JUNE

Thankfully the early swarming seems to be over, at least for the immediate future. I did receive one call last week which, unfortunately I was unable to attend as I was on my way to see a friend in hospital, but I later had a report that a fellow collector had responded successfully. I did however receive one more swarm call, this time from a lady who runs a local play group to report that bees had taken up residence in the roof of their building. I knew from the details of the swarm that this wasn’t a honeybee swarm but as the lady was obviously a little agitated and obviously concerned about the harmful effect on her charges, I agree to take a look the following day. The building isn’t a million miles from my Station Apiary and knew it would set her mind at rest to have someone take a look, so, the following morning found me at the gate of the playground being greeted by several of the children. “You’re the Bee Man aint ya, we got bees in our roof”. I was being addressed by the oldest boy, obviously the ring leader, and before I could answer, “I bin frowin mud at ‘em”. My mind went back immediately to my youth and the “Just William” books I used to read so avidly. This was just the sort of conversation I could imagine William having. I began to explain that if you do something to make bees cross they might come down and sting you, but I needn’t have bothered. They had by now, lost interest in me and their bees and made off in the direction of the swings, and probably to find more mud I shouldn’t wonder. The lady who had made the call approached, “Thank you so much for coming, I see you’ve met the children” she said. I replied that I had and that she was welcome and as I had suspected, this was just a small colony of bumble bees and that left to their own devices, that they would eventually move on to pastures new. “Oh, that’s a relief, so they won’t sting anyone.”  I assured her that bumble bees seldom if ever sting, although, “frowin mud at ‘em” was probably not the best course of action. With a final look from her that suggested that I was ever so  slightly mad, I took my leave.

I’m continuing to keep a close eye on my colonies in view of the swarm situation so far this year and yet, as well as the Mendip “C” colony that swarmed earlier, it looks as though two from The Station apiary have also managed to slip below the radar. The swarms that I have collected this year have turned out to be a mixed bag thus far with only two looking as though they are going to make it. This despite having all been fed as required and in two cases, given a frame of brood to help them on. Even the swarm from “C”, now hived at The Station has not lived up to it’s expectations. It was a good job I took the decision to give them a frame of brood from their parent colony at the outset as, although they have been collecting plenty of stores and drawing out new comb, there has been absolutely no sign of fresh activity in the brood box. This despite the fact that they appear to have a very nice little queen, plump and very active but, not an egg to be seen. For that reason, I decided to remove her at my last visit and have given them a frame of brood from one of the other hives. This frame has plenty of eggs and very young brood in evidence so hopefully, at my next visit I shall find new queen cells.

MAY

Three days now since my new queens were installed into their new homes, time to have a quick look. In nuc.1, lots of bees and a plump little queen moving sedately about the comb. A good start I thought moving on to nuc.2, here a much different story, not many bees, at least, compared with nuc.1 and the queen and her attendants still as I had left them. There were bees covering the cage but the candy in the exit seemed hardly touched, in fact, there was a dead bee lodged in the candy, partly blocking the exit. I removed the dead bee, that was easy enough, but, why so few bees. There was a couple dead on the nuc. floor but certainly not enough to explain why so few left in the nuc. The nuc’s had been made up with identical frames of brood and stores and both had frame feeders with the same amount of syrup in. Before leaving, I shook a frame of bees from one of my other hives into the nuc. along with a handful of icing sugar, just to mask any difference in odour.

It was with feelings of foreboding that I returned a couple of days later. I had with me a pair of snips with which to free the queen if the bees still hadn’t done their stuff. I couldn’t think of any other way to open the cage, so you can imagine my feelings of relief when just from removing the crown board, I could see the cage was empty. I removed the brood frame which was now covered with bees and there she was, a plump little thing, much the same as her sister in nuc.1 but, with no green spot on her back. I knew that she had had a spot when I first observed her in the travelling cage so I can only imagine she had managed to rub it off whilst moving around in the cage but, what a relief. I can’t describe my feelings when I boxed the nuc. back up. I shall give both nuc’s a week or so before opening them when I shall hope to see the first signs of eggs. I shall take that opportunity to re-mark the queen in 2. Just time to have a quick look in the swarm nuc, They had looked in pretty good nic when I had last inspected and installed the additional foundation so I expected to at least see a queen and signs that she had assumed her duties, but I should have known better, especially in the light of what I’d seen in the other nuc’s. No queen or any signs that there had been one, instead one queen cell, not yet sealed, in the centre of the brood frame. I can only imagine that somehow the queen had been somehow damaged when capturing the swarm or moving them to The Station site but fortunately, they had found a larvae young enough to be raised as their new queen. As it’s now going to be sometime before they have a new foraging force, I left them with a contact feeder of syrup and will check that all is progressing satisfactorily when I return to look at the other two nuc’s.

