The Bad Beekeepers Club

© Drew Scott

Emily and me have joined the Bad Beekeepers Club – our bees have swarmed.

The weekend before my holiday to Rome, I visited our hives to see the bees enjoying the warmer weather. Emily was on holiday in Albania and I was to check Lavender’s hive for queen cells and to make a decision about Myrrh’s failing colony.

We rarely smoke our bees but there was a lot of beekeeping to do after weeks of rain. So I lit my new smoker for the first time this year and strolled through the dappled sunlight of the apiary towards Lavender’s hive. It was around 1.30pm in the afternoon and I expected to see bees happily flying in and out of the entrance with heavy baskets of bright yellow and orange pollen. Instead, I was surprised to see a very large, very loud buzzing cloud of bees circling the hive.

I wondered if our hive was being attacked by a mob of robber bees, but there were no skirmishes with guards at the entrance. What could have disturbed our ladies? I opened the hive and realised almost immediately what had happened. Inside the frames held half as many bees as last week – Queen Lavender and her court had swarmed.

Beekeepers smoke a colony before an inspection to ‘calm’ the bees. The bees think there is a fire and they gorge on honey which calms them and makes their abdomens too full to sting. However, Emily and me rarely use a smoker because our bees are normally very calm. © Drew Scott

Swarming is a natural phenomenon of honeybees and it is how the species reproduces itself. Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain the process of swarming very well in A World Without Bees: ‘When a colony decides to swarm to reproduce, usually in early summer, it starts by raising a number of queens, one of which will take over the hive while the existing queen flies off to find a new home. The workers do this by building a number of larger queen cells and either forcing the queen to lay an egg in each one or transporting in newly laid fertile eggs. Again, feeding the eggs lots of royal jelly turns them into queens. Before the virgins emerge from their cells, the old queen will leave the nest with all of her young foragers in tow, leaving behind the older foragers and the house bees – those members of the colony that are not yet old enough to forage… The travellers gorge on a huge breakfast, equivalent to three days’ worth of food, to see them through their quest for a new home.’

Lavender’s bees – as seen the previous week – have flown off with their queen to find a new home, the splitters. © Drew Scott

During spring and summer – the swarming season – weekly inspections for queen cells are essential for swarm management, and within beekeeping circles it is said that those who manage their bees keep their bees (and their honey). In populated areas, swarming is also a nuisance when swarms land in gardens, in streets, or on houses and other beekeepers are called to collect them.

Head hung in shame that this had happened on my watch, I tried to look through the hive to find out what Lavender had left behind. However, our normally mild-mannered bees were dive-bombing my veil and attacking my gloves making a hive inspection impossible. I remembered my introduction to beekeeping course: if the hive is very bad tempered, close it and walk away. So that’s what I did.

Myrrh’s hive was not much happier and this unfortunate little unmated queen had started to lay drone. So I retreated to the apiary long table. While I am not sure if a Bad Beekeeper deserves tea and biscuits, I had them anyway and a chat to Rosemary, a newbie beek, about the strange behaviour of our hives.

Our bees are usually only mildly curious when we open the hive and a few fly out to say ‘hello’ like this bee in the picture. © Drew Scott

The tea did the trick and I decided to revisit the bees with reinforcements. Thomas, a more experienced beek, and Rosemary kindly offered to help and the three of us approached Myrrh’s hive first.

There was no improvement in Myrrh’s colony and Thomas agreed that something needed to be done soon. However, the decision would be influenced by the situation in Lavender’s old hive, so we found and caged Myrrh before visiting Lavender’s colony.

The cloud of swirling bees had completely vanished and the colony was now calm – had I caught the tail-end of the swarm earlier? As the hive had already been opened once, we tried to be quick. Thomas, Rosemary and me looked through the frames to be sure Lavender was gone and saw she had left behind several frames of biscuit-coloured worker brood. ‘She must have been a good queen,’ commented Thomas. I sighed. Bad Beekeeper.

Lavender made very nice bees. I hope she and her ladies found a good home. © Drew Scott

Lavender’s legacy was sealed within five queen cells on the middle frames, and one of these queens-in-waiting might ensure the future of Myrrh’s hive. Thomas suggested that we choose a frame with one strong-looking queen cell to put in Myrrh’s hive, then pull the two weakest-looking queen cells to prevent further swarming of Lavender’s hive.

