Fringe Box



Beekeeper’s Notes: May 2015

Published on: 18 May, 2015
Updated on: 18 May, 2015

Introducing a new regular column by beekeeper Hugh Coakley from Worplesdon. He has been keeping bees for six years and certainly knows a good deal about about the fascinating and complex lives of bees. In this report he describes a swarm he recently collected.

Beekeeper Hugh Coakley with one of his hives.

Beekeeper Hugh Coakley with one of his hives.

It is not an everyday job. But for a beekeeper, it is definitely exciting.

This is now the peak season for swarms and I received the call from the warden at the Aldershot Road allotments, bordering Westborough. “Hugh. There’s a swarm here and it’s big”. I couldn’t attend until the next day but it was in my mind all the time. What size would it be? Would it be accessible? Was it a swarm from one of my own hives?

Bees swarm to procreate. With only one queen in a hive, the way bees increase from one colony to two and then four and so on is to swarm. The worker bees decide that it is time to split – not the queen.

The triggers for that decision are complex but it generally happens when the queen is over one year old or when the original hive is overcrowded.

The workers start to produce queen cells – peanut shaped wax cylinders hanging from the comb – to raise queens. They also slim the queen down so she can fly. The queen cell, with a developing larva inside, is closed by the bees after eight days. Once this is done, all is in place for one of nature’s most magnificent events. Five to 20,000 bees leaving on mass to relocate to their next home.

I have collected many swarms. I have seen the tail end of an actual swarm. But I have never actually witnessed a complete swarm in the air and I am envious of those who have. It is apparently bewildering and frightening. I have heard it described as a roar of a jet engine and a darkening of the sky.

People run for cover and pull their children in off the streets. Ironically though, bees are at their most passive when swarming.

They do not know how long it will be until their next meal so before they leave their hive, the bees gorge on their honey stores.

Bees are not aggressive and will generally only sting if under threat. Being stuffed full of honey and being focused on finding a new home further reduces any tendencies to be belligerent. Understandably, you can’t realistically tell that to someone and be believed. But it is true.

The swarm, about 10,000 bees in total on the Aldershot Road allotments.

The swarm, about 10,000 bees in total, on the Aldershot Road allotments.

The swarm itself on the allotment was very satisfying. It was about the size of a rugby ball, probably about 10,000 bees, and conveniently hung on a low branch about six feet from the ground.

The cluster was largely static in shape but was in constant movement with the bees moving around on the surface, wings vibrating and a number of bees coming and going.

Scout bees, the most experienced of the foraging bees, were being sent out to locate the new home. They look for a clean, dry space. A hole in a tree or possibly a bait hive set up in an apiary deliberately to attract a passing swarm will do nicely.

A closeup view of the swarm.

A close up view of the swarm.

There are lots of ways of collecting the bees depending on where they land. In this case, it was fortunately simple.

I sprayed the cluster with a fine mist of water. This wets their wings and stops them flying. I placed a cardboard box directly under the bees and sharply knocked the branch. The damp bees dropped en masse into the box.

Housing the swarm that I collected.

Housing the swarm that I collected.

I was able to pour the bees into a prepared hive. The uncertainty comes with not knowing whether the queen is in the bees decanted into the hive. Success comes when you see a row of bees lifting their rears and fanning their wings. This is the bees using pheromones to signal the queen’s presence to any strays from the colony.

This particular swarm hopefully will have a happy ending. They are in a hive in my apiary. A colleague from work, who had kept bees some years ago, will have them.

Hopefully, they will be productive for him (great interest and honey) and for his neighbours (pollinating their gardens).

One of the hives in Hugh's garden.

One of the hives in Hugh’s garden.

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