Excited, nervous and a little tired after an 8am wake-up call, I was all ready and dressed in my protective clothing. Just four weeks after completing my beekeeping course I was on my way to collect my first swarm with local expert John.
As we drove across Birmingham, John explained that some children at a local school had noticed the swarm during playtime. Luckily they’d called the teachers, who Googled ‘Bee swarm collectors’ and provided John with his 20th swarm of the season.
Trying hard to remember what I had been taught, I ran the details through my head. Bees usually swarm when the colony divides to produce two colonies, which doubles the chances of the colony’s survival. The new queen bee stays behind with half the colony, and the old queen bee flies away with the rest of them.
Before all this, the bees reduce the queen bees honey allowance to make her thinner, so she can fly more swiftly (this usually coincides with her egg laying becoming infrequent). Apparently when she starts a new colony, she rejuvenates and starts laying loads more eggs!
The clever bees take food supplies with them for a couple of days, and usually swarm between May and July when pollen is plentiful. We knew that the bees had, unusually, settled on a patch of grass, instead of their usual preferred resting place of a tree trunk. The children had seen them 17 hours earlier, but we had no idea how long they had been there, and left alone too long they will starve and die.
At the school we were met by the caretakers, who took us to the swarm. I felt a bit of a fraud dressed in my beekeeper’s outfit, especially as the school staff were treating me with such respect, while I knew so little. John told me that the swarm had about 15,000 honey bees. We needed to get as many of them as possible into the skep – a straw basket we could transport them in. Any which were left flying around without the queen would die.
Laying the skep on the floor, with a plastic tube placed under it to allow entry, most of the bees quickly rushed into it.
Watching carefully at the entrance, I could see the bees performing the waggle dance, which is their way of telling the other bees that it is safe to go inside.
To encourage the last few stragglers, we used the smoker, which gently encourages the bees to fly upwards into the centre of the skep, to escape the smoke.
Glancing across the school playground we saw that the children had been brought out of school to watch us from a safe distance. I was really heartened to see them being encouraged to engage
When we had the majority of the bees in the skep, and secured with netting, I held them up for my photo (which you’ll see on all my stories on Henpicked). It was a really amazing moment for me – I’d wanted to have bees for years and now I had collected my own swarm! Immediately they felt part of my family and I felt very protective of them. However, John brought me down to earth by reminding me they wouldn’t hesitate to sting me if they thought I was attacking them!
We stashed them into the back of John’s van, but there was a slight problem – I’d only taken delivery of my hives the previous day and hadn’t had the chance to assemble them. My hopes that John would do them for me were dashed, as I had to take responsibility for my bees, but I could assemble them under his tutelage. If he’d known how unskilled I was with a screwdriver he might not have suggested this! But I did it, and felt a great sense of achievement when they were done.
The bees had been transferred from the skep into a temporary hive to give them more space, but we transferred them to my hives at the bottom of my garden the next day. As you can see from the photo, it’s a magical sight. Seeing them start to cautiously go into the entrance, and then, as the waggle dancers encourage them, rush in so quickly that they block the entrance, is rather amazing.
At last they were all home. During the previous year I had planned carefully to keep bees. My garden had been made into a wildflower meadow, edged with lavender, buddleias, and 40 large sunflowers. My garden also has had plenty of ivy, which provides the bees with the last pollen of the season.
We checked the hive after a week and found that there were already new eggs and some honey, which meant the queen was present (if we hadn’t collected her in the swarm, they would all have died). It was interesting to see that the bees, when returning to the hive after collecting food, were carrying Himalayan Balsam. There isn’t any in my garden and as far as I know, the nearest source is a riverside two miles away. So that’s what they thought of the bee paradise I had created for them!
During the winter, bees have to be fed a strong sugar solution. As I have woodpeckers regularly visiting the garden, I also have to check the hive for damage, as they can peck big holes into hives and eat the bees, especially in winter when their food supply is low.
You don’t collect honey during the first year with a new swarm, as the bees need it to survive the winter. If there’s any honey this year I’ll give some to friends as presents, instead of wine. Bees produce different coloured honey throughout the season, which reflects the colours of the plants from which they have taken the pollen, so it can be golden, dark brown, runny or set.
I just need to decide on a name for my honey. First Swarm Honey anyone?
More information on beekeeping: British Beekeepers Association
Beekeeping courses here.