Leaving two of Lavender’s royal daughters to decide a new ruler for her bees, Thomas carefully carried over the frame with a queen cell for Myrrh’s colony. Frames with queen cells must be handled with care, Thomas explained, because shaking can separate the queen from her royal jelly and cause the larva to die inside the cell.

A frame of bees is shaken for inspection – it doesn’t hurt the bees but it may damage any queen cells that are present. © Drew Scott

Sadly, Myrrh was dethroned because it was unlikely that the bees would accept a new queen cell while she remained in the hive. Her bees had been given a second chance to change their fortune – if they accept the new queen and if she has good weather for her mating flight. With any luck, Thomas suggested, the workers would soon be climbing over the new queen cell and coveting it like ‘that bit of chocolate you girls often hide for yourselves’.

The chances of getting honey this year are slim, because varroa treatments start in early August and then preparations for over-wintering, but I will be very happy to help our bees recover from an unlucky spring and become strong, flourishing hives for next year.

Worker bees will cluster around queen cells tightly like a ball. This is often how the new queens-in-waiting are spotted on a frame. © Drew Scott

The following week I enjoyed a holiday to Rome and when I returned Emily had emailed with mixed news:

‘I had a look today – Myrrh’s hive wasn’t looking good and were quite moody, but the exciting news in Lavender’s old hive is that I saw a new virgin queen in there! She does not look at all like her mother, which is a bit of a shock – she’s orange! Hoping she can mate successfully.

Looking on the bright side, we were told at the varroa day that colonies which have swarmed get their varroa levels down thanks to the break in brood, so that’s good. I hope Lavender and her ladies found a good home!’

Emily and me have been thinking of a new name for our orange queen: Ginger if she is feisty like her mother, Lavender, or Neroli if she is gentle like her grandmother, Rose. With the Diamond Jubilee this weekend, Neroli would be a name fit for a princess!

A worker bee waiting for orders from her new queen. © Drew Scott

Related links
More information about swarms is available on the websites of the British Beekeepers Association, the London Beekeepers Association and Ealing and District Beekeepers Association.

The title for this post was inspired by Bill Turnbull’s The Bad Beekeepers Club, which is a highly enjoyable read for new and old beekeepers alike.

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37 thoughts on “The Bad Beekeepers Club

  1. I loved reading this story. It was so entertaining and I learned so much. I would have asked the question why bees swarm, but you covered it very well. No one could ever say you are a bad beekeeper. I can see how much you love and care for them, the bees are crazy to leave your care. They should just build a new home next door, and benefit from all your knowledge.

    • Thank you, that makes me feel better and there is lots to learn when mistakes are made 🙂 Swarming is a natural thing for bees to do and beekeepers only don’t like it because they lose half their ‘stock’ and honey, but it is nice to think that Lavender has fulfilled her destiny as a queen and I hope she found a good home 🙂

  2. You are far too self critical! As you said, swarming is natural for the bees and the only real negative is reduction of honey for the season. I believe seeing a swarm is something all adults should see as one of life’s / nature’s amazing things so you’ve given that opportunity to more people.
    Secondly, you learn sooooo much mooorrreee when things go wrong – therefore you are now much wiser and so a much better beekeeper! You have also used the episode to inform your blog followers.
    Cheer up and be kinder on yourself.
    Tricia

    • Aw, thank you! I think you are right, we’re always hardest on ourselves 🙂 In nature, Lavender would have fulfilled her destiny by reproducing the species through swarming and there are so many beekeepers in London who need swarms this year to repopulate their hives that I’m sure she would have found a good home. It is a good lesson to learn though, we thought because of a long, wet spring (when we often couldn’t open or inspect the hives) and because Lavender’s colony was still relatively small with room for the queen to lay that they wouldn’t swarm yet – but May and June are not called the swarming season for nothing, obviously the instinct to swarm is strong in bees no matter the circumstances. A good lesson to always have a nuc or spare hive on standby! 🙂

    • You won’t have to wait long – we do have a new queen bee in Lavender’s old hive christened Neroli for Jubilee weekend, and we’re hoping that she will accept the rest of Myrrh’s old colony too 😉

      • She looked like she had mated – hurrah! – and was busy running around the comb like a queen looking for cells to lay eggs. The good weather may have finally changed the fortune for our bees. 🙂

  3. Love Thomas’s comment about the ‘bit of chocolate you girls often hide for yourselves’! In my experience the guys do this too 🙂

    Thanks for looking after the bees while I was off in Albania, I think we’re back on track now and I’m excited to see what kind of ladies Neroli produces for us!

