Sunday 22 July 2012

The boomerang swarm

Every year I get phone calls from people who have a swarm in their garden.  Once I have checked that the 'swarm' are not wasps or bumblebees I will usually go out and collect it. This should be as simple as putting the bees into a skep (looks like a wicker waste paper basket) taking them to the apiary and putting the bees into a new hive. However the bees this year don't seem to be reading the same book as me!

I was called on Saturday afternoon and told that there was a swarm at my apiary at Hanbury Hall.  The swarm was not in the way and the gardeners quite liked pointing out the bees to the visitors. I have been caught out by rushing to collect swarms too quickly in the past. I think the bees like their 'taste of freedom' and if you try to put them in a hive too soon then they don't remember that they have swarmed and so they leave their new hive and swarm again.

I left the swarm for about three hours till early evening and went to collect them. There was slight misunderstanding about the position of the swarm. On a branch eight feet above the ground would mean reaching up, or at worst a small step ladder. So I duly arrived with step ladder and assistant to hold the ladder.  Unfortunately 8 feet turned out to be more like double that, so the stepladder was out of the question! 

However, I always travel around with all sorts of things in the boot of my car ‘just in case’.  In this case, my swarm catching bag.  Imagine a pillow case held open in a metal frame on the end of an extendible pole.  I extended the pole, gently slid the open end of the bag over the swarm, which was hanging from a branch ... then gave everything a good shake by jiggling the pole against the branch.  Most of the bees fall into the bottom of the bag.  Luckily, bees cannot immediately fly, they need to warm up their flight muscles before they can take off, so a resting bee will just drop if you knock it off its perch!  The bag is quickly lowered to the ground and, once the stragglers have flown into the bag to join the Queen, success, the swarm is captured.

I like to have a ready prepared hive for just this sort of situation.  The hive was filled with wooden frames, which all had a sheet of beeswax, pre-printed with a raised pattern of honeycomb (the bees know exactly how to make the hexagon pattern, but the idea is that if you give them a hint then they will build the honeycomb in the direction you want them to ... usually it works!).  I put the bees into their new home and off I went home, a job well done.

When you collect a swarm, you sometimes get a few bees left behind.  They often cluster together in the spot where the queen bee was, probably because the area still smells of her.  They usually leave after a day or so.  The next day I was back at the apiary for an inspection of the other hives and I glanced up the tree where I had removed the swarm to see if there were any lost bees hanging around.  Oh ... there seemed to be quite a big swarm hanging from the same spot.  I checked the hive and found that the swarm had rejected their nice new hive and re-swarmed. So, out with the swarm catching bag and soon the swarm was ‘in the bag’. 

Trying to ‘think like a bee’ I realised that a hive full of brand new sheets of wax was not very exciting for the swarm so I replaced a couple of the sheets of wax with frames that the bees from another hive had already built out into wax cells.  I thought that that would seem a lot more homely and the bees would appreciate the ready-made house!  So, in went the swarm and I finished my inspection and went home.

The next day I had a message left on my answering machine, ‘did I know there was a swarm of bees in the same tree as last time’.  Out I went, and ... what a surprise, they were out again.  Still I was getting a lot of practice getting a swarm of bees into my catching bag!  This time I thought ‘I bet they are not staying long enough in the hive to think of it as home’.  So, onto plan C. I put the bees back into the hive and closed up the entrance with grass.  The grass would keep the bees in for a few hours, until they had chewed their way out.  Hopefully by then they would think of the new hive as home and they would stay.

The following morning, I had another phone call, ‘did you not get the message from yesterday?  There is still a swarm of bees in the tree’. Well, I wasn’t going to rush over and collect them again, so I strolled over a couple of hours later to be told ‘Oh what a shame, you have just missed them, they all flew off a few minutes ago, such a pity!’  I checked round the area to make sure they had really gone and then, once I was sure that they had really left the area let out a great whoop of joy that the ‘boomerang swarm‘ had finally gone! They clearly didn’t want to live with me and I was not too sad to see them go!