The Cliché Photo that keeps on giving

Swarm of Bees on a Car
Swarm of Bees on a Car

The easiest way to understand how honeybees work is to think of the colony as the body of an individual, and therefore the bees themselves are more like cells which make up that body. It is the survival and prosperity of the colony that matters, not that of any individual bee, except the queen (she’s special). The way that a colony reproduces is, naturally enough, to make another colony. This happens through swarming. The queen leaves the hive accompanied by a great many bees, and they find themselves a new home and hopefully have a long and fruitful life.

They leave behind specialised cells in the hive, each containing a newly made queen so that soon after the swarm has gone there will be new queens available to take the place of the one who left. What happens next is that either one virgin queen kills off her competition, or the virgins fly off with another small swarm of bees, called a cast. If this keeps happening the hapless beekeeper will return to the hive to find very little left.

Queen Cells
Queen Cells

I think it may have been Bernhard Mobus who coined the phrase, “bees do nothing, invariably” which is a reminder to expect the unexpected from my industrious little friends. For almost every generalisation about bees and beekeeping, there are plenty of examples of the exact opposite thing happening, which can lead newcomers to wonder what on earth they have gotten themselves into. I must contrast the wisdom of Mobus with something Graham Royle told my ‘beginning beekeeping’ class several years ago, which was that if you keep bees two things are sure to happen, “you will get stung and they will, at some point, swarm.” Both are correct.

Every year some news publication(s) will show a photograph of a swarm of bees in a high street, with, perhaps, a giant cluster of them on a lamp post and shoppers fleeing for cover in terror. There then follows an ill-informed article, typically telling us of the heroism and bravery of the beekeeper who collected the swarm and, of course, the “fact” that honeybee populations are plummeting around the world and that without them we are doomed. I have shown before that honeybees are doing quite well thank you very much and, although we should not be complacent, populations are rising not falling. This is not the case with some other insect species, for example, some bumble bees and butterflies.

Even though it makes for a dramatic photograph, there is nothing especially worrisome about a swarm of bees. The only way you are going to get stung is if you are unlucky enough to get a bee snagged in your hair or on a piece of clothing, or if you go and poke them with a stick. The thing to do if you see a swarm is to call your local beekeeper or contact your local beekeeping association, and they will send somebody out to deal with it. The swarm collector shakes them into a box and, as long as he or she gets the queen, the rest of the bees will follow. Then it is sealed up, carried away, and put into a hive, or given to somebody who wants bees.

A man covered in bees

As a beekeeper, I’m not a big fan of swarms. I don’t want my bees to swarm, even though that’s what they want to at a certain point in the season, usually the month of June. I have written before about swarm prevention, although perhaps “dissuasion” is a more appropriate word. A big part of it is selecting queens for your apiary from stock that is less prone to swarm, and replacing queens in production colonies every year or two. I want my bees to stay in my hives and make me some honey. For centuries walrusses have secretly kept bees for this very reason, and only now, dear reader is one of us prepared to go public.

Some people start out as beekeepers by collecting or trapping a swarm. It is an excellent way to get bees for free, but I’m always a bit wary of this. The chances are that you don’t know where the swarm originated, so you don’t know what type of bees you are getting. Furthermore, there is the possibility that they are diseased or riddled with varroa mites, or perhaps they are vicious little beasties who delight in stapling your socks to your ankles, who knows? They may very well be a strain of especially swarmy bees, which means that your beekeeping will be all about trying to prevent them from buggering off, and their drones may mate with virgin queens from your other colonies and cause your other bees to become swarmy, or nasty, or whatever.

Personally, I think that the best thing a swarm can do is draw wax foundation frames out into comb, and they’ll do this at any time of the season because their survival depends on having somewhere for the queen to lay and for the storage of nectar and pollen. What I would do with a swarm that I collect is shake it into a hive of foundation frames that is far away from my other bees (2 miles plus). I would feed with sugar syrup, put a queen excluder on the floor for a week so that they don’t leave, then treat with oxalic acid to remove varroa mites.

I’m pretty sure that I’d be inclined to change the queen too. I have watched one of my colonies swarm, and I was able to catch it and put it in another hive. Alas, I did not put a queen excluder on the floor, so when I returned to the apiary they had flown off, to either live in a tree or, more likely, the hive of another beekeeper. These are the lessons we learn…

What is beekeeping all about? It boils down to ensuring that your bees are healthy and disease free and ideally preventing or at least controlling their urge to swarm. Improving the quality of your stock and being rewarded for your efforts with a large honey crop are also part of the mix. The whole “swarm control” topic is vast. When I asked Murray McGregor of Denrosa Honey about it, he said that it would need a book of its own. However, I have now spoken to some very successful commercial honey farmers about how they carry out swarm control in their apiaries, and I look forward to sharing some of their wisdom in a future post.

Until then, I hope that the UK will be enjoying the heatwave that has been promised to us by the meteorologists. Apparently, by the middle of next week, we’ll be experiencing temperatures above 20 deg celsius – I can’t wait! Perhaps Spring has indeed finally arrived.

By the way, the main image of bees on a car is from the Daily Express

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