The latest in our series on beekeeping for a village magazine – written for non-beekeepers, and to suit the broad range of ages and knowledge among the readers.
Swarming season is coming
I was down the allotments the other day, listening to a hive with a stethoscope for distinctive “tooting” and “quacking” call-and-response noises. If I had heard them, I would have known without opening the hive that there was more than one queen in there, challenging each other to fight, meaning the hive was going to swarm as soon as there were a few days of warm, settled weather. The bees were busy, but no unusual noises.
Swarms are starting a little late this year, especially in rural areas. The overall temperature is cooler and delayed blossoming of major plants results in less food for all pollinators – as I write this in mid April there is even a little flurry of snow! But bee numbers are building up in the hives and internal preparations are underway to reproduce the superorganism that is a bee-colony. We can currently see lots of pollen being carried in to feed the young, and from the colours we know that while it was mainly willow in March, it is now dominated by oilseed rape. You may have seen the fields of yellow rape flowers on the east side of the village; while only here for a brief intense period, this is a favourite food for bees as the nectar has a very high sugar content, and this year we can expect hives on that side of the village to fare well, unless the crop is sprayed while in flower and still attracting pollinators. Many farmers try to be very careful about this sort of thing when treating crops and I have recently been contacted by one locally asking how to let local beekeepers know when they may be spraying, etc. In general, the advice is to avoid spraying when in flower, and to spray in the evening when fewer pollinators will be exposed.
Of course when a hive swarms, the purpose is to found a new colony by the old queen flying off with half the workers while a new queen takes over. This reduction in ‘staff’ at the original hive means a dip in honey production – so some beekeepers take drastic measures to prevent this natural behaviour, such as clipping the wings of queens to prevent them flying. I prefer to see the bee colonies reproduce , then catch the swarm if I can and populate a new hive: I’m trying to increase the number of locally adapted colonies with natural resistance to varroa mites. This does mean significantly less honey yield, because one big colony makes much more honey than two colonies half its size (no duplication of effort raising young) – but the resultant overall effect of two resilient superorganisms where there was one is better in my view for the long term success of the bees.
Last year I collected 5 swarms from around the area, giving several away, but this year I have a couple of empty hives and have built a ‘bait’ hive, to attract swarms – let them do the travelling! This is mounted high up on a south facing wall, which makes it particularly desirable to scouts looking for new homes, and is small enough to lift down and place the bees in a full size hive where the colony can grow. It is scented to smell like an occupied beehive with a touch of lemongrass, beeswax, and propolis; the other morning I saw four bees checking it out at the same time, which is the kind of thing that excites me (yes sad, I know). It’s also not unknown for swarms to move into attractively scented full-size empty hives with no effort from the beekeeper, as an Oxford resident discovered last year when bees moved into the decorative pseudo-hive they built for their garden – he is now a beekeeper.
If you do see a swarm, remember that while they can look and sound impressive, they are not dangerous. The bees are not interested in you, they are focused on looking for a new home, are in any case too stuffed with honey to bend and sting, and have no young to defend. Ring a beekeeper – a couple of us are listed on the inside front page – and we’ll gladly come and collect them.
Previous articles in this series are: