This could get out of hand…

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Our bees are feeling swarmy.

Last Saturday afternoon Emily and I found three queen cells in the hive we bought from Charles recently. And in a surprising display of competent beekeeping, we demonstrated how to do an artificial swarm to an audience of three beginner beekeepers.

We found the queen and put her in a nuc (baby hive box) with four frames of brood and stores (honey and pollen), a frame of foundation (so the small colony can grow) and I had the (unenviable) task of shaking in two frames of flying bees. We then ‘took down’ (polite beekeeping term for ‘destroyed’) one queen cell in the original hive and left two queen cells inside.

As usual, beekeepers have different ideas about how many queen cells to leave inside a hive: too few might risk the colony becoming queenless if the new queen(s) fail, and too many might risk the colony trying to swarm again. But it seemed for now we had stopped the bees from swarming and had (potentially) a third hive.

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Emily and Drew returned to the apiary on Sunday to move the nuc to the location of the original hive so that the foraging bees would return to the nuc and boost its numbers.

So far so good.

Today we returned to see how our swarmy bees were getting on.

And discovered they are still feeling swarmy.

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Five new queen cells!

We decided not to destroy the new queen cells and ask if another beekeeper at our apiary needed queens.

We then inspected the nuc and found that the small colony will soon need to be moved into a grown-up hive. And we named the queen Rose, because she seems rather nice.

Luckily nothing as exciting was happening in Myrtle’s hive. Our well-behaved bees are doing the Bailey comb change exactly as the books say. We found and put Myrtle in the top brood box to encourage the colony to move upstairs into their new home.

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Later that day Emily returned to the apiary and sent a text to say the elder beekeepers had advised making another nuc from the extra queen cells. So we now have four colonies at Perivale apiary and one at Hanwell which is also bursting at the seams. This could all get out of hand.

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.