A Swarm in May

by Andy Pedley

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay.

So goes the rhyme, and beekeepers are aware of the value of a swarm of honeybees collected in May - they may well produce an excellent crop of honey.

Swarms usually occur from April-time through to August. They are a natural occurrence and comprise a queen bee who is generally around a year old, and up to about 15,000 worker bees. One day they'll up and leave their nest, a beehive usually; or wild colonies can exist elsewehere, such as in roofs or hollowed trees.

A swarm generally travels a relatively short distance.

Swarms are an impressive sight and sound. They can settle and often cluster on a low branch - which is easy for a beekeeper to collect - but sometimes on a high branch or even on a wall, or once I found one behind the road sign for The Phelps in Kidlington.

A Kidlington householder spotted bees settling behind a road-sign at The Phelps. My estimation: more than 15,000 bees in this swarm.

The person who found them looked online and found me on the British Beekeepers' Association website and followed its advice about what to do, including how to contact a local swarm collector!

I dutifully arrived, equipped with a cardboard box, an old sheet, some string, gloves, brush, and, importantly, my bee Keeper's veil and jacket. I was able to sweep the bees into the box and gave them 30 minutes to settle down. Always the best strategy is to aim to get the queen into the box first. The remainder of the bees will follow. Then I wrapped the whole kaboodle in the sheet, and I drove with my catch to a beekeeper friend's apiary in Shipton-on-Cherwell.

Had they not been collected from The Phelps the colony soon would have found a new home locally and would have moved in en mass!

They search for prospect homes by sending out scout bees, who return to the swarm when they've spotted somewhere. The scouts perform the famous waggle dance to tell other bees where it is.

Many scouts will go out on their missions, and so several possible new homes may be identified by them. Amazingly they have a democratic process to compare their finds and decide on which one to use. They have distinct preferences for size, height, entrance location. The scouts spend around an hour surveying each potential site.

Why do bees swarm?

Honey bees are social insects. They live closely together in a group known as a colony. So, to increase the number of their colonies, a large number splits from one of them as a swarm.

Left behind in each hive will be about half the original number of bees, a lot of honey, and vitally 'Queen Cells'. These Queen Cells are bees-wax compartments containing developing queens.

Colonies may repeatedly split, although successive swarms will be smaller and have less chance of building up to be sufficiently healthy a colony to survive a winter.

If you see what you think is a swarm of honey bees - a cluster around the size of a football - and you're not sure what to do, check the beekeepers' website, linked to below, for lots of helpful information.

Andy Pedley is a member of the British Beekeepers' Association, whose website you can visit here.

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