SWARMING SEASON is when beekeeping can be difficult. Honeybees need to swarm in order to create new colonies and guarantee the survival of the species.
Knowing when bees are going to do it requires skill and experience. Which may be why I keep getting it wrong.
When something unexpected happens and the bees swarm naturally it is a spectacular sight. I was working down on the allotment early last year when I noticed quite a lot of bees flying about my head. Then I noticed there were even more over by my hive. Within five minutes the air was full of them. There were probably about 10,000 in the air and I was completely unprotected so it would have been easy to panic.
But when bees swarm they are not attacking anything, least of all harmless old men out working their allotment. So they buzzed around my face, decided I was not a suitable location for a new home and proceeded to ignore me. Then an even bigger crowd of them flowed out of the hive and they all began to gather on a bush beside a nearby fence. They were completely calm and let me put them into a small box and transfer them to a hive with very little fuss.
So, recently, when I saw a swarm of bees on a friend’s allotment I wasn’t particularly worried. I knew that they weren’t mine because of their colour but I also knew that I did need to act quite quickly. When they gather on a nearby tree, bush or even a car roof they are not intending to stay for more than a few hours if they can help it. They are on the look-out for something much better.
The swarm sends scouts out to look for potential new places to live and then the scouts come back and dance to indicate the direction in which there is somewhere that could be suitable.
If the dance indicates that it is a good site, more scouts go to check out the location. When all the scouts agree that they’ve found a nice place then the bees fly off again and settle into their new home. So if you hang about they can be gone.
I had no equipment with me. All that I could think of was to grab a box, put on gardening gloves and my glasses and get down to the job before I lost them.
I managed to brush quite a few of them into the box. But a lot were still clinging to a bush that was so low down that I couldn’t get the box beneath it. The only option was to bend down, cup my hands, and shovel a couple of handfuls of bees into the box.
I got most of them but I also sent quite a lot of them up into the air. For a bee that has just been rudely disturbed I suspect that the rear end of someone bending down to manhandle 1,000 or so of their family members must present a tempting target. Not one of them went for me.
Before bees swarm they fill themselves with honey so that they have the best possible chance of surviving a perilous time. This make it very difficult for them to sting anyone. They are at their most placid when they have swarmed and very rarely present a danger to the public.
All I had to do was to make sure I’d got the queen in the box and then leave it alone for a while so that the ones that were flying could pick up her scent. They naturally want to join her and within half an hour almost all the flying bees had gone into the box.
It was then a relatively easy task of closing up the box, carrying a collection of lively bees 100 yards to where I had a spare hive and then emptying them into their new home.
If they like the home then they will stay. But they can be quite picky and I didn’t want to go through the whole thing again so I trapped their queen inside and gave them some sugar syrup to build their strength.
Job done, except, of course, for the small matter of finding out which of my neighbours had lost some bees.