More Swarms in May

You may remember last week’s account of our hive swarming. And how an hour or so after posting they swarmed again. So, what happened next?

Well, this time they settled in an apple tree and, with the aid of a stepladder, they were in reach. We could – if we were intrepid – attempt to capture them. How do you capture a swarm? The textbooks make it look easy. You take a cardboard box, score the insides with a knife to give the bees something rough to cling onto, then you hold the cardboard box under the swarm with one hand while you tap the swarm gently with the other and – voila! – the bees land on your head and you run screaming to the nearest lake.

Okay, not the last part. In the textbooks the bees fall into the box, you swiftly invert the box and place it on a flat surface. You then poke a piece of wood under one end of the box so the bees who didn’t fall into the box have a way to re-join the swarm. You keep the box shaded so the swarm doesn’t overheat, then wait until dusk. At dusk you carry the box over to your new hive, hold the box over the open hive, give the box a couple of sharp taps to knock the bees into the hive, then put the lid back on the hive.

That’s the theory. In the textbooks the swarm choose trees with accessible straight branches and the swarm hangs like a teardrop from these horizontal branches. In reality tree branches are all over the place, they bend, they fork and they’re covered with sprouting branches and twigs. And the swarm sticks to that misshapen branch like half a wheel of cheese.

That’s what we were faced with. To get a cardboard box anywhere near the swarm we first had to lop off a number of smaller branches. Then came phase two. The ascent of the stepladder and positioning of the box. Two hands were not enough. There was no way a tap of the swarm was going to do anything but really annoy them. They covered about a foot of an L-shaped branch. The only way to dislodge them was to shake the branch. But the branch was too thick to be shaken one-handed.

Enter plan B. Shelagh would climb the ladder and shake the branch with two hands. And I’d balance a cardboard box on a pole underneath the hive. Even if you’re suited up, this is not something for the faint hearted. I crouched there underneath a swarm of several thousand bees, balancing a box on a pole above my head with the hope that the swarm would fall into the box and not onto my head. The branch began to shake. The bees buzzed loudly. I braced myself…

Shelagh grabbed the box and inverted it… This was the point when I saw a potential flaw in Plan B. I was a few feet beneath a box of irate bees … that was being tipped over.

I ducked and rolled – manfully – well, going for manfully but verging into headless chicken territory. Amazingly the bees stayed in their box. That is, the ones that weren’t still in the branches. We looked up at the swarm in the tree. Only about a third had been dislodged and the remainder showed no inclination to follow. Where was the queen – in the box or in the tree?

We set the box on the ground and watched for five minutes. Some bees were flying around between the box and the tree but we couldn’t work out if they were going to the box or the tree.

So we got a bucket and started again. And then got a third bucket. After thirty minutes, we had four colonies. Two in buckets, a diminishing colony in a box and a sizeable number still in the tree. Where the hell was the queen? Five minutes later something weird happened. There was a sudden increase in buzzing from the tree and a cloud descended and slowly flew into the first bucket.

As it was a hot sunny day and the buckets were in the sun, we rigged up shade by propping a large sheet of plywood up against the stepladder. Ten minutes later – after we’d de-suited – a gust of wind blew the plywood over and the ladder fell onto the buckets and knocked them all over. Shelagh, in a panic, ran over to the bucket and righted it. Then, in more of a panic as a bee was caught in her hair, ran, arms flailing, back to the house. Medicinal chocolate was administered liberally.

At dusk, the bucket was taken over to a new hive and the bees were tapped into it. We now had three hives – our original hive (much depleted), the second hive that we’d created by taking a frame full of nursery bees and a queen cell from hive one, and our new hive with the swarm.

Five days later hive one swarmed again. We let this one go. Shelagh checked all three hives yesterday and all three looked healthy. The bees are busy and prospering. Shelagh also removed the extra queen cells from hive one. This is the recommended practice. The idea is that queens, when hatched, will seek out other queens and go all Lady Macbeth on them. There can be only one queen. To limit the danger of all the queens being killed in a gladiatorial blood bath – the books say remove all queen cells but two. Advice we followed the first year and ended up with no queen for about eight weeks. So we’ve tended to leave the queen cells alone. Unfortunately some of the queens this year were pacifist queens who decided that instead of fighting they’d abdicate and take a swarm of their BFFs with them.

Queens are like that.


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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More Swarms in May — 10 Comments

  1. Is there some reason why you didn’t include pictures? If only you had snapped off a few quick ones at the point the bees were going to fall on your head! A video would have been even better. I’m talking viral. Next time, Chris, try to think ahead.

    • I did think ‘shall I fetch the camera?’ for a fleeting moment but the buzzing of ten thousand bees above my head pushed it out of my mind:)

  2. Tch. Video. Why was a camera crew not at the ready? And a sound team, so that your cries of dismay could be recorded in surround sound.

  3. Yeah, why no pix? Your third hand could hold the camera quite deedily.

    When you say suited up, is this like full-on nuclear power space helmets and suits and maximum override oven mitts? Or are you guys baddasses and ‘suited up’ means a baseball cap and a sweater?

    • We have the full beekeeper’s white suits with gauze face cover, elbow-length leather gloves, Wellington boots, Klingon disrupter rifles…

  4. I’m glad you’ve had enough time and distance to write a funny story about this, although it’s really unfair that Shelagh was trying to rescue the bees and got stung. (Or did she? Was the bee annoyed enough to sting, or just protesting by bee yelling?)

    Sounds like you have three hives for all your trouble, which is a good thing, although a lower amount of honey than you’d hoped for. Are you keeping the bees mostly for honey, or are you trying to encourage the older fruit trees and plant a few new ones?

    • Luckily Shelagh wasn’t stung but the bee buzzed in her hair for a full fifty yards.

      we’re keeping bees mainly for pollination with the hope of honey, plus bees are endangered and need a little help.