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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OCTOBER

Having decided to unite my nuc. to the weak colony from the meadow, the following day I returned with an empty brood box. I figured that the bees in the nuc, having had a day to have a look at their new surroundings, would unite quite happily.

New hive stands and Dawlish 003

BROOD BOX AND NUC PREPARED FOR UNITING

Surprisingly, for once I had judged their mood right. You can see from the pic. that even having had their roof and crown-board removed, less than a handful of bees broke ranks and came up to see who or what had caused the disturbance. Less than five minutes later and all the nuc. contents had been safely transferred into the brood box and still no more than a handful of bees had taken to the air. I’m constantly amazed at just how unpredictable bees can be. There have been occasions when I’ve opened the most docile of colonies to be covered with angry bees within seconds and others when, as with transferring this nuc, the bees have hardly bothered to give me a second glance. I’m inclined to put it down to the fact that most of them are females, but I’d never dare to put that in writing.

Knowing the meadow bees are now safely at Liz’s has given me a chance to push on with the new stands.

New hive stands and Dawlish 001

FIRST STAND ALMOST FINISHED

I’ve decided to have three stands at the new site because, although I’ve decided to downsize as far as the number of colonies is concerned, it’s always handy to have spare capacity, so, three stands it will be.

New hive stands and Dawlish 002

TWO DOWN, ONE TO GO.

On the subject of hive stands, I’d like to share my thoughts on the subject with you. Firstly, they’re going to be standing in one place for quite a long time, and in all weathers so, it’s worth giving them a bit of thought. Even one or two hives complete with full supers is going to sorely test the construction of your stands, try lifting one if you’re in any doubt. So, my advise for what it’s worth, if you decide on a wooden construction, use the best you can afford, use screws and bolts rather than nails and give the whole stand a couple of coats of Cuprinol or similar wood preservative. Yacht varnish is preferable but it is expensive, even so, I always use it on the parts of the legs which are going to be buried and on the end grain where it is exposed. I find having the bed of the stand about 14″ above the ground about right. I have used hives on single, double and extended brood and find that height works best for me however the hives are configured. I have watched bee-keepers struggle with hives balanced on a couple of house bricks, bending almost double to remove brood frames and I decided a long time ago that that wasn’t for me. Also, if you use icing sugar and mesh floors as part of your Varroa control regime, there’s far less chance of Varroa which has dropped through the mesh floor re-entering the hive if it is sited well above the ground. Above all, try to make your stands future proof, far easier at the time of construction. If there’s a chance of your apiary expanding in the future, now’s the time to build in extra capacity. Even if I’m building a two hive stand, I always allow room for a possible third. Also, having a decent space between the hives has other benefits, it reduces the likelihood of drifting, and you have ready made space for a couple of nuc’s should you eventually acquire any. Examining your hives is not only more comfortable, it’s also much more convenient if you can stand an upturned roof next to the hive you’re working on to use as a receptacle for the hive parts you remove. Last but not least, consider their location. As I remarked earlier, your stands are going to be in the spot you’ve decided on now, for a very long time, so, now’s the time to give it some real thought.

new stands, painted 003

STANDS FINISHED AND ROUGHLY IN THEIR FINAL POSITION

With all three stands finished, roughly in their final position and with the winning post finally in sight, just a small matter of digging a few shallow holes for the feet, making sure the stands were all plumb and cementing them in place.

Half an hour and no more than three inches into the first hole which I had decided would take no more than ten minutes to complete, it suddenly dawned on me why the house on the property is named “Station House”. This was the site of what had once been a branch line of the old North Somerset Railway and I was attempting to dig where there had once been railway tracks. Under no more than a couple of inches of top-soil I was into hard packed stone chippings. When I say into, that was wishful thinking on my part. After a couple of hours of scratching away at the stones I had managed six holes barely two or three inches deep. I don’t know why but I found myself humming the tune about the ram that kept butting that dam, as I made my way home. My final thought, now, who do I know who owns a pick-axe. Once again it was my friend Liz to the rescue. I remembered that her husband had been a builder, “now, would he still have his tools I wondered”. Well, to cut a long story short, a short ’phone call and twenty four hours later, I had my pick-axe, and now I have my holes dug. I would have had them cemented in as well had the heavens not decided to open at a most inoportune moment. The rain has continued for most of today so, that will now be my task for tomorrow.

Well, tomorrow has been and gone and not only are the stands firmly cemented into their final positions, they have all had another coat of Cuprinol and I have to say, I’m really quite pleased with the final result. In between time spent at the new site I have managed to visit the bees at their temporary home and happy to report, they seem to have adapted well to their new surroundings. Hopefully, not for too much longer.

