We are often filled with wonder and a dash fear when thinking about a swarm of bees. Many of us have seen those images of people covered in bees or wearing a bee beard that’s not something I’ve yet attempted but I must say I’m now far more in awe of swarms than before I was a beekeeper.
We’ve had a couple of colonies look ready for swarming, and managed to split one in time. Drones have been seen hanging around outside many of the hives, and trial runs with clusters of bees outside their hives waiting for all the conditions to be perfect.
So what are the perfect conditions for a swarm? It seems that warmth is the key one, but I have often found they swarm just before weather turns. I have seen swarms hanging high up from a branch on a tree for ten days in torrential rain and winds until they could decide on the newly erected Freedom Hive to move into.
Why swarm at all?
It is perfectly natural for bees to swarm. The old queen leaves the colony taking most of the foragers with her, making way for a new queen to emerge from her cell in the old hive.
The old queen is escorted by around 10,000 bees, all with stomachs full of honey, ready for making wax comb in their new home.
Mark Winston in ‘Biology of the Honey bee’ states that it takes 8lb of honey for bees to produce 1lb of wax. This figure varies from 6lb to 15lb for 1lb wax, depending on location and beekeeper asked! Another handy statistic is that 1lb of wax will hold 22lb of honey.
This explains in some way why bees need to have honey, rather than letting humans take it all away from them.
It also explains why bees swarming are less likely to sting, with their crops full of honey, they are not only more focussed on finding a new home but also the bee’s abdomen distends, making it harder to flex the necessary muscles to sting.
Finding a new home
When the bees swarm, they cluster together, around their queen, often on a branch of a tree or bush. Whilst hanging together, scout bees are flying backwards and forwards, looking for a new suitable home. As each scout returns with information of the new abode, the bees discuss the options, sending more scouts to view the options. Only once the colony achieves a majority decision, do the swarm move on into a new home.
Interrupting the move
Should a beekeeper appear and catch the swarm in a skep( straw bee basket), the bees often cluster together in the skep whilst they decide, the skep adding an option with it’s bee friendly rough interior and insulation.
After collecting the swarm in a skep, I leave it on a cloth for an hour or two, until the bees are all inside, then wrap the skep up with the cloth and transport them to a new hive.
Sometimes I return and the bees have already left, but mostly they hang around for the ride and can be walked into their new home.
what to do if you spot a swarm
- Stop and admire the spectacle, observing where they settle.
- Call a local beekeeper ( me on 07891189834) or check the BBKA website for your area
- Shake them into a skep or box and turn upside down on a large cloth
- when all inside the box and none left flying around, wrap and transport the box
A 17th Century saying goes:
“a swarm in May is worth a load of
hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver
spoon; but a swarm in July is not
worth a fly”
This is all to do with how much summer is left for the bees to collect pollen and nectar to build their colony.