    • Thomas is so good and he sent me a link to a really interesting document about drone congregation areas, I’ll forward to you. It was a lovely surprise to see you back today, hive partner! How exciting we have a new queen and perhaps another new hive next week… June and July could be good months for our bees!

    • Sadly, we didn’t catch the swarm. There was a swarm being caught that day but it was too far away to be Lavender’s tribe. London may now have more beekeepers than bees, so it won’t have been long before someone dropped our girls into a new hive. For us, Lavender’s story finishes with the Jubilee queen 🙂

  4. oooh, orange! I can’t wait for pictures of her! Its a shame about the swarm, but I suppose its for the best in the end. The bees know what they’re doing! right?
    I heard about the queen’s jubilee, but have no idea what it is. Is it just a celebration of her majesty’s reign? Its a 4 day holiday right?

      • It would be nice if they would include us in their decision making though! Things would be so much less stressful for us!
        Oh fun! We don’t have anything that exciting in the US :(. I’ll have to investigate that site once I’m done with the three weeks of math homework I’ve been putting off.

      • If only the weather hadn’t been so wet in April and May we might have found out their secret, last year we prevented two swarmy attempts – the bees must be learning 🙂 Good luck with your maths homework.

  5. Pingback: Long live Queen Neroli, our Jubilee Queen | Adventuresinbeeland's Blog

  6. Glad to hear Neroli is mated and started laying. That must be the moment all beekeepers dread – to find that a swarm has left the hive. It sounds like you did witness the tail end of the swarm leaving – a pity you weren’t able to catch it. I was lucky enough to be in my allotment when a swarm left the neighbours hive – it is quite an experience to be there when the swarm leaves the hive and the air is full of bees. About half an hour later they were all fairly settled onto a fencepost not that far away from the hive.

    • Thank you 🙂 Neroli’s a beautiful queen, we’re looking forward to following her adventures. Yes, it may have been the rest of the swarm I caught leaving, although as there were five queen cells left in the hive Emily thinks the circling bees may have been test flights for further cast-off swarms. Luckily, leaving only two queen cells in the hive prevented the colony splitting further. I’m glad you caught your swarm, that must have been a sight!

      Andy has said a swarm happens to all beekeepers at some point, and it reminds me of a very funny account in Bill Turnbull’s book when he chases, and loses, a swarm:

      ‘A few years ago I followed a swarm from a hive on my own property, into my next-door neighbour’s garden, and then into the following neighbour’s garden. Then they went up the hill, through another property and over a swimming pool, where I had to reassure a – quite understandably – concerned parent, whose children were swimming at the time, that the bees were just paying a flying visit and would be moving on soon… and eventually through their meadow, over a hedge into a large overgrown field. There I had to stop and wave them a fond farewell, as they wove their way towards the next village. I never saw or heard of them again.’ The Bad Beekeepers Club

  7. Pingback: The red-headed queen of the Diamond Jubilee | Miss Apis Mellifera

  8. I am also a member of the Bad Beekeepers Club. I’m thinking many beekeepers are members too. I have 2 hives now without queens, possibly due to the lousy weather keeping the virgins from mating. Glad you were able to get a queen!

    • Welcome! Most bees would put their beekeepers into the Bad Beekeepers Club, I think. Did you know that it takes a hive two whole days to recover from an inspection, because of the disruption we cause by moving frames and dislodging wax/propolis etc? Considering, the bees are pretty tolerant towards us! 🙂

      Sorry to hear about your bad luck with queens – it sounds the same as Myrrh who didn’t mate because of bad weather. In the end, her hive had been queen less too long and the workers were just too old to raise a new queen. Neroli was lucky to emerge during a window of dry weather for mating. I hope you are able to get some new queens for your bees 🙂

  9. Pingback: Missing Queens | Tales of an urban bee farmer

  10. Hi,
    Frances here.
    You were right blog browsing made me feel better, as did some soup.
    Thanks so much for the visits and kind words during all that I have going on at this time.
    And I’m enjoying learning all about bees from you.
    Buzz Buzz 🙂

  11. Pingback: BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen | Miss Apis Mellifera

  12. Hello Emma

    Would you like a draft copy manuscript of my next book?

    It explains the finite answer that stops honeybee colonies dying and drastically reduces the levels of varroa to little or zero all without using chemicals or any manmade products.
    I am a beekeeper of 33 years experience keeping up to 300 beehives.

    Regards

    John Harding

    Contact me on harding@clavies.freeserve.co.uk

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