Sunday, 17 April 2011

Bee-z-y does it

I had actually got the hoover out and ready to use, when Al came through asking for help.  There was a swarm of bees at the bottom of the garden.  It was from one of his three hives and they hadn't gone far, just a few yards to the nearest tree.  Dilly was out in Norwich with her mother and sister, shopping.  I know that a swarm of bees is normally a gentle beast, so I was quick to volunteer to help and went next door to dress in Dilly's beekeeper suit and my wellies.  Al couldn't find his camera, nor could I mine, so I've captured the whole thing on the phone.  Not a picture of me in the suit though, I'm afraid.

Pictures aren't going too well on Blogger at present, for a brief while one could arrange them nicely side by side, but now they seem to go in a line downwards again, so this may be a long post in every sense except the wooden one.  The long video is taking an age to load.
This is the swarm.  The text book way of securing them would be to tap them in one lot into a basket, or else cut off the branch and drop them that way.  However, they were clustered round in the crook of two branches of an elder, and it was not possible.  Al decided, instead, to brush as many as possible into the basket, trying to include the queen who would be in the centre, drop them on the sheet and they should then walk upwards and find the hive.
I was too interested in what he was doing to film it very well, but I got most of it - it seems that Blogger can't cope with 50 seconds of video however, and it won't load.  I'll try editing it into bits tomorrow.  A swarm of bees is not dangerous unless they think you are threatening the queen.  As you see, they are completely docile here.  They were bewildered but not angry.  I had my suit on, but my right hand uncovered to use the phone camera (and Facebook, because I was excitedly live-FB-ing it) and no bee settled on me or tried to sting.  Even though Al was brushing right into the heart of the cluster, the hum of bees never became an angry buzz.
Their instinct is to walk uphill, so they started moving into the hive at once.  However, they would be looking for the queen.  If they didn't find her, they would come out again, as you can hear Al explain to me.  Sadly, that droning voice saying "They're going in"..."Right" is me.

Al was the first to spot her, she still has her blue paint on - you mark your queen so that she's easy to find, but the workers try to clean the paint off so it usually doesn't last long.  I've zoomed in, you can just get a vague blue blur near the centre of the picture if you peer closely, though I thought I'd got her better than that.  Al chivvied her over towards the entrance, but she managed to get under the hive.  Luckily, she came out again a minute later and we both saw her walk in.  I was too interested in looking at her to remember to take a picture of the moment, I'm afraid.

And here are pictures of the rest of the bees following her, apart from those still on the tree.  On my way back to the house, I took a picture of the hive that the swarm came from.  The queen, before leaving, will have left plenty of eggs.  Some of those would hatch out into queens.  Al will go through the hive, destroying most of the queen cells - which are easily recognised, being much bigger than ordinary egg cells - because if more than one hatches at the same time, there will be another swarm.  If one queen hatches first, she will destroy the other queen larvae herself.  A newly hatched larvae becomes a queen by being fed royal jelly by the workers, as you probably know.

Twenty minutes later, we heard a loud droning noise (not me, that time) and Al was concerned that the queen had rejected the hive and left again.  He hurried down the garden to look.  But it was all right.  The signal had gone out that the queen was in residence, and the rest of the bees from the tree and in the air were all going to their new home, all in one loud mass.  Within a few minutes, they were tranquilly out foraging again.  This evening, we moved the hive to its new situation by the rest of the hives.  It was a slightly awkward job as we were wading through nettles on uneven ground, but it went without problems.

I've offered to be apprentice Second Beekeeper for the rest of this year.  Dilly is rather too pregnant to want to put on the suit and it would be upsetting for her to be stung, now or with a new baby to care for. I'm not afraid of things buzzing around, won't panic if I'm stung and do what I'm told quite nicely.  And the bees are fascinating.  I can see myself becoming as interested as Al, if I don't watch out.


Marion said...

Bees really are interesting. If Al hadn't noticed them in the tree, would they have moved on?

Z said...

There should be a couple of videos later, Marion, the longer one is taking ages to load.