You are no doubt, all aware of The Asian Hornet and the threat it poses to the insect population in the UK. and especially the honeybee. Over this last couple of weeks I have been asked to address both local Horticultural and Allotment Societies. As a member of AHAT I was very pleased to have the opportunity to “spread the message”, as it were and I have to say, the talks were very well received. Present at the second talk were reporters from a local news publication and they very kindly invited me to write an article for their paper. This I was more than pleased to do and I have to say, I was very pleased with the printed result and even more so with  the feedback I have since received. I have decided to copy the article to the blog to give those of you who are not yet aware of this pest and the real threat it poses to our honeybees an idea of what, we as beekeepers, are up against. I hope you find it of interest.

THE ASIAN HORNET

VESPA VELUTINA NIGRITHORAX, better known as The Asian Hornet, a native of South East Asia. Commonly found in Vietnam, Cambodia, South East China and the like where it isn’t perceived as a threat in fact, in some comunities, the larvae are harvested and eaten as a delicacy. So, why is an insect which naturally lives thousands of miles away, suddenly become of interest to us here in Great Britain.                     Well, the simple answer is that it is no longer confined to South East Asia. It now occupies largs areas of France, Belgium and other Western European Countries.      So, how did an insect less than 30mm. in length, and with a wing span of less than 40mm. manage to travel all of those thousands of miles, and, largely without being noticed.                                                                                                                        Well, of course the truth is that it couldn’t have, nor would it have probably wanted to, without man’s help.                                                                                                        The Asian Hornet first appeared in France in 2004, where it is thought to have arrived in a consignment of flower pots from China. Largely unnoticed or ignored for a number of years, it quickly spread into neighbouring countries where,in some, it has now reached what can only be referred to as, epidemic proportions. The latest, and of greatest concern to us, being Jersey in The Channel Islands, where it was first sighted in 2014 and where it has since gained such a foothold that last year, DEFRA were appealing for british bee-keepers to go over to assist in locating the nests of these unwelcome pests. From memory I think some 58 queens were located and destroyed in 2018.                  In the UK up until the end of 2018, four nests have been located and destroyed along with four solitary hornets which were identified as either drones or workers.                    So, what do we know of this creature and why is it causing us such concerns?       Firstly, it is primarily carnivorous, it will readily kill and eat any other insect but it’s main appetite is for bees. Because honey-bees outnumber all other native spieces of bee, they have become the Asian Hornet’s main prey. A single hornet can easily take in excess of 200 honey-bees in a single day.                                                               Secondly, A single queen can produce between 200 and 500 new queens in a single year. If no more than 10% of 200 survive the winter, which is the lower figure, there would still be some 20 viable queens going into the following year. Bearing in mind that these forcasts are based on the lowest figures and that following a mild Winter, far more queens would be expected to survive, it is easy to see how their numbers quickly get out of control.                                                                                                           Finally, the nests are very difficult to locate. Nests are typically sited in the upper reaches of the tallest trees, 35 metres above the ground not being unusual. Being constructed of wood pulp, they are very difficult to spot and even more difficult to access.                                                                                                                           So, how can we recognise this pest and what should we do if we do spot one?          The Asian Hornet is smaller than it’s European cousin and has some easily recogniseable markings. The face has yellow markings much the same as a wasp. The body however, is predominably black, unlike the European Hornet which is a buff colour with yellow markings. In addition, it has yellow legs and a single yellow/orange stripe around the fourth segment of it’s abdomen.                                                            Female Asian Hornets mate before going into hibernation in late Autumn, emerging in late Febuary or March. Within a month of emergence, queens will commence the construction of their first nest, usually at quite low level, typically in a hedge or shrubbery. Because drones and workers don’t survive the Winter, any hornet seen at this time can only be a mated queen. It follows therefore that any queen killed or trapped at this time will avoid a whole year’s crop of queens. It should be emphasised that all sightings must be reported. Hornets spotted after this time will be either drones or workers and shouldn’t be killed, instead, their location should be reported. Because of the numbers of mistaken identifications, a photograph must accompany any report. The prime objective at this time is to locate and destroy the nests and the best way that we can do this is to catch and electronically tag flying hornets to enable us to follow them to their nests. We can’t do this without your help which is why we asking everyone to be vigilant and to report all sightings.                                                                         So, what is the life cycle of The Asian hornet, as I said earlier, drones and workers don’t survive the Winter. In much the same way as queen wasps, mated queens will select anywhere dry and secure in which to hibernate, typically rockeries, outbuildings, compost heaps etc. Emerging usually in March, she will shortly begin constructing her first nest. Much like the wasp, the nest will be constructed of a papier mache like substance which the queen manufactures with a mixture of chewed up wood and saliva. At the beginning this nest will be little bigger than a wallnut and will be located quite low down, usually in a tight hedge. Into this she will lay a couple of eggs. As the eggs hatch and the numbers begin to grow, so the nest is expanded until it resembles the size of a small football. It is at this stage when the hornets are at their most aggressive, now having a nest to defend, they won’t hesitate to attack if they feel threatened. Most fatalities have occured at this stage and usually while the hedge is being trimmed, accidently disturbing or damaging the nest.                                                                Once the hornets have outgrown this nest, usually around midsummer, they will decamp and take up final residence in the upper reaches of a nearby tree.Here they will construct a new nest which incidently can be almost 1 mtr. in diameter in which they will remain until the drones and workers are ejected and the queens leave to mate and hibernate.

