ONBG meeting, May 2022 – A Swarmy Bee Tea at Dee

An Alveary – Jane describes it as a “swarm machine”

Jane’s fabulous apiary at Dee Cottage isn’t just the prettiest cottage garden in Oxford, it also features several really unusual hives: an alveary, cathedral hive, freedom hive and also a couple of more standard TBHs. The agenda was to inspect the Cathedral and establish whether there was a problem with one slightly grumpy TBH, but mainly to meet up, indulge in bee-related gossip, and eat Jane’s delicious cake. (Wasn’t it?)

We began the sitting-in-a-circle introductions, and then … the Freedom Hive swarmed! What a splendid opportunity of showing the beginners present how to catch a swarm! (Er… yeah, right.)


Double walled “Freedom” hive above head height, no sign it would swarm a few minutes later! The lower chamber is to harvest truly excess honeycomb.

Strangely, and somewhat marvellously, Jane’s bees swarmed for us last June while holding a meeting here. Some might call them show-offs! This one was the first swarm some of the new attendees had seen, and they were impressed by its size. Jane explained it was a decent sized cast as the Prime had already gone.

We watched it as it took many minutes to coalesce from a very large cloud, noticeably delayed and more diffuse than the previous Prime, Jane told us. We surmised this was because the unmated princess’ pheromones didn’t smell so strongly as a mature mated Queen and the workers were in a search pattern trying to find her scent.

Our dynamic team of “experts” surge into action. Keith is holding a “bucket on a stick” which is collapsible and fits in a car boot – useful as high-up swarms can sometimes be dislodged into it. The reason for full-suits is it was likely we would have to stand directly below the swarm as we knocked it into a collection box [Photo courtesy of and copyright Caragh]

Eventually they settled, they chose a tree in a neighbour’s property and here the real shambles began. Long story short, after many ladders, buckets-on-sticks, chin-scratching, branch cutting, balancing on walls, etc we decided it was best to leave it – it was just too high, in pretty impenetrable foliage, it was wrapped around a near-vertical branch, and we noticed there were some kind of cables running through the branches next to it… We didn’t get the bees, but it was all good fun, educational, and an exciting start to the meeting. As Eric said, the most valuable lesson is sometimes you just have to walk away on safety grounds.

… the swarm story continues

A swarm of bees on a cut tree branch

Martin, the butterfly net bee veil, and the elusive cast – still on the branch he cut

As he was away at the time, Martin, the 75-year old neighbour,  only heard about the swarm in his tree after the meeting. As it still had not moved on, with no beekeeping experience, he then spent the next few days working out how to get the bees from about 7 metres up. Ropes and ladders were used all by himself. A butterfly net was turned into a bee hat and he cut the branch and managed to carry it down the ladder, and took it back to Jane’s.

As it was now 4 days after it swarmed, it has consumed all its fuel, was quiet and in no mood to abscond, so Jane hived it immediately and easily into her grumpy TBH … for reasons you will see below.

Hive inspections

Herding us back on-plan, Jane then asked me to help inspect two swarms she had recently hived.

Nobody expects …

I saw this as a good opportunity to run through another thing: “We have three weapons – Fear, Ruthlessness, a fanatical devotion to the NBU and white uniforms! …. Show me your hive records!” Nobody expected ….. the Bee Inspector!!!

I’m not a Bee Inspector, but I wanted to show what kind of things they may ask for, and what to do when they call:

  • They visit several apiaries a day, make the visit easy – so don’t “check” (disturb) the hives before they arrive; tea may be appreciated.
  • They will want to see your records. They don’t care what format they’re in – the point is to show you monitor your bees and know what is going on in your hives and can show they are thriving (assuming they are). If no records are presented, they will likely need to disturb your hives more in doing a more complete inspection. (Hive records and inspection tips are covered in depth in this previous post.)
  • [You also have a legal obligation to keep a record of any controlled medicines you’ve given the hives, but as non treatment beeks we can ignore that.]
  • If you have a hive type they are unfamiliar with handling, you can always open your own hives and handle the physical aspects yourself while they observe closely. This can be useful particularly in unframed hives where the comb must be handled very carefully and only oriented in certain directions.
  • Bee Inspector visits are an opportunity for free consultancy from a true expert. Watch and learn as they inspect a hive, ask questions, take notes and photos.

