Archived Opinion

‘Tang-ing’ to the flight of the honey bee

There is much myth and lore connected with beekeeping, such as telling the bees when the master has died so they won’t abscond after his or her death, and a method of swarm control called “tanging.”

Research studies have debunked the virtues of tanging, or beating a stick against something metal to drum down the bees. There is no scientific evidence, zippo, to support people who believe the folk tale that you can bring home a swarm.

I’m a modern girl and all, but I flat-out believe in tanging — and I nearly brought a swarm of bees down on myself this past Saturday doing it. I learned tanging from local guys. They learned to tang from their parents and grandparents, who in turn were taught tanging by their parents and grandparents, and so on — this is an unbelievably old practice, a method of bee husbandry that dates to antiquity.

My reading has muddled up my memory, and I frankly am unsure if anyone locally uses the word tanging — more likely, they just told me to beat on a washpan with a stick when there was a bee swarm. Lacking something metal at hand, I’ve seen these guys drum on empty wooden hives (called “gums” by oldtimers), and on empty five-gallon buckets. Bees, apparently, aren’t particular in this one respect.

So on Saturday, at about 10 a.m. just when it was starting to get really hot, I was working in the garden when I heard the familiar roar, looked up, and saw the bees taking off from the hive. It surprised me, frankly, because this is sourwood season and they ought to have plenty of work to keep them happy and focused. But bees, as I’ve mentioned before, do whatever they please, others’ wishes and needs and limited time to deal with swarms be damned.

This particular swarm was determinedly headed west, over the house and away from me, seemingly intent on settling high out of reach in a cherry tree. I’ve lost at least four swarms this year, and I wanted at least a shot at putting up this one — tanging was the only thing I knew to do.

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A swarm does not move particularly fast. The bees have gorged on honey before leaving the hive, I suppose to help sustain them while they move in to a new home, and they fly heavy in the air. Watching a swarm of bees has a mesmerizing quality that is different from anything else I know, and you can get lost in following the languid flight of individual bees who are caught up in the tornadic motion of the swarm — the swarm seems to form a huge single organism. The noise, too, lulls and draws you in — that hypnotic roar, the noise of thousands of bees sounding together, a chorus like none other.

I broke the spell, however, and looked around for something to beat on. I noticed a metal watering can. After emptying the water, I started hitting it with a stick. I drummed, and the large swarm seemed to hesitate in the air; then it slowly returned in my direction and began revolving more or less just over my head. They dropped down, and I went into a crouch, worried I’d get a drive-by sting or two.

After several minutes, the swarm settled into a nearby, small tree, me still drumming away on my watering can. I wish I could tell you that I went and collected the swarm, but after a short time they simply went back into the hive — a false start, probably indicating the queen wasn’t able, or willing yet, to go.

Still, I’m left as always believing in tanging, research findings to the contrary. Is it the rhythm that brings them down? I don’t know, but it works.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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