Please report all sightings, along with that all important photograph to;

online at: www.nonnativespecies.org/alerts/asianhornet

by e’mail: alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk

Since I have been on the Swarm Collection Register for the local council, as you might imagine, I have been called to all manner of insect manifications, from ants and bumble bees to mainly wasps, and just occasionally, honeybees. Most of the people that I encounter are very pleasant and pleased to see me even if I have to tell them that abseiling down from their roof or trying to scale a fifty foot conifer at the bottom of their garden, is not a part of my brief. The encounter usually begins with a ‘phone call and from the content of the opening sentence, it’s usually a simple matter to ascertain whether or not we are dealing with a swarm of honeybees. Most people are just happy to have their mind put at rest and when told that their own life and that of their children are not in imminent danger, are happy to be told that, left to their own devices, a small gathering of bumble bees will eventually move on of their own accord. Wasps are a different matter and I usually advise that they contact a local pest controller. If someone comes on and is obviously distraught I always visit, even if I know from the initial conversation, that I’m only going to find a handful of bumblebees that have taken up residence in a bird box or as is more often, the garden rockery, and am happy to do so. Just to see the relief on their face is worth the trip.

Swarms that are conveniently hanging from a low branch of an ornamental bush or fruit tree are the easiest ones to deal with and are normally quite happy to drop enmasse into my upturned skep when the branch that they are hanging from is gently tapped. Unfortunately these are the exception rather than the rule but, it is nice when it happens. Collecting bees that have found a permanent home and have been in residence for some time is a different matter. Now, with something to defend, they are usually far more aggressive and who can blame them. Few of us  would stand idly by while the home we had just so painstakingly finished building, was being torn apart. Copious amounts of smoke and extra thick gloves are then, the order of the day, and this combination, usually achieves the desired outcome, thank goodness! So, what to do with all the comb that you’ve removed. Bearing in mind that it will be of all shapes and sizes, some containing stores and some containing brood, but mostly, a combination of both and, while all this is going on and as your gloves get stickier and stickier, the bees are becoming more and more agitated. I have found from experience, this is an exercise best completed in the fastest possible manner and, this is what works for me. Firstly, you need to fashion some sort of comb cage, this needs to be fairly robust and no wider than a brood comb. Here’s what you will need, 1x standard brood frame, it doesn’t have to be new just so long as it has been sterilised, 1x small sheet of stiff wire mesh, no smaller than the brood frame, 1x pair tin snips and half a dozen drawing pins.

