Is that a swarm I see before me?

Top left: the swarm had taken up residence in our old apple tree
Top right: after cutting down the branch, we shook the bees down, into an empty box
Bottom right: a frame with FIVE queen cells found in Hive C last weekend.

15 June 2017

I was all set to write a blog about pretty flowers earlier today, the kind that attract pollinators. But instead, I have other business: we were having lunch outside, when a lady came up the drive to ask what that big clump of bees was doing in our old apple tree by the side of the road. Oh dear, contrary to all our expectations we had a swarm! We always thought you could hear it when a hive swarms but neither of us had heard a thing. We also thought, naively as it will probably turn out to be, that if you don’t find queen cells in a particularly colony they won’t swarm. Maybe we overlooked one during the last inspection … We will be checking all our colonies tonight, including the caught swarm, to see what the score is.

Thomas ran into the garage to get an empty hive. I got the suits and everything else ready, including a saw: the swarm was well within our reach so our plan was to saw down the branch and shake them into the box. We had two LN boxes, one empty (the bottom one) and one with 10 frames, topped and tailed by a lid and bottom and put the queen excluder between the bottom entrance and the bottom box. The theory is that the queen slims down before swarming so she can fly (she’s normally too heavy). The queen excluder will stop her from flying off again – she’s too large to get through that. Tonight, we will inspect if it’s really one of our own colonies that decided to split.

We were so grateful it happened while we were at home! If they had been on the tree branch for much longer, the scout bees might have found a new home, like a hollow tree, or – worse case scenario – a chimney or under the eaves of a house. They might have gone undetected for weeks and then it’s so much harder to catch them.

Our plan worked: we sawed down the branch, shook them down into the box and they all stayed put. We closed them up, carried them to a shady spot and left them to it. Tonight we will move it to a better place and see if it’s one of our own queens. But we are quite puzzled why this happened. Last weekend, we checked all our hives pretty thoroughly:

Hive A had been split two weeks before, the existing queen moved to another hive (F). Hive A had 2 queenc ells on the go in the drone frame. Hive A was therefore not capable of swarming as they had no queen.

Hive C had also been split two weeks before, the existing queen moved to another hive (E). Hive C had 5 queen cells on the go, all closed. Hive C was therefore not capable of swarming as they had no queen.

Hive B is a sluggish one, the queen is laying, but very little honey is being gathered. There were no queen cells in this colony. We think. This is the only hive that could have swarmed. We think.

Hive F is a 2 week old split from Hive A; it contains the colony’s queen, it’s a small colony, no reason to swarm as the artificial split would have made them think they swarmed.

Hive E is a 2 week old split from Hive C; it contains the colony’s queen, it’s a small colony, no reason to swarm as the artificial split would have made them think they swarmed. This colony was very agitated though when we inspected them last week. Unusually so. This split contains our very original queen, bought 3 summers ago. She is due for replacement but she would not have had any reason to swarm. We think.

UPDATE: Saturday 17 June

So we inspected all colonies today, including the caught swarm. Mmm. Surprise surprise: it’s not from one of our hives! It’s nice to know we didn’t overlook anything last week but it’s a mystery where they did come from. We’ve checked with Magnus, to whom we sold 2 colonies in April. Nope. And with two other beekeepers in the area who haven’t reacted just yet. We put the swarm at the back of the house and inspected it very thoroughly today: couldn’t find the queen.

We think both Hive A and C (which we split 3 weeks ago) have a new queen as all queen cells were open. But no sign of new brood just yet.

Hive B, the only one that could have swarmed, was safe and sound – the queen was still in there, and laying plenty of eggs.

Hives F and E, split from A and C respectively, were doing well.

One theory is they could have come from the vandalised hives that I rescued in March down by the water. I only found 1 queen in them. The other one could have found a temporary home. But it’s unlikely. It was really cold in April. The swarm more likely comes from a nearby beekeeper. Watch this space!

UPDATE: Thursday 22 June

Exactly one week later I got a text message from beekeeper Mats on the other side of the village (who sold us our original hives two years ago). Oops, they were his! We assured him we hadn’t sold them and he was welcome to come and get them. In fact, I was happy to get rid of them – I had tried to inspect in the morning and they simply wouldn’t let me. They were crowding onto every frame I wanted to lift and buzzed my veil. I suspected the queen had gone missing in action. Mats collected them in the evening and messaged me the next day that he too couldn’t find a queen but was happy to have his bees back. All’s well that ends well!



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