Cathedral Hive

Cathedral hive made by Simon Lydford. Double walled, deep horizontal hive developed for very cold climates.

First of all we inspected the Cathedral Hive – making external observations initially, but then opening it up as Jane wanted to see how the small newly hived swarm was doing a few days in and also because it was an opportunity for people to see this rare hive type.

A Cathedral Hive is basically a super insulated deep horizontal hive with overarching top bars. This is a prototype model and we saw a couple of dimensional issues which we’ll mention to the maker.

The swarm was doing fine. I was interested to see the modest sized swarm had begun building in a corner – this was observed by Gilliane in another hive the other day, and reminded me that an old book I read said you can tell when a swarm is prime because it begins building right in the middle of a skep, whilst casts build out from the walls into the centre. Is this true? I wonder if it may be.

Horizontal Top Bar Hive

TBH comb inspection. Photo (c) Caragh

We then moved on to one of the two TBHs in the apiary.


A swarm from one of Jane’s other hives had been put in 14 days before and had behaved aggressively ever since – completely unlike the mother colony. I got a sting while observing externally, just trying to use a stethoscope on the unopened hive body, which is about as gentle an inspection as you can do.


The mother hive was calm and those bees were not aggressive. Prior to swarming, the hive had emitted a repeated “false” or aborted swarm, where the bees seemed to be trying to swarm but eventually went back in the hive. This is characteristic of a queen who can not, or will not, leave the hive.


The internal inspection revealed about 9 combs or part-combs, all nice and straight on the bars and with reasonable amounts of nectar and a little pollen and capped honey. But noticeably lacking was any brood, at any stage.


The colony is not queen-right. It should be possible to merge the colony with her other TBH colony, or another swarm, effectively re-queening it with local genetics; another technique is to transfer combs of brood with eggs from another hive in, but this isn’t as guaranteed and usually needs to be repeated, and weakens the donor colony.


Jane merged the cast Martin eventually caught from the Freedom Hive (see above) into this TBH and the two colonies should become one. Watch this space…

Tea, cake, and a gossip

Over a nice chat with tea and cake, Jane showed us an old comb from a TBH with many characteristic features, and we decoded its story – a dark area where brood were raised; an area of larger drone cells and the irregular transitional cell structure between the worker/drone cells; queen cells. We discussed the types of queen cell (emergency, supersedure), what QC dimples mean (capped for >3 days), how QCs and drone cells need slightly lower temperatures to develop so are at the edges of combs.

Swarm in electricity meter cupboard

Eric then talked about how he has helped Tracy at FarmED near Chipping Norton, where a number of alternative hive types (Freedom, Warre, log) are visible to the public.

I related a tale of a swarm collection a few days ago where the bees had selected an external electricity meter cupboard as a home. The householder had first contacted a nearby commercial beek whose bees they may have been but who ignored what they were trying to tell them about how accessible the swarm was and just said “They are in the fabric of the building, nothing I can do, get a pest controller to kill them”. Despite their unusual location, they were easy to collect. However, I noticed that while the rest of the swarm was in a cluster, on the ground outside the cupboard there was a dead queen. But the swarm still behaved as if it had a queen though, happily trooping into a box, and after an easy hiving it has behaved normally. So I must have found a “spare queen”, or perhaps a “princess”, in a multi-queen swarm. 

Many thanks to Jane and Patrick for so generously once again letting us swarm into their home and eat their cake!

And bonus postscript: On returning home from the meeting, both Caragh and Kerry found swarms from their own hives in their gardens. A very swarmy meeting indeed!

This entry was posted in Apiary visits, Hives, Inspections, Meetings, ONBG, Swarms, TBH and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ONBG meeting, May 2022 – A Swarmy Bee Tea at Dee

  1. hunneybun says:

    This is a great post about an obviously wonderful meeting. Wish I could have been there – but the same evening I had quite a big swarm from one of my hives and it was duly passed on to Peter in Elsfield, his first bees.


  2. Pingback: ONBG Meeting, October 2022 – 10th anniversary gathering | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

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