Step 1, cut two sections of your mesh, both to the width of your brood frame. Cut one of these sections to the internal depth of your frame plus 1/2″. Cut the other about 1″ longer. Bend the extra 1″ at right angles. The object is to have a wire section that sits inside the frame with the extra 1″ resting on the frame bottom bars. The frame needs to be just long enough to be able to pin the top edge to the frame top bar. The second section of mesh need to hinge from the 1″ edge of the first and be just the right length to be pinned on to the frame top bar.

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FIRST SECTION INSERTED INTO FRAME

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SECOND SECTION HINGED ON TO FIRST

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SECTION OF HINGE SECTION REMOVED TO ACCOMMODATE QUEEN CELL

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COMB WITH QUEEN CELL IN CAGE.

I find rectangular section wire mesh is preferable to square as you can usually position a comb with a queen cell so that the cell protrudes through the mesh without the need for cutting. I have found these comb cages most useful especially when removing small sections of comb which can be giggled around until the frame is full.

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IT’S SURPRISING JUST HOW MUCH ODD SHAPED COMB WILL FIT IN CAGE.

Back to the subject of swarms, without a doubt this must rate as one of the most swarmiest of seasons. There has hardly been more than a couple of days this month when I haven’t received at least one call, last Tuesday I had three. Admittedly, one was for bumble bees and one had decamped before I arrived, but the other one was definitely honey bees which, thankfully, had selected the only shrub in the garden which was less than fifteen feet tall to cluster in. Obligingly they dropped straight into the nuc. I was holding under them, the moment I shook the branch to which they had attached themselves. I placed the nuc. on an adjacent tool box roof and almost immediately they began fanning, a signal to which all the flying bees seemed to be responding.

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WITHIN MOMENTS THE BEES BEGAN ENTERING THE NUC.

When I returned later there were only a handful of bees still flying so it was simply a case of closing the nuc. entrance and putting them safely into the car. So much easier than using a skep, which is the method I have always used, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner. I suppose using a skep, was the method I was shown when I first started collecting swarms and tunnel vision had prevented me seeking any other. The only problem now is that with six nuc’s. on the go, I’m rapidly running out of them.

The following evening I received another call, I was just on my way out and not really expecting any more swarm calls, especially that late at night. ” I’ve just got your name off the website, there’s a swarm of bees in my chimney” the caller began, ” can you come over, I only live in ***** “. Which, as it happens, is not a million miles away, not that it made much difference at that time of night. ” When did you first notice them and do you live in a house or bungalow” I replied, ” because if you live in a house, I’m not going to be able to help you”. He then went on, ”They arrived earlier today” and quickly added, ” it’s quite easy to get onto the roof, last year we had some work done and the builder got up into the loft and removed a few tiles and climbed out onto the roof , so you won’t need a ladder”. I don’t know why, but it still surprises me at what some people expect from a perfect stranger. I explained that there was no way I was able go up on to his roof and that even if I did, there was no guarantee that I’d find his bees, explain that although they’re going in at the top of the chimney, that didn’t mean that was where they were. ” Well, what am I supposed to do” he replied, his tone suggesting that this was somehow now my problem. My answer was to either ignore them and let nature take it’s course, or to light a few twigs in the fireplace and try to smoke them out. I won’t tell you what his next reply was and sensing that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere, I bid him goodnight, after gently explaining that I wasn’t actually employed by the Council and that even if I had been, there was no way I was going to be clambering around on his roof in semi darkness. My parting line was that if they did come down and land somewhere accessible, to give me another call. “Big mistake”. At 6.30 the following morning the bedside ‘phone rang. It’s funny how even at that time in the morning you can get a strange feeling that you know exactly what’s coming next. “It’s me again” as if I needed any explanation, ” They’ve come down now.” “Oh that’s good,” I replied”, ” I thought they might, where are they now”? “ They’ve fallen down the chimney and they’re in the fireplace behind the gas fire”. After politely suggesting he gave the gas board a call, I wished him good morning and replaced the receiver.

