This is the time of year when the honey bee’s are thinking of swarming. Sometimes people get worried about it, the sight of several thousand bees on the wing crossing the landscape can be pretty awe inspiring, so I suppose it is understandable. But while they are swarming they are very gentle, and are far too intent on finding a new home to worry about bothering any humans they come across.
It takes place during mostly during May and June and is really their way of reproducing. They have two methods of reprodction, the queen lays an egg and that hatches, pupates and eventually emerges as an adult bee, but without a second colony scale method of reproduction there would only ever have been one colony of bees in the world. Swarming is evolutions answer to this problem.
This is how it works. Inside the colony in response to a number of external stimuli the worker bees start to draw out queen cells. You can see one of these cells below.
Several of these cells are made and the queen lays an egg in each, when the egg hatches the grub is fed excess quantities of royal jelly (a special kind of bee food or “milk” secreted by the worker bees). All bees are fed royal jelly as they are developing, but the excess quantity fed to the grubs in these special cells is what causes them to develop beyond an ordinary worker into a queen with fully functioning reproductive organs.
When the cells are capped over the old queen (seen above surrounded by a retinue of workers) leaves, she takes with her half of the workers from the colony, with those who remain left to keep the colony running until a new queen emerges. This way the colony has divided (or reproduced) and two colonies have been made out of one. The old queen and the several thousand workers who have left usually cluster together in a low lying tree or bush while scout bees find a new home for them, they are looking for a hole in a tree or building and will move on once a suitable spot is found. Unfortunately while they are waiting they often come into contact with people again, and here is the problem, people don’t like playing host to thousands of bees in a big mass.
This is where I often end up getting involved. As a local beekeeper I end up getting calls from all manner of people in the area who have a swarm in their garden or on their house and would like it removed.
Now, it used to be said that a swarm in May was worth a load of hay, and a swarm in June was worth a silver spoon. Sadly the presence of a number of bee diseases mean that is no longer the case, and often it takes quite a bit of effort to turn the swarm into a productive colony. Sometimes they just don’t make it, but, it can be done, and as bees are having such a hard time at the moment I like to try and do my best for them.
A week or so ago I got called to a swarm just down the road in Camelsdale. It was clustered in an oak tree at the back of a garden, the owners were particularly keen to have it removed as one of them is alergic to bee stings.
The way they were clustered on the side of the tree (and about 15 foot up it) made this one a bit of a challenge.
But a bit of effort with my trusty pillow case sewn onto a pole soon had most of them (literally) in the bag. The trick then is to tip them into a box you have set up nearby and get the lid on sharpish! If you have the queen the bees in the box will soon realise it and start to send out pheromone signals encouraging the other bees remaining in the tree and in the air to come and join them.
Of course if you don’t have the queen the bees you have in the box come straight back out bringing with them a bit of an attitude about having been treated so rudely! But, all went well and they signalled away to their fellow workers, who over the course of the rest of the evening (while I went away and cooked some tea) came down and joined them in the box.
Then it was relatively simple to go back at dusk, collect the bees (not forgetting to block up the entrance!) and take them back to my apiary where I could put them into a new hive and beging the process of turning them into a viable colony.
Last year we started up a new beehive here at Swan Barn Farm with a small colony of bee’s, over the winter I was really sad when I discovered that they had unfortunately died out. As many of you will know varroa (a small parasitic mite) has been giving bees a really hard time in recent years, I am not completely sure if it was solely because of this or other factors combined with it. I guess it was just one of those things, I was especially gutted as the colonies I keep in my own apiary came through the winter unscathed, it might have been easier to bear if it hadn’t been the new Swan Barn Farm colony that had died out. I guess thats the thing about looking after any creature or animal, it teaches you about the cycle of life, and sometimes the lessons that brings are pretty hard to swallow.
We have restocked the hive at the basecamp now, and the new colony seems to be doing well so far. I am hoping they will do better this time. The reason I got involved in beekeeping in the first place was because it is such a fascinating hobby, it gives you the cance to see the natural world from a completly different perspective, and marks the passing of the seasons as the bees go through their life cycle in time with the passing of the year.
I have all my fingers and toes crossed for the Swan Barn Farm bees this year, I will be doing my best for them, and hoping that some of the people who come here will get a chance to learn about them and their fascinating life cycle. I am still fascinated by the bees, for me over the next few weeks that will mean some of my evenings will be spent collecting swarms and providing them with new homes where I am able to.