Lunch – with swarm of bees in the box. Image (c) Jane Denby, 2019
Fifteen of us met in a beautiful cottage hidden near the middle of Oxford. The plan was to have lunch, inspect Top Bar Hives and see a nearby Freedom Hive, and we managed to meet these targets due to skillful herding by Jane despite the massive amount of chat and laughing.
People staring at mobile phones walked past oblivious as this was gathered in central Oxford
Serendipitously, a call came in about a swarm just before the meeting, and it was only about a mile away so I collected it en route. It was huge, especially as most prime swarms occurred last month, so is probably from a commercial colony (i.e. the numbers are larger than found in our hives because the beekeeper stimulates the queen to lay at maximum rate all the time, to maximise honey yield). It was so large – perhaps over 2kg – we wondered if it was an entire colony absconding from a hive that had got damp in the recent extended heavy rain.
Here’s some things our group has learned, from over 120 swarm collections over several years: what went right…. and what went wrong!
First though – what are swarms? – Within each hive is a queen who lays eggs which become new bees for that hive. But honeybee queens can’t set up a new colony on their own, they are too specialised. Swarms are how bees found new colonies – a queen flies off with 30-50% of the flying bees in a hive. Usually, they gather in a clump on, say, a tree branch, while scouts look for the best home available. While in this clump, we can easily gather them in a box and take them to a hive. Occasionally though, they fly straight from a hive to their chosen new home which could be a roof, chimney, hollow tree or if we’re lucky, an empty hive.
Swarms are useful because they can be used to populate empty hives, and act as a firebreak against disease – most bee pests attack the larvae, but only flying adults are in a swarm.
Early swarms are desirable because they have all year to build up and furthermore, a late swarm risks a dearth of food in this area (the June Gap) just as it is trying to set up home. The bees need to build up to a “critical mass” of numbers and stores to survive the next winter.
Unlike buying a nucleus (mini colony) of bees, or a package (an American abomination), swarms are free but take a year to build up to full strength – you don’t take honey in their first year. Prime swarms hit the ground running and build comb rapidly; afterswarms (casts) have unmated queens, are smaller, are later – so have less forage – and more likely to die in their first winter.
Some commercial beekeepers catch swarms, kill the queens and use the workers to reinforce honey-producing hives with queens they trust. Our group’s emphasis is to propagate survivor genetics and we particularly prize queens and swarms from unmanaged colonies. Continue reading →
Recently a question was raised on the OxNatBees members’ mailing list on how to transfer bees from one hive type to another where the bars are incompatible, in this case from a National deep brood box to a Warré.
The discussion arising, given in summary below, was around three possible methods: growing down, making a shook/brushed ‘swarm’, or to drum them out. The method chosen and the member’s experience is also given.
Preliminary discussion of comb management in TBHs with the aid of a small (nucleus) TBH. Photo (c) Jane Denby used here with permission
15 of us converged at Zuzana’s to see her Top Bar Hive, and particularly how to move bars around an occupied hive to make room for the nest to expand. This is necessary in large, established colonies in this type of hive as they can bottle themselves into one end of the hive with a wall of honeycomb for winter, then find the honeycomb prevents them expanding the nest again for Spring.
This is explained in a lot of detail, along with other TBH management practises in Les Crowder’s excellent book Top-Bar Beekeeping, but as several people commented, it’s one thing reading about these practises but sometimes it’s easier to grasp when physically demonstrated.
Fifteen of us gathered at Mary’s in Oxford to share a meal, view her hives, and discuss bees and particularly preparation for the forthcoming swarm season.
Spring has begun early this year and beekeepers are wondering if it is a false start like last year, which tricked many colonies into activity too early, so they ran out of stores and starved when winter returned. Fruit trees and other crops can also suffer if frost returns after they commit to blossoming. Gilliane remarked that her hive sensors show a constant 30C above the brood area now, so her bees have committed to building up numbers. But as of time of writing (end of March) it’s still warm so it looks like bees, farms and gardens are OK this year. Continue reading →
“So what are you going to do with the bees?” it was the first question that anyone asked when I said I was moving house. The bees had lived for two years in a back-garden hive but now the tenancy was coming to an unexpected end. I needed to find new places for both me and the bees to live – and house-searching with a bee colony in tow didn’t seem to be a sensible option.
“Can you set them free?” asked Cassie, one of my colleagues. I tried to explain that they were already free: “they can already go wherever they want, they choose to come back”. Yet somehow she imagined that I could unpick whatever sage-scented magic drew them into the hive and send them pouring forth into the world, perhaps the swarm forming the shape of an orca whale as it brushed my outstretched fingertips and breached over the fence towards the Elder Stubbs allotments.
In early February, we held a couple of afternoon training sessions for new beekeepers, to give them an outline of what’s involved in keeping bees in the UK.
We started with basic biology, and how this drives their very alien behaviour – their social interdependency; how they perceive the world through very different senses; and why they exhibit behaviours like swarming and making honey.
ONBG (OxNatBees) is an informal mutual support network for beginners and experienced beeks who aspire to practise bee-centric, low intervention, and chemical-free beekeeping in Oxfordshire. To join the group and share ideas, questions, information and experiences, please use this site's Contact Us form.