What with chasing around collecting swarms and the fact that the road leading to Mendip “C” has been blocked due to tree lopping, it had been over a week since I had paid my bees a visit. With the road now clear and the sun shining I decided to make “C” my first port of call, and last Monday morning found me pulling into the car park. Before I switched the engine off I could hear the unmistakeable loud buzzing of swarming bees issuing from the other side of the hedge which borders the parking area. I looked over the hedge to see thousands of bees circling above the lawns in front of the hives. I watched in disbelief as they slowly descended and took up temporary residence in a small fruit tree, not ten yards from hive two from which they were still pouring out of. Now, I’m well aware that honeybee behaviour doesn’t necessarily have to follow any man made logic, but now I’m standing there asking myself, why on earth would hive two want to swarm? They have a last year’s queen and are on double brood, thus so because I had planned that they would be my queen rearing colony this year, and when I had looked a little over a week ago, they had barely started working the top box.

No time to dwell on the why’s and wherefores now, they had already formed a tight cluster around the trunk of the tree.

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THEY HAD ALREADY FORMED A TIGHT CLUSTER AROUND THE BASE OF THE TRUNK

The question now, how to dislodge them before they decided to de-camp to pastures new, and get them into the empty hive I was busy loading onto a vacant wheelbarrow? You can see from the picture that the cluster not only tightly encircled the trunk but extended right down to the ground so, how to get them from their chosen perch into my hive without causing them undue grief or risking damaging their queen. The only suitable container to hand was an empty nuc. roof and into this I proceeded to gently scoop handfuls of bees and from there tipping them into the empty hive. I eventually had enough space at the base of the trunk to get the roof reasonably close and from there was able to brush the bees down. The problem was that only a small percentage of the bees were accessible from where I was directing my efforts and although one or two bees were fanning at the hive entrance, it was obvious that the queen wasn’t amongst them. So, time to put plan “B” into operation, whatever that was!  Although I had never tried it before, I had read that it was possible to get a swarm complete with their queen, once captured, to march up a slope and into your waiting hive so long as you provided them with a gentle enough slope and sufficient incentive to “play ball”, as it were. So, that, I decided was to be my plan “B”. Although I had no idea where the queen was, I could think of nothing else to try. What I was sure of however, was that if I continued trying to scoop bees by hand from the tree into the hive, chances were that I’d end up with no queen at all. After wheeling the wheelbarrow closer to the tree I managed to find a couple of suitable lengths of wood and an old piece of cotton sheet and positioned these between the tree base and the barrow and began gently coaxing the bees in the direction of the hive. At first there seemed to be as many bees leaving the hive as climbing the slope.

camely swarm and Mariya letter 005

AT FIRST THERE SEEMED TO BE AS MANY BEES LEAVING THE HIVE AS CLIMBING THE SLOPE.

Then, as if in response to some invisible signal, the bees all began marching up the slope towards the hive. It was a bit like watching a river running up hill.

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A BIT LIKE WATCHING A RIVER RUNNING UP HILL !

The scales were at last tipping my way as more and more bees joined their sisters and marched up the slope and into the hive. Now there was dozens of bees fanning, in fact, not only at the entrance but all over the front of the hive, enough to convince me that at last we had a queen in residence.

After all this effort the last thing I wanted to find when I returned later to collect them was that they had changed their minds and bunked off. So I decided to leave them with a frame of brood from their old colony It was at this point I realised why they had swarmed. The two supers I removed had some honey in but not as much as I had hoped for, bearing in mind the strength of the colony at my last visit. Knowing the bulk of the brood was going to be in the bottom box, it was to this I planned to next turn my attentions after first removing the top one. Easier said than done, I couldn’t shift it. Imagining the two boxes to be heavily propolised I tried to work my hive tool in between them but to no avail. Now having removed the queen excluder and looking down into the hive, It became patently obvious why they had swarmed. The top box was filled, wall to wall, with honey, to the point where I had serious difficulty moving it. This I achieved eventually and going through the bottom box, I removed all but the best looking queen cell and one frame of brood for the swarm. Reassembling hive two I went next to the hive on the wheelbarrow where I inserted the frame of brood. It was, by now thankfully, filling up nicely. Enough for today I decided, not that my back needed any persuading, after all, tomorrow is, another day.

