atlanta or someplace else, where there's a swarm of bees on a wing tip of an airplane and they can't move that airplane until that swarm is taken care of. Swarming is a big thing for beekeepers. I don’t know, I was teasing myself about getting behind the curve ball or getting behind the ball on the swarms this spring, but I'm half resigned to the fact that no matter what I do, there's always going to be a certain amount of swarming.

Jim: Well, I'm 100% resigned. It's a conundrum. If you do everything the authorities tell you to do, you control varroa, you keep a young queen in place, you suppress diseases, you spring stimulate, all this list of things you do, and you build this beautiful colony, what's going to happen Jeff? It's going to swarm. It's not fair. You did everything right to get the colony build up and all you did was give a distant beekeeper two miles away, a free bunch of bees. Now the thing is philanthropically, you really made his or her day, but it didn't make your day when you watched that swarm vanish the way we've discussed. It's a conundrum. You build up strong colonies. Strong colonies want to swarm in the spring and early summer of the year.

Jeff: The frustrating thing as a beekeeper is that sometimes it doesn't want to just swarm once. Sometimes every five days it issues a swarm.

Jim: Isn't that infuriating?

Jeff: I mean, just how many times can it swarm?

Jim: How many times have I got to go talk to this neighbor about going over to his lawn to get my swarm? This is the fourth time. Cut it out. I stepped on myself there because they tend to go to similar locations. Some beekeepers and some technical sources are eager to say they go to the precise location. I've had beekeepers both old and young, both large and small, tell me when they pull into a yard, they know what limbs to look at because if they're swarms in that yard, they're going be on that limb.

Jeff: Yes. There's been some discussion about that this spring in various groups about-- and some of those branches you can even see just the beginnings of a little trailings of the wax deposits. They think it might be part of a marker or just part of the process, but yes, that's really interesting. It might be a place where if you have permission and you can't place a swarm trap in that area. If the bees always head south out of your bee yard, maybe put your swarm traps just south of your bee yard and give them a place to maybe find, save you a trip at least, a search.

Jim: The oddity to me is, is that those limbs, those locations are seemingly attractive year after year. The limb doesn't change from season to season so long as it's still there. The old interest was, was that a pheromone residue or is that something to do on the horizon with this field of view or what? I don't think anybody knows, but it's attractive.

Jeff: Yes.

Jim: Pull in the yard, have a look at that limb, there's nothing there, go over and do your bee thing. Break those colonies apart, flip them back, look for swarm cells. There's all these things. We have major management programs to monitor and observe the swarming thing, but all of that is busy work. All of that is foundational. From the moment that swarm is in the air, everything you've done, everything you've read, everything you've prepared for is to be implemented at that moment. Your beekeeping mind is racing.

Are they leaving the colony or are they leaving their bivouac site? Big difference. Are they going to go cluster in the neighbor's yard? Are they going to be 30 feet in the air? Are they going to be near the ground? Everything, you're just all over the page. Do you need ladders? Do you need a bow and arrow? Try to get a line over the swarm that’s 20 feet up. All of those things initiate all of the reading that you and I and the listeners have ever done for that moment when that swarm is in transit.

Jeff: I know we're getting close to our time but I wanted to tell you a little bit about something I'm trying this swarming season. I like gadgets. I like to dabble with some of the techie stuff. I've got many of my, if not all of my colonies have at least one sensor, a temperature sensor or something, and we can tell when there's a swarm issuing. There's a little spike in the temperature and you can see that it's happening. If you have a scale on it, you can see the weight drop. It's really interesting says, “Yes, there's highly likely a swarm at that point, because I lost six pounds in that colony or in that hive,” and it’s like, “Oh, crud.”

But you go out and you look around and there's nothing. You can't find it. You can't find the swarm and you feel like a total loser as a beekeeper, at least I do. This year, I've tried something new. I happen to have a drone of the mechanical kind, of the flying kind that has an infrared camera on it. This year, I am trying to see, I'm looking and experimenting to see if I can locate escaped swarms hanging in the branches of trees in the early mornings by using the infrared camera on that drone.

Jim: Yes, that justifies all kinds of things. You're managing your bees. You're justifying buying the infrared camera-mounted drone. This is just win, win, win. Plus, you're drinking your coffee on a nice spring morning.

Jeff: It's the justification that's the hard part. The use of it, though is fun. Since I started doing this, I haven't had a swarm that I could try it with. I've been successful in finding the swarms that I've lost but I know that there's a couple out there and I know that the swarm season's just at the tail end around here or I'm hoping that if anything else issues, then I will let it land somewhere and then go out and try to find it. I want to prove that this works so standby.

Jim: Have you found any swarms, yours or otherwise?

Jeff: I'll tell you what, last week, I had a swarm leave late in the afternoon. I saw where it I went. I said, “Good, I'm going to use this one in the morning and fly the drone and get a picture and prove that you can see it from the drone.” I went out the next morning, 5:00 AM and the swarm had left later the day before. It wasn't there. It was just hit there, regrouped on the branch, that's where I saw it. I turned around, went back in the house satisfied that I was going to prove my experiment right and they took off.

Jim: Another sad story of a vanishing swarm.

Jeff: Yes, I know. Yes, I'm afraid so.

Jim: All right. I've made my points. I've got it off my chest. I had bee fever yesterday in the worst way and it vanished. I just wanted to commiserate with you and the listeners that it happens to all us.

Jeff: This is a good topic for every Beekeeper.

Jim: I enjoyed talking to you and appreciate everybody who listened.

Jeff: Thanks for inviting me by Jim.

Jim: All right. We'll have you back buddy. Bye-bye.

[00:24:18] [END OF AUDIO]