Swarm stories

Swarm outside Nigel’s house. Photo (c) Nigel Webb 2019

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

Posted in Swarms | 3 Comments

Grow, shake or drum? Transferring bees between hive types

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.

What method(s) do you prefer?

Continue reading

Posted in Group Digest, Hives, ONBG, Warré | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

ONBG meeting, 6th April 2019 – TBHs

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.

Continue reading

Posted in Apiary visits, Inspections, Meetings, ONBG, TBH | Tagged , | Leave a comment

ONBG meeting, 9th March 2019 – new season, new faces!

One of the attendees ready for her selfie

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

Posted in Ecology, Meetings, ONBG, Swarms, Warré | Tagged , | Leave a comment

New adventures

WP_20180615_011.jpg“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.

Continue reading

Posted in TBH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Training new beeks

Opening an (empty!) Warre hive in the kitchen

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.

Continue reading

Posted in Event, Local lore, ONBG, Pests, Skeps, TBH, Warré | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Moving hives less than 3 miles

The “3 foot / 3 mile” rule-of-thumb refers to how if you move a hive more than 3 feet, sometimes returning foragers cannot find it. Their internal maps are so precise they get confused, and keep looking where the entrance “ought” to be. To move a hive to a new position, you can do it in small hops, one a day. If you move the hive far enough away they will re-orient on the new position, but “far enough” is 3 miles. If the new position is nearer to the old one than that, they recognise landmarks and navigate back to the old one.

I posted the following advice about how to move a hive between these extremes on a forum, and was soon asked for permission to reproduce it elsewhere. So I guess it’s worth repeating… Continue reading

Posted in Hives | Tagged , | Leave a comment