Returning around lunchtime the following day I went straight to the hive on the wheelbarrow which, happy to report, from the activity around the entrance, was looking pretty good. I’ve noticed in the past that when you first hive a swarm, the bees seem reluctant to enter their new home for a while. I imagine it’s the different scent but they seem to hover around the entrance and even when they land on the alighting strip, it’s only for a moment before they take off again but in this instance it was different. The bees were coming and going as if this had always been their permanent home. I wondered afterwards whether the fact that they had entered the new hive under their own steam rather than being tipped in had been the difference. Anyway, I decided to remove the hive there and then rather than wait until the evening when they had finished flying which is what I usually do. The reasons being, firstly it seemed that most of the bees were by now in the new hive and secondly, I didn’t fancy shifting a full size hive, on my own, across the uneven ground of the Station site which was where their new permanent home was to be, in semi darkness. With the new hive now in the car I decided to replace the barrow to where it had been with an empty nuc. in place of the hive. I figured whatever flying bees there were still remaining would, enter the nuc.for me to deal with later and for once I was right. When I returned later there were little or no bees still flying but probably in excess of three hundred or so in the nuc. A simple matter now to tip them back into their old hive. Quite a successful day I remember thinking as I drove home, the swarm in the new hive now safely in their new home at The Station site and little or no flying bees lost in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

WHY DO HONEYBEES SWARM?

THE HONEYBEE SWARM

It was a warm June afternoon, I was stood gazing out of the lounge window, just admiring my handiwork. I’d spent the morning cutting the lawn and I was feeling quite pleased with my efforts when suddenly, and without warning, the sky went black, or so it seemed. My first thoughts were that is was some sort of eclipse of the sun but after the initial shock had subsided, it became obvious that it was in fact, a swarm of bees. I watched from the safety of my lounge as after swirling around for some time, they finally alighted in my plum tree. Within moments they had formed some sort of bunch and I watched as the last stragglers joined them. With a sense of relief that some sort of normality had returned to my little garden and the lives of my family were no longer at risk, I reached for the ‘phone directory.

This is not a factual conversation but more a compilation of conversations that I’ve had, usually over the ‘phone, since taking the role of Swarm Collector. What all conversations have in common are firstly, the feelings of amazement or incredulity at the sheer numbers of flying bees. “I had no idea there were that many bees in existence, let alone in one colony” is so often the opening sentence, and secondly, a genuine concern that these hundreds of bees are in fact all miniature excocet missiles all intent on retribution. And lastly, a feeling of relief seeing me or one of my fellow Swarm Collectors getting out of their car and making their way to the front door where we are usually welcomed with open arms and an opening sentence along the lines of the following. “Thank goodness you’ve come, do you think you’ll be able to sort them out, I’ve been afraid to venture outside the door since they arrived and the kids will be home from school soon.”

In an effort to allay their obvious concerns, I usually spend the next ten minutes explaining that swarming honeybees seldom if ever sting and that the spot they’ve chosen to gather is only a temporary measure and that if left to their own devices, they will soon de-camp to a more suitable location. I also explain that swarming is a perfectly normal occurrence in the lives of honeybees and that it’s been going on for millions of years, so, there really is nothing to worry about. After a moment’s consideration the next question is usually along the lines of, “well, why do they do it”?

SO, WHY DO HONEYBEES SWARM ?

To find the answer to this age old question we first need to look more closely at this diminutive little creature, to try to understand a little of it’s life and exactly what motivates to behave in the way it does. The answers to these questions can be found in the way honeybees reproduce. Totally unlike most other creatures the honeybee reproduces at two levels, that is to say, sexually, in that a newly hatched virgin queen will, after a few days, leave the colony to mate, on the wing, with several males, DRONES. A week or so after returning, she will commence laying, effectively taking over the colony. The second way that honeybees reproduce, and it is this which sets them apart from other creatures, is at colony level, and it is this requirement which causes honeybees to SWARM.

So, what could possibly persuade thousands of honeybees to suddenly leave the security of their home and take off into the unknown? The answer to this is in the way honeybees communicate with one another which is, by touch and probably more importantly, the emission of pheromones.It is this emission of pheromones which is the key to the question of WHY HONEYBEES SWARM.