Yes, bees were out searching for a suitable place while the swarm waits, and it could be a few miles away. They can wait for a few days if necessary but don't usually. Alex was very lucky that these settled so close to the hive. He heard them fly, a swarm of bees is surprisingly loud.

Mike and Ann said...

Thank you Z. That was fascinating. I'd love to have had a go at beekeeping. Life really is too short to fit in all the interesting things there are to do.

Z said...

The first video clip is too long for Blogger to cope with, I think. I'll have a go at editing it into bits tomorrow and post it then. The second clip is up now, showing them staring to walk up the sheet and into the hive.

Z said...

Starting. But typos don't count as mistakes in comments, do they!

Eddie 2-Sox said...


Dave said...

Oddly, bee-keeping has never appealed to me.

Christopher said...

Wonderful. We had a similar swarm outside our bathroom window two years ago. A beekeeping neighbour came up with a bee-box into which they went automatically. When you picked the full box up, you could feel it vibrating under thousands of bee-feet.

A swarm in May
Is worth a load of hay.
A swarm in June
Is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm in July
Isn't worth a fly.

Pity there isn't a convenient rhyme for April. Or is there?

Dave said...

A swarm in April
Pays the tax bill.

Ivy said...

That`s fascinating. How many bees are there in a swarm?

Z said...

Swarming this early is unusual. Last year the first swarm happened in the last week in April - again catching Al out, but they landed on the back of another hive, and he was able to catch them again. An early swarm is quite convenient to Al as he sells surplus new queens. He doesn't want more than three hives.

It depends on the size of the colony, Ivy - certainly thousands of bees, but it can be several tens of thousands. I'll guess and say there were between 5 and 10 thousand here, but it really is a guess.

Blue Witch said...

No, I'm not going to say a word. But, a bit more experience might lead Al to adopt different management practices ;)

Z said...

He hadn't expected a swarm this early, but in any case he doesn't really want to kill - or de-wing -the queen to prevent it - he explained the reasons to me (not sentiment) and it made sense.

As for the different management practices, I expect he will with time. He says that every beekeeper he knows tells him the very best practice and no two tell him exactly the same thing. So it's a matter of working out what suits him best.

Hope you're still planning to come here on the 2nd, you can see how the hives are looking then. Probably lost in a sea of nettles - we've got plans to move them next winter to somewhere less stingy!

Anonymous said...

Mythical creatures. Formidable.

Z said...

We treat them with great respect, Mago.

Blue Witch said...

There are many reasons that bees swarm this early - but the most likely in this situation, IMO/E is lack of space.

We currently have 3 supers on each of our 7 colonies. The bees need them for the room at this time of year. And we use 14" x 12" national boxes (having stated with standard nationals like Al).

As someone who used to manage this area's swarm service (and take the hundreds of calls from Worried Public every summer), I am alarmed that Al is selling queens from swarmy colonies. It just makes for more feral/diseased bees, and more swarm calls - not good for any beekeeper. I would ask you to ask him to think about this. Yes, it's easy money, but it's not fair to novice/unknowledgeable beekeepers (who are likely to be the only ones who'd buy them anyway).

Swarminess is a trait that should be selectively bred for, just as much as docility etc.

An old and very wise beekeeper, who died at 99 last year, once told me that if one's bees swarm, one should feel one had failed and set about ensuring it doesn't happen again. I've always taken that to heart, and thought very seriously about what we've done wrong on the rare occasion that it now happens to us (other, of course, than when I do a Swarm Spell, for specific purposes, eg when the builders were here 5 years ago and needed a scare to buck their ideas up!!!).

Z said...

Love, I don't know, they're his bees and I don't look after them. Interestingly, the only swarm he lost was his first, a couple of years ago, and it turned out to be a good thing - that had been a really bad-tempered colony and the new queen had a sweet-natured and docile colony, as are all his hives at present. He's really careful on disease prevention and does the recommended treatment against varroa.

He does take it to heart and knows well that he's still a novice. The upside is that he has got some practice in catching an awkward swarm - odds are that he'll be called on to help someone sooner or later, a trial at home with bees he knows are nice-natured will help him get experience. He worries enough about his bees and I'm not going to say anything to depress him.