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!
Across the country beekeepers like us are busy collecting lots of honeybee swarms from a variety of interesting locations (my best was from the under the wing of a military jet!) and re-housing them. Swarming is the natural method for a colony of honey bees to reproduce and happens during a calm, dry afternoon, when about half the colony with their Queen leave in a black cloud of flying bees to a pre-destined point about 100m away. Now gathered in a tight cluster of around 10,000 individuals, scout bees are sent out to look for a new home in which to establish a new colony.
During this time, the clustered bees are very docile, but if you do see a swarm of bees, don’t approach them. Instead call your local beekeeper who will be very pleased to gather and rehouse the colony. Alternatively call the British Beekeepers Association on 0871 811 2282 or 0871 811 2337 or use this link to find your nearest local swarm collector.
It's important that beekeepers are able collect and re-house this precious swarms as those that do "go feral" and setup in the wild are unlikely to find a suitable nesting site that is sheltered enough for them to survive the winter. Worse still, without treatment to reduce the number of Varroa mites, wild colonies of Honey Bees don't survive beyond two years as shown by a recent study by Dr Catherine Thompson working for FERA here in the UK.
This means that the survival of the European Honey Bee species is firmly in the hands of bee keepers for the foreseeable future as Varroa mites are now endemic across the whole of Europe and the USA. So it's important that we collect and re-house as many swarms as we can.
Bee swarms are generally extremely docile and most are relatively easy to collect as the bees stay in a tight cluster around their Queen. Scout bees are dispatched to look for a suitable location for the swarm to create a new colony and if one is found the entire group fly off in a single mass to their new home. We use either a woven reed skep (looking exactly the same as the picture here from 1771) or a cardboard box and either shake the swarm into the box or if they are on a fence post we simply put the skep/box above them and they crawl up and inside as they prefer dark, dry spaces.
Sometimes as shown below, we place an old white sheet on the ground with a small hive (or nuc) on top and tray and collect as many of the bees from the swarm as we can and place them on the sheet.
Within seconds, the scouts find the hive, check it out and then waft pheromones to the other bees to encourage the rest of the swarm to join them. As long as the Queen is inside the hive, the rest of the bees will join her and at dusk we can simply seal the entrance of the hive and take the bees away.
Once collected, we check the swarm is healthy, treat for Varroa mites and then generally re-Queen them with a young Queen from a docile stock before either using them ourselves or sometimes donating them to the new beekeepers in our local association as “starter” colonies. They will work with their mentors to build these small colonies up to a size that they can be moved into a full-size hive.
As with many things in nature, timing is everything and a late swarm gathered in July is going to struggle to gather enough stores to see them through the coming winter since the main nectar producing plants finish flowering in late July/early August. Unlike in the past, when wild colonies could be found in every wood, today's beekeepers need to take an active role in feeding these late colonies to ensure their survival.
So whilst the rhyme might say “A swarm in July is not worth a fly” every potential new colony is precious to us and we do everything we can to ensure we collect, re-house and nurture every swarm we can!