All living creatures will at various times produce pheromones, and for different reasons. In the case of the honeybee, when the colony feel threatened, the guard bees will emit a “call to arms” pheromone to which all capable worker bees will respond, similarly, when bees sting, a pheromone is emitted advising the rest of the bees that there is an intruder in their midst. However, the pheromones which concern us most, in relationship to why honeybees swarm, are those emitted by the queen bee and their effect on the colony are twofold. Firstly, they reassure the colony that their queen is in good health, assuring them that their future is secure and secondly, they inhibit the production of ovaries in the worker bees. It is the first of these which is of prime importance in relationship to swarming and it is imperative that her pheromones are present in all areas of the colony. The fact that a healthy queen is on the move all of the time, fulfilling her egg laying duties, and the fact that the worker bees feed her and lick her clean as she passes ensures that they are evenly distributed

It is when the worker bees detect a drop in the queen pheromone level that they will begin preparations for swarming. So, what would cause the level to drop and why should this be cause for alarm to the rest of the colony. Well, it is generally agreed that the reasons are twofold and they are, an ageing or sickening queen obviously producing less pheromones and, colony overcrowding which has the effect of inhibiting the distribution of the queen’s pheromones. Whatever the reason, the worker bees are very quick to pick up on this drop in pheromone level and will immediately begin their preparations for swarming, and these will always take the same form.

It will be the incumbent queen which will head the swarm but because in her present heavily pregnant state she is unable to fly, so in order to slim her down, the workers will restrict the amount of food they provide her, secondly, they will begin constructing queen cells into which she will be instructed to lay an egg. From the moment these eggs hatch, the larvae will be fed on royal jelly and it is this high protein diet which will ensure that each cell will produce a queen bee.

nuc 086

EACH OF THESE WAX CELLS WILL CONTAIN A VIRGIN QUEEN

There are often in excess of twenty of these queen cells the reason being, that the bees aren’t swarming at the expense of the old colony, instead, they are multiplying at colony level. The worker bees continue to pump royal jelly into each cell until the larvae’s pupate by which time construction of the queen cells will be finished and the cells will be sealed. It is at this time that the SWARM will issue and this brings us to the point where we came in. The bees will, for a short while, cluster in a convenient spot, convenient for them, that is. This to enable scout bees to fly off in all directions in order to find a permanent location, which incidentally can be a hollow tree, a disused bird box or if fact anywhere safe, dark and dry. Returning scouts once having convinced the swarm of the suitability of their find, will lead them en-masse to their new home.

The Mead swarm 003

Norton Swarm and Farringdon farm day 004

Within moments of issuing, a swarm will seek temporary refuge. As you can see from the above, this can be almost anywhere that the bees find convenient. The most common sites will be an adjacent hedge or tree, as in these pic’s. The queen will land and the flying bees will cluster around her, as though waiting to catch their breath whilst scout bees fly off in search of a permanent home.

bee under floor in hive 4 002

HERE A SWARM HAS TAKEN UP TEMPORARY RESIDENCE UNDER GARDEN FURNITURE

The wild colony at home

THIS PICTURE SHOWS A COLONY OF BEES WHICH HAVE ACTUALLY SET UP PERMANENT RESIDENCE UNDER A OVERHANGING BRANCH. THE ODD SHAPES COVERED WITH BEES ARE ACTUALLY WAX HONEYCOMBS WHICH UPON INSPECTION WERE SHOWN TO BE FILLED WITH HONEY AND BROOD SUGGESTING THE RESIDENTS HAD OCCUPIED THE SPOT FOR QUITE A LONG TIME. A MOST UNUSUAL OCCURENCE.

bird table swarm 002

HERE BEES HAVE SET UP HOME IN AN OLD BIRD TABLE

writhlington tree swarm 002

AND HERE IN A HOLLOW TREE

Meanwhile, a new queen will have emerged to head the old colony which, because only half of the flying bees will have left with the swarm, will still comprise some thirty thousand bees. After dispatching her sisters which she achieves by stinging them through the walls of the remaining queen cells, the new queen will leave the hive on her mating flight which is incidentally, the only time she will leave the colony unless they decide it’s time to swarm.

Stinging her sisters is, incidentally, the only time a queen bee uses her sting and necessary because the colony will only tolerate one queen in residence. In the event that two or more queens emerge together they will fight to the death the result of which, will hopefully leave the strongest sister to head the colony.

So, there we have it, a brief description of how and why honeybees swarm. Whilst this might give you some idea of what goes on in a swarm, you will have to see one for yourself to fully appreciate the numbers involved and the complexity of the operation. The main thing to keep in mind, is that swarming honeybees are not out to harm or alarm you, they have been doing this for millions of years and hopefully, if left alone, will continue to do so.