by Tom Davidson

Okay, fine, call me nutbag-crazy. But I’m here to tell you that tanging does, indeed work. It’s not just for breakfast (or laughing at) any more.

My apiary was devastated last year, by “operator error” and just plain bad luck. The cold and wet weather set off a small hive beetle explosion in my back yard apiary here in Charlotte, NC. I went from 8 queen-right colonies and 5 starts down to 1.

On an autumn Sunday watching football and enjoying an all-day pajama day where my one big effort would be spent making a cozy fire in the fireplace, our dog Honey whined to be let outside. I opened the front door. A little girl was crying across the street, having just fallen off her bike (she was fine, and was being attended to by a gaggle of friends). I decided to skip that scene. After all I wanted to get in and out before the team timeout was over and the Denver Broncos got back to beating the snuff out of Washington.

I took our dogs quickly to the back yard and let them out. Just two steps out into the yard, I heard the unmistakable sound of a swarm. I looked up and saw the telltale circular flying pattern. The entire back yard was filled with honey bees, their wings humming in unison with a purpose. Where are they trying to land? They didn’t seem to have a spot picked out as far as I could tell, though some were starting to investigate a nearby bush.

I called the dogs in, who ran quickly through the cloud of bees that stretched from ground level to about 25 feet in the air. We all scurried inside. I threw on my white shirt and jeans, told Yvonne I was going to try to convince my bees to stay (or at least watch the last of my hives leave just like all the others), and said a prayer.

I believe that the legendary use of tanging, which is to make a loud clanging or ringing noise (done in the olden times with a pot or pan) works. Now, I’ve been called crazy before and have no problem with that. I also believe in UFO’s, Bigfoot and ghosts. I think there are things seen just as well as unseen. And, I’d read just the other day about having faith the size of a mustard seed in Luke.

I ran into our yoga room and grabbed my wife Yvonne’s Tibetan singing bowl, a small hand-hammered bronze bowl that “sings” with the slightest circular motions on the rim with a small wooden mallet. I just knew tanging would work. I could feel it. Regardless I was going to tang those bees. It was the only thing I could do at that point, other than stare in awe.
I’ve seen a video of someone using a hive tool on the metal portion of a telescoping top. They rapped repeatedly and loudly, and the swarm landed just a few feet from where the person was standing. I’d researched the myth, and discovered some who say it only works while a swarm is active and hasn’t settled. Others say it was originally a way settlers could claim a swarm was theirs, running across neighbors’ property lines and had no actual influence on the behavior of the bees. But, maybe, just maybe, both were true. For whatever reason, I’d been called by circumstance, or Providence, to my back yard in the middle of a swarm. I was happy to experience it, sad to see my last bees leaving.

As soon as I stepped into the back yard, the sound was even louder than before and the yard was filled with a cloud of bees flying in a great big circle. As it turns out the swarm wasn’t that large, but in the middle of ‘em it it sure seemed big to this third-year beekeeper. I believed that I could tang them into a desirable place and told myself, “I know this will work.” I commenced tanging the small metal broze bowl with the wooden mallet. “Tang, tang, tang, tang,” our backyard sounded like an old-fashioned fire alarm going off.
I held the bowl up high and tanged even louder. I started going near the bush, and then realized, “Heck, I’m tanging them to the hive stand instead of this bush. Why not?!” Were these my bees? Most likely. But then again swarms are often attracted to bee yards. The hive boxes were 50 feet away.

Holding the bowl as high as I could, I took slow steps toward the hives and methodically struck the bowl each second with the wooden mallet. The sound of the bees got louder and louder. About 7 feet in, I realized the swarm was circling around me. It was working! I smiled and reveled in the moment. The view underneath the swarm, a small circular cloud of bees above, was beautiful.

I continued my slow pace, tanging the bowl and approaching the hive. I knelt close to the hive entrance, and kept on. This time I changed where I was striking the bowl and successfully got a smoother, slightly lower and softer tone than before. I don’t know if that made a difference but I sure felt like the Pied Piper. The bees quickly covered the Boardman feeder and hive entrance. I was amazed at how fast it happened. I let the bowl stop on its own and just took it all in.

With a quick, excited phone call to my friend and our club president George, I told him the news. “Tanging works!” Bees were indeed going into the hive, one by one, as a few bees were Nasinov fanning at the entrance. A few foragers with a tiny amount of pollen landed and looked utterly confused. Before I realized it, about halftime plus the 3rd quarter of the Denver-Washington game, it was all over (just as fast as those poor Redskins were).

When do I inspect the bees? George encouraged me to waste no time. “What damage would you do?” If they were my bees and were convinced to swarm regardless of this false start there wouldn’t be any harm in inspecting. If it was a different swarm of bees that just got settled in, a quick inspection wouldn’t convince them to leave, either.

I lit my smoker, just in case it was needed (it wasn’t). I opened the top nuc box with 5 frames of food stores and a few bees, and placed it to the side. No queen cells were present in the brood chamber. Tight brood pattern, nice food stores, single eggs present, no foul odors, and no small hive beetles seen. Time now to inspect the top box.

I removed a frame that I thought my baggie feeder had dripped syrup onto. Then I realized I was looking at small hive beetle larvae, tiny ones, feasting on this food frame. They had slimed just one side. Another frame with only a piece of comb had been slimed also. The other frames were untouched. Only 2 small hive beetles were found, and I dealt them swift justice. The remaining three honey frames were untouched. I took this box and frames off the hive. To be safe, on the slimed frame I performed the rope test with a nearby twig to check for American Foulbrood. A little bit of capped brood was on this otherwise food frame, which was odd. The cells caps weren’t sunken, but still I wanted to be sure. Each time I stirred up the larva with the twig it came out clean, white and not at all “ropey.” I let out a sigh of relief.

I went inside with my head hung low, humbled with the knowledge that so very little damage was required to make my bees abscond. “If only, if only … ,” I mentally began to beat myself up. “What’s that sour look on your face for?” Yvonne asked. “Well, my last bit of bees almost left, because yet again I’d made the same stupid mistake I’ve been making all year long with these beetles.” Then I realized her question was right on time. It was a different time, a time for thanks and optimism. I had faith that tanging would work, and it did! It was possible to use sound vibrations to direct a swarm.

Some may call it a coincidence and that’s fine. Me? I call it a mustard seed. “… If you had faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:6).
The legendary practice of tanging swarms, something reserved for by and large as a crazy legend that does nothing more than making you look like a fool, fits neatly in with all my other “crazy” ideas and beliefs. But I tell you, it’s not so crazy. Science will teach you there are always exceptions to every rule. And sacred texts will tell you there’s more to life than things you can put your finger on. “For we fix our attention, not on things that are seen, but on things that are unseen.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Did I get rid of that sour look on my face and start smiling? You bet, because I realize that tanging, and maybe other crazy ideas will work, as long as you give that mustard seed of faith some fertile ground to grow in. I’ll be keeping that Tibetan singing bowl in my truck, now, with the rest of my swarm equipment, a happy reminder of those mysterious things like faith that ring true.

Bee good.

Tom Davidson is a third-year beekeeper in Charlotte, NC, where he served as club v.p. for the Mecklenburg County Beekeepers Association. You can reach Tom by email, tom@tsbeeshoney.com.