I like beekeepers. Just as well really, I am one, and married to one. And, despite the popular stereotype, we don’t all sport thirty-year old fleeces and have all-weather haircuts.
I never intended to be a beekeeper. I certainly didn’t wake up one morning and think, ‘I must keep bees’. Nor did I have any past experience of bees. It all came about when my wife booked me onto beekeeping course as a Christmas present. I feigned delight, obviously, but can’t recall being overly thrilled at the time. She was though, and by New Year had booked herself and our neighbours, Paul and Philippa, onto the course too.
It was quite a big ask. An eight o-clock start every Saturday morning for about twelve weeks, and an hour’s drive each way. But the four of us set off together that January, joined a class of some twenty or so others, and got stuck in.
Well Philippa and I did – we listened intently and took copious notes. Our respective spouses listened intently and stored wisecracks for the journey home. And they were not exactly short of excellent material. Innuendo was rife and lasted the whole journey – door to door. ‘Bee space’, ‘hive tool’, ‘Snelgrove board’, you can just imagine.
‘Bee space’ was the unanimous group favourite. There are few one-liners that can’t be improved with a ‘bee space’ crack. And equally few things that can’t be consigned to your ‘bee space’. You get the picture.
Jokes aside, bees, we quickly learned, are fascinating, and within weeks we were all hooked. You could shop too. What’s not to like? By the end of the course we were all fully kitted out – hives, smokers, bee suits and yes, our very own ‘hive tools’. All we needed now was some bees.
The course leader and local bee inspector had kindly undertaken to try and source a colony for everyone on the course that wanted one, but we had to wait until May / June. In Spring members of the local beekeeping associations would manage their colonies’ swarming and create new colonies which we could then collect.
In the meantime though, we became amateur swarm collectors ourselves. Word got out that there were ‘trained beekeepers’ in the village, and the phones started ringing.
Prior to being a beekeeper, I confess I had never set eyes on a swarm, but that particular first Spring, they seemed to be everywhere, or perhaps I’d just become more attuned.
‘You don’t find bees, the bees find you,’ cracked Paul. We’d get the phone call, don our suits and race out. T’was like Ghostbusters. We’d arrive at the scene and take charge – imploring people remain calm and stand well back. We’d assessed amongst ourselves how to best capture the swarm; by which time the bees had generally moved on.
One kind neighbour even called me at work – seventy miles away in London – to say she had just seem a swarm pass over, and thought I should know! I’m still not quite sure what, if anything, was expected of me.
At risk of sounding a tad patronising, most people don’t really understand swarms; and why would they? They’re a natural occurrence; a colony of bees swarming is like an amoeba splitting – it’s a reproductive manoeuvre.
Prior to being a beekeeper, I’d have been like anyone else if I randomly stumbled across a cluster of up to, say, 20,000 bees, which is what generally happens. In fact, I’d probably have been far worse and called the fire brigade, the police, the army (please don’t!).
Swarms are actually just bees on the move to a new home, and like any of us in that situation, pretty oblivious to anything else going on at the time. They’re really not interested in us humans, and they’re certainly not out to ‘get us’. The great sadness is that nowadays, honey bees don’t survive in the wild and if swarms aren’t adequately hived and managed, the bees will die. And we can’t really afford to lose literally millions of natural pollinators each year.
Swarms are also rarely found where you’d like or need them to be. That is, on a low hanging branch that you can just jerk, dropping the bees to the floor and, led by their queen, marching into your waiting skep or nuc box – just like on the YouTube videos.
More often than not, swarms cluster way out of reach and sometimes there is little option but to wait for them to move on and hope that they land somewhere more accessible to another beekeeper. When you can hive a swarm though, it is an impressive sight and just like the YouTube videos. They bees don’t always stay put though – I’ve hived several swarms only to find later that they’ve moved on again.
Swarms indoors (sounds a bit like Snakes on Planes), is perhaps the worst case scenario though quite rare where I live. And only bad because the bees don’t really want to be there. I did know of one swarm that entered a living room and clustered in the chimney – unfortunately the nervous homeowners had them killed before we could get there.
I’ve heard it say that the best way to get the bees to move on from an indoor situation is to close the doors, open all the windows wide and play Radio 2 very loudly, putting the radio as close to the swarm as you dare. The bees may want a nice new home but seemingly draw line at sharing it with Chris Evans et al.
All this swarming business comes to mind because I’m just back from the annual British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) Spring Convention where I attended a lecture on swarm management.
Swarm management is central to good honey production. If you lose a half or three quarters of your colony in a swarm, you’ve basically lost your foraging workforce for a good part of the year, and your honey yield will go through the floor.
Good beekeepers recognise the early signs of swarming and take evasive action. Weekly hive inspections are the norm at this time of year (Spring), looking for new ‘queen cells’ which indicate that colony is thinking of creating a new queen and swarming with either the new or old queen.
Put simply, the next move is to separate two of three component colony parts – queens, brood / nurse bees, and flying bees (the ones that leave the hive daily to forage and always find their way back to the hive) – from the remaining one and create a new colony in a new hive.
This needs to be though quite carefully before you embark on moving the bees. Ideally, you want to rehouse either the existing queen, or the new queen cell which will produce a new queen, with some brood, food and nurse bees in a new hive, in a separate part of the apiary. The flying bees will still programmed to return to the old hive site, so effectively you have split the original hive to create a new colony which will hopefully reach full strength by the end of the summer or the following year.
It all sounds so easy doesn’t it? It isn’t. Well, it is, but a lot can go awry.
You can miss a queen cell in the weekly hive inspection for example. This means a new queen could emerge while the old queen flies off with a vast entourage of flying bees (i.e. swarms). Or you miss an inspection, and by the time you return, a swarm has already occurred. Other factors affecting hive activity come into play too – the weather, the amount of forage available, pests and diseases, the strength of the hive after winter, the list goes on.
The best advice I heard was to assess the hive and if you’re worried about swarming, close it back up, then make yourself a cup of tea, and sit down and think about what you’ve seen. And devise a plan. Write out your plan down if it helps to clarify. After this you can go back and put your plan into action – lining up the additional kit you may need first and being resolute and firm in your actions.
Why is this good advice? Well who’s not up for a cup of tea, and I do like to have a proper, well thought through plan. Bees are busy creatures and if you open the hive and dither, they will get annoyed and hassle you. You need a good Plan A, because once you’ve started there won’t be time for a Plan B(ee)
Sorry, bee puns, like honey and fleeces, are part and parcel of beekeeping!