Swarm Season

The Joy of Bees

Honey bee swarms can occur anytime from mid-spring, through the summer. From my experience, they peak in July and quickly reduce as the month fades, with August swarms quite rare. I’ve always been fascinated by bees and started beekeeping when I was 16. My mentor was my first boss and he kept his bees in the grounds of our spectacular workplace, Wollaton Hall in Nottingham. 

Bee Sayings

His two bee sayings were… “a swarm in May’s worth a load of hay. A swarm in June’s worth a silver spoon but a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.” And… “Bees in a wood will do no good.”

The first relates to late swarms not building up number enough in time to make honey in that season. They’ll be worth a load of hay next year. He used to tell me I was worth my weight in horse muck. He’d follow that with “it’s valuable stuff”. Bees can do alright in woods, but the cooler damper conditions common there, are often not good for bees. They like sunshine and warmth and good ventilation too. 

The Dangerous Swarm

For much of my early childhood, I thought that swarms were a dangerous thing, that something was wrong and nature had run amok. My ladybird book of the life of the honeybee didn’t put any negative spin on it. But neither did it tell me how exciting swarms are. I got a taste of this when a swarm flew over our garden when I was peddling around in a pedal-car aged about five. They gathered for a moment, still in flight, around the top of our plum tree but then flew on. The noise was amazing. 

That was my only experience of an actual swarm until, a few weeks into my apprenticeship at Wollaton Hall; the phone rang. My boss answered, asked a few questions and replaced the handset.  

“We’ve got a swarm”

“Come-on Ian we’ve got a swarm,” he said. He had a buzz about him. I didn’t know why but it infected me too and he’d told me I’d like a swarm. His name was Don Sharp and he was the taxidermist/preparator at the museum based in the Elizabethan stately home. He kept bees too and the natural history museum had become the place to call if a swarm of bees turned up in your garden. They turned up in other places too, Police station porches, pillar boxes and schools being the most memorable. He grabbed an old cardboard box and threw some scissors in there and a couple of bee veils and shoved the box into my hands.  “Come-on…” 

We scurried out of the building, jumped onto his 175cc motorbike and buzzed off! Me clutching the cardboard box with one hand and a little bar at the back of my seat with the other. I never ever remember him looking at a map, he just took an address and went straight to it. 7 miles later we pulled up outside a small house in Mapperley Plains. A terrified elderly couple were looking out through the window. 

A swarm of bees

Thousands of bees

There’s the swarm he said, gesturing down to left, “they’ve settled nicely, get your veil on.” 

  The couple would not come out but talked excitedly to my boss through a crack in the door.  

“They were everywhere” they said, “thousands and thousands of them in a cloud; and the noise!” 

My boss told them that swarms fill them selves up with honey before they leave the hive and that a full bee is a happy bee. “They very rarely sting,” he said and they have no territory to defend”. He said a lot more but grabbed a veil, flung it over his head and we approached the bees. They were clustered together about the size of a rugby ball hanging from a rose bush, about 2 feet above the ground.

swarms cluster in bushes
The swarm gathers in a bush

A Box of Bees

He told me to open the box and hold it beneath the bees. We had no bee gloves with us, he very rarely wore them. As soon as the box was beneath the bees he said “stand-by”  and shook the bush. The ball of bees dropped into the box like a bomb. I felt their weight hit the bottom but at the same time a mushroom cloud of bees exploded around us. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the buzzing as he closed the box with bees all over his bare hands. 

Being the hero

“Once it’s shut, flip it over,” he said. I did as I was told with bees all over my hands too. “I forgot to make a door,” he said, taking his penknife from his pocket and quickly carving a little U-shape in the box which he open out to form both an opening and a shelf for the bees to land on. The flying bees used his landing pad immediately, thrusting their rear ends in the air and exposing a little white patch.  

Swarms love a box
The Swarm head into the box

“That’s the Nasonov gland,” he said. “They’re fanning a pheromone to tell the other bees, “Come here, the queen’s in here”. The flying bees began flowing into the box amid an exciting and exhilarating hum. The home-owners watched with open mouths from their window. I felt like an expert and a hero all in one. 