As fate would have it, it was just as well that I’d managed to finish the stands as, last Friday morning I received an e’mail from the new owners of the meadow advising me that the builders would begin excavating on the site of his new house first thing Monday morning and that my shed had to be removed by then. To say that this came as a bit of a shock would be an understatement especially as I had previously been told that the shed would be unaffected and so had made no effort to empty it. Anyway, as luck would have it, the owners of the new site kindly offered me the use of the redundant garage which borders the apiary and by close of play on Sunday evening, it was “mission accomplished”. Not exactly the way I had planned my weekend but, I knew that it was a job that I had to face at some time, and it’s now out of the way. All I have to figure out now, is how to re-assemble the shed. It’s 10×6 and comprises what seems to be hundreds of metal bits and of course, I no longer have the assembly instructions. Ah well.

The meadow is now cleared, the empty hives are now at the new site and the old stands have been dismantled and have been added to the bonfire.

Station Apiary, flying bees 004

SOMEONE ELSE CAN HAVE THE PLEASURE OF LIGHTING IT

I’ll let someone else have the pleasure of lighting it after I’ve bid my final farewells. I began my beekeeping at the meadow over a decade ago and the place holds nothing but happy memories for me, so as you can imagine, it was with more than a tinge of sadness that I drove out through the gates for what is probably, the last time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER

This has been an odd month for us here at Mendip. I seem to have been “on the go” more or less non stop with very little to show for my efforts. The first job was to extract the honey that my tiny buzzing friends had kindly provided, not enough for me to resurrect the market stall but certainly worth the effort. The last couple of years have been very poor so, it was a real treat to see the fifty or so pounds that we did end up with, jarred and labelled. It will be nice to be able to answer in the affirmative to my regulars, when I’m asked whether or not we have any honey this year.

We had the last apiary meeting of the year this month and it was to be held at my Mendip “C” apiary, something I always look forward to. The meetings are always themed and as usual a guest “expert” had been arranged. The theme was to be “Preparation for Winter, feeding and feeders” and as I said, I was really looking forward to hearing what he had to say. Imagine then my surprise at a ‘phone call, only a few days before the event from our Secretary, telling me that we no longer had a guest speaker as he had been unexpectedly taken ill. ” It’s too late for me to organise anyone else at this short notice” Mark told me, “I wondered how you’d feel about taking the meeting”. Taken somewhat aback, and before I had really had a chance to consider my reply, I found myself saying, “ Shouldn’t be a problem Mark, I’ve got a selection of feeders and should be able to cobble something together”. “Well, if you’re sure that you don’t mind, I’ll get an e’mail out” Mark replied, “see you on Saturday”. So, that was why Saturday morning found me at Mendip “C” assembling a variety of feeders and other paraphernalia which I thought might be of interest. The more I thought about what I was taking on, the more daunting the thought became. More than half the members have been keeping bees for a lot longer than me and I didn’t want anyone thinking that I was “trying to teach Granny how to suck eggs”. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried, soon the car park was filled with white suited, friendly bee-keepers and before I knew it, I had done my bit and everybody was tucking into apple pies and cream teas. Everyone seemed in good spirits and the comments I received suggested the day had gone well. I normally consider that if we get a dozen members at one of our apiary meetings it has been a success and as I counted a few more than that, it was with a huge sigh of relief that I bid farewell to our last guests.

I’m not sure whether I have mentioned earlier, but I have decided, after much deliberation, to leave the meadow. Since my friend Charles sadly left us and quite understandably, under the new owners, things have begun to change. The allotment holders have all departed and the gardens once kept in pristine conditions are now overgrown and uncared for. The seating under the apple trees, where Charles and spent so many happy hours, putting the “world to rights” whilst sharing a cup of tea, has now gone. Added to this the fact that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to negotiate the meadow slope, which I swear is getting steeper by the day, I feel the time is right to make a move. I’m very fortunate to have been offered another site, not a million miles from the meadow and to that effect, I have been busy acquiring and sawing up timber for the new hive stands. Because of the close proximity of the new site to the meadow, I have temporarily moved the meadow bees to one of Liz’s apiaries while I complete the new stands. As soon as I told Liz of my pending move, she immediately offered to have the bees and as if that wasn’t kind enough, one evening last week, she and her husband came to the meadow, collected them and transported them to her place, priceless!

Two of the meadow hives housed swarms which I’d collected, earlier and both appeared to be doing well. I had been feeding them ever since I’d hived them and although they had received similar amounts of syrup, one seemed suddenly, to be lacking behind the other. For that reason and, with the pending move in mind, I decided to unite them with hive four, which had suddenly all the appearances of having lost their queen. The uniting had gone to plan so now there were only four hives to move to the Liz’s. Imagine my surprise then, to find, on my first visit to the hives at their temporary site, the day following the move, that the other swarm colony seemed to have suddenly lost weight. I expected them to feel lighter than the one that had been united, but certainly not this noticeably. I decided the solution, rather than risk losing them, would be to unite them with the nuc. from “C” and so later that evening I collected the nuc and placed it beside the problem colony at the temporary site.

New hive stands and Dawlish 004

NUC. AT NEW SITE