Two swarms in the same hive: an update

Last summer, I wrote about the arrival of two swarms into the same hive. A wild swarm had settled in the empty top-bar-hive in my garden, and a week later a second swarm moved in. The arrival of this second swarm was not resisted in any way, and the combined colony has remained strong and healthy. I was not able to reach a definitive explanation, but have since found similar accounts, which are discussed here.

A swarm moves into a woven skep


The double-swarm-arrival seems a rarely-observed phenomenon. Reading around the subject, I have found only three accounts of similar events. One was a response to the original blog post, in which Gareth John describes a second swarm arriving into the skep into which the first was being captured. He wrote :

Also in June, I had a hive that swarmed into a nearby bush. As this swarm was entering the skep I placed above it, a second hive swarmed and, after drifting around a bit […] the second swarm joined the first. On hiving the now combined swarm there was very little fighting amongst the bees (less, in fact, than one sometimes see with cast swarms that contain more than one queen). And there, on the ramp, after all had entered, was a dead queen. 


There are two published accounts of double swarms, both of which are closer to Gareth’s experience than my own. One is in Charles Buzzard’s excellent 1946 book “Shining Hours”, and the other is an account in William White’s splendidly named “A Complete Guide to the Mystery and Management of Bees“, first published in around 1771.

The fact that both writers chose to describe the double-swarm suggests that it was unusual enough to be worthy of note. Buzzard shares his own experience, and White writes a second-hand report. Both Buzzard and White were experienced and well-connected beekeepers, and can each offer only one example. Extensive searches for similar reports have proved fruitless so far.

However, the event may be more common than the scant historic records suggest – observing the second arrival relies on the beekeeper’s good fortune. Unless the beekeeper happens to be standing near the hive, or is accurately monitoring the colony size, the second swarm could very easily enter unobserved. And while a beekeeper will seek to understand a sudden drop in the hive’s population, there is little compulsion to question a mysterious increase.

illustration of a queen bee by J Yunge-Bateman, from “Shining Hours”, by C. N. Buzzard

The first of the published accounts is from Charles Norman Buzzard, a beekeeper in the French Riviera in the 1930s and early 1940s. It comes from a book in which he describes his beekeeping activities, interspersed with his observations on the worlds of humans and insects :

On another occasion we took a swarm in the afternoon some hours after I placed an empty hive near it when temporarily resting […]. By this time, although I had seen scouts exploring the hive, the bees had not entered it of their own accord, but waited in their cluster until we hived them. Nearly every bee had entered when […] I saw a second swarm approaching over some trees […]. Much to our astonishment they came pouring down on to the alighting board of the hive into which we had introduced our own swarm, and were accepted by our bees without protest. Of course, the two queens must have fought the duel to the death, customary on such occasions […].

This account is interesting in many ways. The arrival of the second swarm was much faster than in my own experience, and the rapidity of their arrival suggests that they may have made the decision to adopt the hive, only to find it already inhabited. Despite the complex democracy by which the bees make their decision, they appear to lack any mechanism for saying “hold on, I think we’ve made a mistake”.

“the second swarm was accepted without protest”

Most notable is that the second swarm was accepted “without protest”. This chimes with my own observation: the second swarm “poured in” in the same way that they would if the hive was empty – and the original colony did not attempt any form of defence.

Buzzard’s experience is very similar to that described by William White, which he begins by relating the experiences of another beekeeper :

A swarm came by accident near to his house, and he hived it; and presently after a second came also, and entered into the same hive; so there were two swarms in one hive : on which account I was sent for […]. If I had been there at the time the first swarm settled, the second might have been prevented entering into them, […] but as they were now joined together, some method was immediately to be used, in order to divide them, otherwise, I was well assured, one of the Governors [queens] must die in a little time, if not speedily prevented.

In all three accounts there is an understanding that one or other queen must die. This is common among early bee-writers, although there are now many accounts of two queens coexisting in a single hive. If the two swarming queens happened to be closely related there is no absolute reason that they could not cohabit, and mother the colony collaboratively.

Buzzard assumes that the battle between the two queens will be a one-on-one “duel to the death”. However, White attempts to divide his combined swarms, which gives us a useful peek inside the hive and challenges Buzzard’s assumption. On examining the hive, White finds a queen being “balled” by workers :

“they had seized fast on to one of the queen bees, and would soon have killed her if I had not immediately rescued her; it was very surprising to see how resolute they were, and determined to murder her, for there was a whole parcel of bees, all of a heap, about the bigness of an apple of middling size, which stuck so close together that I rolled them about like a hedgehog and they would not part.”

“it was a whole parcel of bees, about the bigness of an apple of middling size”

It is not a monarch-to-monarch duel, nor a war between worker-armies, but a group of workers clustering around a queen and attempting to kill her with their body heat. This would fit with Gareth’s observation of the dead queen at the front of his skep. The workers of the combined colony decided that they could have only one queen, and so the second is killed.

On seeing the ball of bees, White interrupted the attempted regicide, “and forced them to release the poor creature who was confined in the middle of them, but they were very unwilling to part from her and determined that she should die”. 

Having rescued the queen, he divided the conjoined colony. The queenless half were temporarily housed in an empty hive “till they began to be very uneasy”. Next, the rescued queen was placed in a hive with a few of the uneasy bees, and they “received her kindly”. White then places the remainder of the queenless colony on a cloth in front of the hive, and they rush in to join their new queen “like sheep into a fold”.
“And by this means,” White finishes, “their minds were turned from willful murder to mutual love and friendship”.

a small swarm on a tree, East Oxford, 2016

In a subsequent chapter, White gives a further example of colonies combining peacefully, without the intervention of a beekeeper. While they are still clustering (before they have chosen a home), three swarms conjoin on a crab-apple tree, and again, White is summoned. Again, he attempts to divide the swarms, splitting them into three parts and assigning one queen to each. The bees, however, have different ideas :

“on the eleventh day after, they all swarmed together again: two of them went together, and one single, but the swarms were heavy enough to stand, which was almost unprecedented, and extremely worthy of remark.” 

🐝 🐝 🐝

Jack Pritchard, Oxford/Sturminster Newton, March 2017
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