“We’ll just watch a while to make sure they’re going in and then we’ll go, and come back at dusk when they’re all in the box,” he told them; and off we buzzed on his little bike, nothing unusual for him but a life changing day for me… my first swarm. Two weeks later, he was away for a conference and another call came in. The Keeper of Biology, himself terrified of bees, drove me out to the address in Bramcote where I boxed them up as I had been shown, again with terrified and amazed onlookers. 

What is a Swarm?

Collecting a swarm is, by pure accident, a bit like putting on a show where the audience are not just tense, but truly scared. So what is a swarm? 

A swarm is quite simply the honey bee’s way of reproducing. A colony of bees act like a single organism with sterile workers and a single queen. When the breeding season comes along, the worker bees create a special large cell (or a few usually) and feed the grub inside a special diet. This allows it to mature as a fertile queen rather than infertile workers like themselves.

The Queen Bee Pupa

When the new queen emerges she has still to be mated and can’t produce workers so the old queen, with about half the workforce, leaves the hive or hollow tree or attic to find a new home, and they don’t do it quietly. She leaves eggs behind to keep the old colony going while the new queen sorts herself out. She is also able to lay eggs as soon as the swarm workers have built wax comb and swarms are particularly quick at producing comb.  

A New Home

Swarms are very keen to find a new home and will accept a cardboard box with apparent gratitude. They don’t have to be shaken in; place the box beside them and they’ll go in by themselves. Shaking them speeds it up a bit and I think my boss liked a crazy cloud of bees. I have repeated this process more times than I can remember, including this week,  but find it just as thrilling every time. It is not just working with nature but in nature. We didn’t get a sting between us that day.  

The Queen Bee

The Queen Bee

Queen honeybees can live for 4 years or more, but are probably at their best in their second year. They don’t boss the other bees about, but release pheromones which stimulate a variety of behaviours among which is queen production or lack of it. It is a violent society, two queens hatching simultaneously will fight to the death and workers will kill failing queens to replace them with their daughters. Workers become very heavy handed with un-mated queens pretty much pushing the slow-starters out of the hive to get mated; queens mate in the air at high speed killing their mate in the process.

The main job of the beekeeper, is to keep the number of bees in the hive high so that more honey comes in and so they use a variety of tricks to prevent swarming when they lose about half their bees. But, oh boy, the swarm is the exciting bit.  

The Joy of Beekeeping

The swarm I collected this week did me the honour of  showing me the queen who alighted on the box before going in. Queens can be handled without fear because they have no aggression towards anyone except other queens. Amongst the swarming workers were individuals carrying pollen ready to found the new colony. Adult bees are mostly honey-powered but their young need pollen and nothing gives me more pleasure than sitting by the hive watching the different colours of pollen coming in. Often, you can tell by the colour and the time of year, what species the pollen is. 

That’s the joy of beekeeping in a nutshell. 

Bee Products

Art for nature lovers
Sketching Honey Bees

The Bee art print, and notebook all have a guide to help you to identify the pollen on the bees legs. Bee watching is a great way to pass a few hours in the garden on a sunny day – I highly recommend it.

You can find the products here

Even the bees gave the notebook their seal of approval 🙂

Getting the bee approval

2 thoughts on “Swarm Season”

  1. In memory of Don Sharp

    The ‘phone rang and the voice of Glyn Flowerdew reached my ear: would I be interested in re-stocking the observation hive in the Insect Room at Wollaton Hall? That’s how our little gesture to the memory of Don Sharp began. We were to use Don’s very own observation hive that he built himself. The best nucleus of bees was chosen and was hived by the two of us on one hot day in May. It looked beautiful. So in it went in the dead of night (the Hall’s security system shut down for a while). In situ it looked even more beautiful! Then one day in July the voice of Glyn Flowerdew reached my ear again: we have to take the bees out because some idiot has smashed the glass with a hammer. Later, I gave Don’s observation hive to Tony Maggs for safekeeping.

    1. Don trained me as a beekeeper and taxidermist in the early 1980s and I used to tend that observation hive and other livestock in the insect gallery and the Amoeba to Man gallery with Don and Chris Paul. We remained firm friends and I miss him every day. According to Don, my honey was very tasty but never quite reached the deliciousness of his! I keep trying.
      The lime tree honey of Wollaton Park is pretty special.

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