Well, we always said that the early foretaste of summer would not last and by now it has been gone for about 2 weeks. However, the bees have not let that stop them doing what they instinctively do best – swarm! I checked my hives in Portscatho (on the rape) in the last week of April and all was well. On 4th May I visited again and found one colony with few flying bees so examined it. It had no brood, no queen and not the large number of bees that had been present a week previously. They had apparently swarmed! And on that particular day, admittedly after the event, I had placed a bait hive in the vicinity of the hives – just in case! – but not soon enough!
Having found an open queen cell, a closed queen cell and a hive demeanour that indicated the presence of a queen, I assumed the old queen had flown with the swarm and a new queen had (presumably) emerged. This must have happened so recently that she had not yet had time to seek out any other embryo queens prior to stinging them to death in their cells. I left the closed queen cell and went back two days later to see if there had been a caste (secondary swarm) with the queen from this cell, hopefully caught in the bait hive. On arrival, I checked the bait hive – no bees, so that was a good sign. On looking at the entrance of the swarmed hive, I saw there were no bees flying! I watched for ages. Nothing.
Very worried now, I opened the hive and to my surprise saw lots of bees climbing up the outside faces of the inner boxes to find out what the disturbance was all about. They were clustered in the cavity between the inner and outer walls of my twin-walled hive! They had made three combs and were settled quite comfortably there and when I brushed them aside I found my marked queen in all her glory. She hadn’t swarmed after all. What had happened was that, because the site is particularly exposed to the southwest winds, I had placed a very large and heavy concrete block on the roof, to stop it blowing away and exposing the bees to inclement weather. This block was so heavy that it had pressed down on the outer casing of the hive and basically closed up the entrance below. The bees were therefore trapped inside the inner boxes with no access to the outside – until they found a knot in the wood that had fallen out! This gave them access to the cavity into which they moved, with the queen, and started to establish a new nest.
On restoring the queen and her bees to the inner boxes and rectified the entrance problem, the bees started flying as per normal and all was again right with the world. I then had a call four days later to say there was a swarm adjacent to my hives and I should go and retrieve it. I jumped into the car and was there in a trice but there was no sign of any swarm – and my hives seemed to have their full complement of bees. On looking around, I was eventually directed to the swarm by the landowner, on the other side of a series of farm buildings from my apiary – not a likely swarming spot for my bees. On collecting the swarm, I soon realised it was a secondary swarm with a virgin queen, so proof again that it was not one of mine. So somewhere in the Portscatho area there is a prime swarm which has recently taken up residence, either in an empty hive or a roof space somewhere.
This has enabled the bees to propagate their species and reduced the danger of them dying out – an instinctive trait we should not decry (when it is within reason), though the beekeeper’s role in life is to prevent such a loss of bees by making them think they have swarmed, whilst controlling how they do it. Isn’t Nature marvellous and so clever – when mankind doesn’t try to improve on things by interfering!? More on swarming next time, but don’t forget to contact me if you see a swarm – it’s important that swarms are captured and treated for Varroa, otherwise the resulting colony won’t last for more than a couple of years untreated. I will ensure the swarm is retrieved, either by myself or another local beekeeper.
Colin Rees – firstname.lastname@example.org – 01872 501313