There is a very old beekeepers rhyme that goes...
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!
After a relatively cold and wet spring, the bees have really got going now and the recent warm weather in June has started swarm season with a bang!
Across the country, beekeepers like us are really 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.
A swarm of Honeybees clustered in a hedge
The picture above is a typical swarm from one of our own colonies that were found in the hedge on the approach to one of our out-apiaries.
Bee swarms are generally extremely docile and most are relatively easy to collect as the bees stay in a tight cluster around their Queen as shown above. 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.
If you do see a swarm of Honeybees looking like this in a tight cluster, 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 362 0138 (please note calls to this number cost 24p for the first minute and 9p per minute thereafter plus your phone company's access charge). or use this link to find your nearest local swarm collector.
It's important that beekeepers are able to collect and re-house these precious swarms as those that do "go feral" and set up 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 arecent 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 beekeepers, so it's important that we collect and re-house as many swarms as we can.
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!