A Swarm in May…

An old proverb says:

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay,
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon,
But a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.

Of course that’s from the perspective of the person who finds the swarm. The later in the year you find a swarm, the less pollen there is around, and the less time there is for bees to make honey. But from the perspective of the person whose queen abdicates and takes a couple of thousand followers with her … it’s a pain whenever it happens.

So beeks (beekeepers) keep a lookout – especially when their hives are full and it’s a sunny day. Sunny days being a rarity for the past six weeks, it hasn’t been a problem. Then this week the sun came out and the temperatures began to climb. Shelagh earmarked a hive inspection for the morning of the second sunny day. After six weeks of rain and roofing we’d let the garden slide somewhat – and the priority was weeding, planting, and lawn mowing.

Half an hour before the intended hive inspection, I went to fetch a seed tray full of tomato seedlings from the greenhouse and … heard that telltale buzzing sound. When a hive starts to swarm, you know it. The buzzing can be heard from a hundred yards away as ten thousand bees take to the air and form a cloud above the hive. This cloud lasts for several minutes and rises to thirty feet above the hive. A thirty foot tower of bees flying in a loose cloud over the hive. They’re looking for a place to gather. In our case they like the huge pear tree about twenty feet from the hive. The queen picks a spot in the branches and gradually the swarm join her. It’s not like in the cartoons where the swarm fly as tight group. They take their time – minutes – to join her. At first they cover a large area of the branches, then gradually they close up forming into a ball.

The first picture shows the swarm settling in the tree. The swarm is the brown mass in the bottom right of the picture, but note how many bees are still in the air. A larger picture can be seen here. The second picture shows the same scene ten minutes later. The airborne bees have joined the swarm on the tree. The third picture shows a close up (or as close as this reporter was prepared to go). It’s difficult to see with so many twigs and leaves in the way (and I wasn’t going to hang around to get the perfect shot!) but the swarm had begun to bunch together.

The swarm can stay like that for thirty minutes to a few days. Scouts are sent out to look for a new home. Eventually a decision will be made and the swarm departs. Many beeks attempt to retrieve their bees by putting ladders up to the tree and attempting to knock the swarm into a cardboard box (and from there to a new hive). These are braver beeks than I. And our bees always choose a branch beyond our longest ladder.

This particular swarm left after an hour or so. We didn’t hear any screaming so we assume they didn’t move into any of our neighbours’ homes.

An hour later we opened the old hive to see how many were left and were heartened to see it teeming. Shelagh then came up with a cunning plan – and a near neighbour to the one she would have carried out earlier to prevent swarming. That is – to split the hive and fool them into thinking they’ve swarmed. As there were two frames with queen cells in the hive, she took one of the frames out (along with its nursery bees) and put it in our spare hive. The spare hive was given some honey frames for food and empty frames for expansion. The idea is that the nursery bees feed and hatch out a new queen and a new colony begins. To give them some flying bees to bring in food, we execute an even more cunning scheme. We wait until night and swap the hives around. The flying bees from the original hive fly out the next morning from the old hive and fly back, with pollen, to the new hive. The old hive, wondering what happened to their food gatherers, will then send out a new shift – but the new shift, not having flown before, will not have the former position of the old hive imprinted, and so will return to the correct hive. That’s the theory. We’ve never attempted it before. Watch this space.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth.

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A Swarm in May… — 12 Comments

  1. I don’t believe this. They’ve just swarmed again! And before we could execute the hive swap, so it’s nothing we did. Two swarms in four days! But this time they swarmed into a smaller tree and we pursued them. I’ll write it up next week as it’s still going on. It’s not following any text book and currently we have bees in a bucket, two boxes and a branch. We think we’re winning but extra time is likely:)

  2. For several years now I’ve had bees living part-time in an old birdhouse. There’s no way I could harvest the honey, so they come and go on their own schedule. Here’s a little blog post on them: http://hahvi.net/?p=474

    Good luck with your bee wrangling!

    • Interesting. I think what you’ve got is a bait hive. The swarms that you see are not returning bees (they don’t live that long) but local bees looking for a good place to live. I suspect that your ‘hive’ has an attractive look and smell which draws the scout bees looking for a new home.

    • In theory:) You need to leave the bees enough honey to feed and overwinter on. Some people take the honey and feed sugar syrup or fondant to the bees. We’ve tended to be overgenerous to the bees to make sure they survive the winter and left them honey AND fed them – resulting in a large overwintering hive of fat bees who swarm early. So we’re going to be less generous in the future.

    • They’re quite expensive. What a lot of beeks do is buy one to share. We’re part of a group with access to a centrifuge. This year we hope to be able to use it.