The First (Multi-Queen) Swarm of the Year

The swarm clustered on a camphor tree branch.

This morning our top-bar hive swarmed, settling in the nearby camphor tree on a branch about 20 feet off the ground over the neighbors’ yard. We panicked of course, unsure what to do first and acutely aware of the possibility that the bees would pick up and leave before we could collect them.

A beekeeper recently told us he’s had luck getting swarms to stay put by slowly clanging metal on metal.  He speculated that the bees are drawn to the vibrations. I grabbed a kitchen pot and ladle and pounded away, while Kelly brought a ladder to set up against the back of our neighbors’ house (and earplugs for herself).

Then we looked up and realized just how high up in the tree the bees were. We decided to call for backup. We lucked out; our good friend (and president of the Beekeepers Guild of San Mateo County) Rick Baxter arrived less than twenty minutes later with all of his awesome swarm-catching paraphernalia in tow.

As it turned out, though, our bee drama was far from simple. We were able to use Rick’s swarm bucket duct-taped to a long PVC pipe to shake down and capture most of the bees from their branch. Unfortunately, after dumping them into a hive in our garden we noticed two disturbing things: first, a large number of bees still buzzed around the branch in the camphor tree, and second, the bees already in the hive gradually moved out the entrance and took off again, heading toward the same neighbors’ front yard.

Rick vacuums the last of the bees off the branch to transfer to the hive.

Rick brought out the big guns: a vacuum cleaner that sucks the bees down the long PVC pipe into a wood box, where their fall is cushioned by crumpled paper towels. By the time we got the leftover bees in the camphor tree into the hive, it was apparent that the original group was on the move again.

Bees on the go: the bees make their way to a juniper branch.

We stood in the neighbors’ yard and watched as the cloud of bees formed a new cluster on a juniper branch. Another ladder set-up and a good strong shake into the pole-mounted bucket, and we were able to bring these bees back to the hive. Our best guess was that we had missed the queen in our first capture and that the bees had taken off in search of her.

As it turned out, the story was a bit more complicated. As the bees clustered on the outside of the hive, we spotted the queen in the crowd, and Rick nudged her gently toward the opening of the hive. Once the queen is inside, everyone else will follow. But moments later we spotted a second queen, and then a third. In the constantly moving mass of bee bodies it can be hard to know for sure if you’re counting the same queen more than once, but we are confident that we counted at least three individual queens, more likely four to six.

With all the bees back at the new hive, it still took them a while to find their way inside.

This is extremely unusual, but it happened to us last year as well, and we’re concluding that we have some strange bee genetics going on. Ordinarily, a hive will raise multiple queen bees, and the queens fight to the death at birth. The victor becomes the hive’s new queen.

Last June, we found at least eight queens in a single swarm, and though we asked every beekeeper we knew and posted queries on the guild’s beekeeping forum, we found no one who had ever witnessed such a swarm. The hive that swarmed today was originally part of that multi-queen swarm, and it appears the genetics have been passed on.

4 Responses to The First (Multi-Queen) Swarm of the Year

  1. Think this just happened to me yesterday from a 1yr old Warre hive. Bought a lang as back up because I suspected they would swarm–it arrived yesterday too.

    Needless to say, the cluster is at the top of a neighbor’s tree and as I was setting boxes in hope’s they’d move into one I found a ball of bees on the ground w/ a queen. Didn’t examine her enough to determine if she is the old or a new one (can tell by amount of scales or “hairs” on the back of the thorax–rubbed off on old queens and bees). Anyway, I put her in my lang w/ a few workers, she came out once, and then stayed after putting her in a second time. Some bees moved in, only 1000 or 2000, some bees wen’t back into the parent hive I think and there is still a small cluster in the neighbor’s tree. I suspect there is another queen up there as I don’t think they would have stayed otherwise.

    Not sure about the banging metal thing though.

    • Interesting, Jeff. Have you had swarms like this before? I wonder if it’s more common than people realize. Our multi-queen swarms have never separated into different clumps before we hived them (though they had certainly separated into a number of clumps when we peeked into the hives later). Maybe they would have begun sorting themselves out if we had waited longer to hive them. Did you manage to retrieve the bees in the neighbor’s tree?

      I have never taken note of the scales/hairs you describe. I’ll look forward to examining the next queen I come across. As for the banging metal thing, we aren’t sure about it either. A hippie beekeeper from New Mexico told us about it. He said it fell into the category of old wive’s tales, but that it seemed to have worked for him. We’ll have to invest in better ear plugs before we try it again!

  2. I just captured a multi queen swarm today that came out of one of my hives here in VA. There were 2clusters on low branches in a tree a base ball size juat about a foot from a soccer ball size cluster that was touching the ground so bees were alln in the tall grass/weeds. I easily got the clusters in a hive just a few feet away laid out a sheet for the ones in the grass to walk in. Came back after a few hours and there were still a few thousand clustered in the grass. I tried to get them to climb on frames I was adding to the new box but they didn’t want to get out of grass. I finially got a bunch and noticed a queen amongst them. Added them to new hive where the bees were clustered around at least 1 other queen. Went back to trying to get some more out of the grass and found a third(minimun) queen. The last one was dead possibly by me. This relatively small swarm had at least 3 queens? by me

    • Hi, Amber, thanks for sharing! I’m curious, how long have you had the colony that swarmed, and have you seen multi-queen swarms in your apiary in the past? Among our bees, this type of swarming seems to be in the genetics of one of our lines of bees. I’m also interested to hear that the bees had already split themselves into three groups before you captured them. I suspect our multi-queen swarms would do this eventually, but we have always found them in one clump. If you have time and inclination, I’d love to hear how things work out with your newly hived bees. Many times when we’ve hived multi-queen swarms in one box, groups end up splitting off and leaving over the next few days. However, I have heard of multiple queens setting up house in the same hive longterm. Happy beekeeping!

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