At long last, it has been warm enough (at times) for me to be able to open up my hives to check what is happening inside. All colonies bar one had plenty of stores, gathered last autumn. As usual, it is mainly ivy honey, which granulates to a very hard consistency, making it difficult for the bees to access. They need to gather large volumes of water to soften and dilute these stores to the point where they can assimilate this carbohydrate part of their diet, which is why you see bees around water sources like garden ponds and rain-water puddles. When bees are gathering water (or nectar or pollen for that matter), they are quite harmless and non-aggressive, as bees do not sting unless they feel their hive (and therefore queen) is under threat.
Away from the hive, the bees generally take no interest in us, even if we brush against the flowers or water they are on. They will just rise up and fly away to the next source of nectar or water. This is also true of bees when they are in a swarm, and we are now approaching the swarming season.
Bees swarm as a means of propagating the species, so it is instinctive, though there are certain things the beekeeper can do to reduce the likelihood of swarming. But once the bees have decided they want to swarm, they generally will – that is, if the beekeeper is not doing his/her job properly. When bees are swarming, the sky turns black and there is an associated roar as a result of the number of bees flying in close proximity at one time – quite frightening to the uninitiated! However, bees are generally in their safest and most non-aggressive state at this time, because they have previously stocked up on honey (not knowing how long they will be homeless nor when their next meal will be).
They are like us after having eaten a large meal – we can’t bend over easily to tie up our shoelaces – and what’s more, we are so relaxed, we can’t really be bothered anyway! The bees are exactly the same. They have filled their stomachs with honey, so they can’t bend their abdomens to insert a sting into our flesh – and what’s more, they are so at ease with the world as a result of their gorging on honey, they can’t be bothered either! However, beware the swarm that has been hanging in the tree for two or three days – the bees will be getting hungry and cold and worried about whether or not they will be successful in finding a new home.
Sometimes, therefore, they can be quite crotchety, even though it is with good cause. At this time of year, I place empty hives on a shed or garage roof, so if there is a swarm around looking for a new home, it will possibly find one of these hives and take up residence. This minimises the time the swarm is homeless, which is good for the public and good for the bees – and good for me, because I have acquired a new colony of bees which I can save from perishing, as without a beekeeper’s intervention a colony of unmanaged bees will die out in two or three years as a result of the predations of the parasite Varroa, with which all bees are afflicted.
No, beekeeping is not what it once was. It is no longer a question of just gathering in the honey at the end of the season – beekeepers are now full-time carers, an essential and important responsibility if we want to save the planet (more of this later). So if you see a swarm either in flight, or settled on a tree branch or in a hedge, give me a call and I will either come and safely remove it, or arrange for someone else to do so – for no charge! If you fail to do so, the bees will likely be dead within a year or two. I can be contacted under: firstname.lastname@example.org 01872 501313