‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay’
The saying comes from a c17 when country folk had to pay taxes often in loads of hay. If you caught a swarm of bees in May it could bring in plenty of honey as well as making wax which the church would happily accept in lieu of hay as payment.
Swarming is the natural way for a bee colony to reproduce.
There are several reasons why bees swarm when they do; there are too many bees for the hive, there’s a break in the nectar flow, an ageing queen producing less queen substance for the bees to communicate around the colony. Other factors can play a role such as brood to bee ratio, worker brood rearing reaching a maximum level, an increase in younger age workers and external environmental conditions.
I have been taking swarm prevention action whenever I can; from splitting hives using a Snelgrove method to giving the bees more space by putting some of the brood in a brood box on top of the hive.
The main spring flowering trees and the oil seed rape flows ended around 21st May in my localised area. There was a two day cold and blustery spell of weather from 22-23rd May. This ended the Hawthorn flow which had been running for several days following the cessation of the OSR, from my notes 16th to 21st May judging by the smell emanating from the hives in the evenings. It should be noted that Hawthorn (Maytree) flowers later the higher it grows, so the dates are local to me.
May 24th there was a swarm in one of my apiaries, its always worth a look around this time especially as the Spring flow had recently finished and the bees were confined to their hive for a couple of days. I try to look on most days in my apiaries around now just in case my swarm prevention hasn’t been successful. I also have bait hives in various places just in case a swarm comes in.
I spotted the swarm not far from the apiary hanging from a sapling about 10 feet up from the ground, a good sized swarm, it was around 11.30 so I had a little time to look around before getting the swarm gear out of the van. It can be difficult to pinpoint which hive a swarm has come from, but of the six colonies in this apiary, one wasn’t taking in pollen so I guessed that might be the one the swarm had issued from. When a colony decides to swarm it needs the queen to fly with it and so the bees slim the queen down and she stops laying. As a result the house bees have little or no brood to feed. That’s not to say that the bees don’t still forage for pollen because they do, but if one colony isn’t bringing any in then its a good place to start looking in my experience.
Before checking, though, I wanted to catch the swarm and give all the bees a chance to get into the skep before taking them away in the evening to hive them at home. Swarm gear comprises a container/skep to catch the swarm when you give the branch a jerk, a sheet to place the skep on so that it can be wrapped around the skep at the end of the day. A smoker, a brush and a small wood saw.
I had to cut the sapling down as carefully as a I could without disturbing the swarm too much. Some bees will inevitably fly off it as you cut the branch. With the sapling cut I could lower it to the upturned skep which was sited in the middle of the sheet. A quick jerk downwards and the swarm was in the skep. I turned the skep over putting the brush under one side to allow flying bees to join it. I left it there and went to have a look in the suspected colony.
In the colony that I reckoned had issued the swarm I found around 10 sealed queen cells, its funny that I hadn’t seen them making them seven days earlier or maybe I’d seen some queen cups and thought nothing of them. Anyway, this is a lovely big colony, nice to handle, I decided to split them into three; one where the hive was standing with just a couple of frames of sealed brood and two queen cells. The idea being that with all the flying/foraging bees, they shouldn’t issue a second or cast swarm, well, hopefully not anyway. I put the other brood box to the left of the hive with a little more brood, but with extra young bees shaken into it. A third nuc, I took 4 frames of brood and extra young bees in a poly nuc back to my queen rearing apiary.
Catching the swarm in the skep and then waiting for all the flying bees to go in to it. (22 secs)
Hiving the swarm (32 secs)
I have started to run along the lanes during this Covid lockdown period and have just completed the ‘couch to 5k’; a perfect way to view the hedgerow and the flowers that are around at the time. As a beekeeper I want to know when the main nectar flows are occurring and when they might stop. As we approach the end of May there is a gap in forage for the bees, often called the June gap, but I have seen the bramble just starting to flower today 29th May. We could do with some rain to fill these with nectar…
Flowering plants in May 2020 around Tredustan (3 mins)
Clematis, Hawthorn, Horse Chestnut, Apple, Bluebell, Red Campion, Sycamore, Valerian, Mountain Ash (Ornamental), Allium, Buttercup Aqualegia, Cranesbill, Chives, Grasses, Roses several other wildflowers and of course Dandelion still going strong.
I must have made over 100 new brood frames this year and replaced them as I could over the spring. In the colony on wild comb you will see that I put in a new frame whenever I can taking out the old comb once the brood has emerged. With the swarm I gave them one drawn comb, the rest foundation, let them draw the comb for the first couple of days then fed them with syrup to encourage continual production of new comb.
I have also made up about 100 frames with drone foundation for the honey supers. Hopefully this won’t have affected the honey harvest later in the year.
Wild comb colony brood box swap as the queen and most new brood are in the top box (10 mins)
Wild comb colony second inspection changing to new comb where possible and taking out the out comb (11 mins)
The bait hives that I put out have solid floors and old drone comb wherever possible as this seems to attract them. The colony on wild comb is very close to a ley line and I do feel that bees are attracted to energy lines as there are often colonies in churches. More about this at the Dave Cushman website
I started rearing queens in mid May this year when a favourite queen of mine died. I took three nucs off the colony leaving a brood box at the original position of the hive. These are going well. I have also raised a few queens by grafting very young larvae into cups on a cell bar, however, my eyesight is not as good as it used to be and I’m finding this increasingly difficult to do. I’m using a colony set up with the Cloake board method so I will probably try another method, maybe the Thorne’s bees cupkit
I recently heard about a ‘pheromone board’ from a good friend in relation to rearing queens. On doing some research I found and bought ‘Queen Bee: Biology, Rearing and Breeding’ by David Woodward. Some really good hands on experience being shared in this book. If you’re thinking of rearing queens this is a great book.
Another day in paradise….