Spring is swarm time

Suppose you are driving along Captains Flat Road on a beautiful spring morning at around 11 o’clock. There is not a cloud in the sky and you have the road to yourself – or do you? Suddenly, on the immediate horizon, there appears a strange dense dark cloud at about windscreen height. It seems to be set on a course directly opposing yours and before you have time to initiate any defensive manoeuvring – wham, it hits you with all the energy that might be expected from the firing of a bazooka at close range. The windscreen is suddenly coated with a black gluey mess and you are forced to stop because something undesirable has totally obscured your vision of the road. It could be that you have been luckless enough to learn about one of the consequences of spring habits of bees.

Spring is the season for bees to swarm. Despite being happily housed in their hives, nature has vested within bees the urge to leave home annually in search of ‘greener pastures’. In actual fact, what happens is that the old queen bee leaves the hive with a large colony of her subjects when a new queen, one that the worker bees have raised in the hive, is about to emerge from her cell and make a challenge. By leaving with at least half the hive to support her, the old queen makes room for the new queen to build up the remaining hive to full strength, thus ensuring the continuation of the species, indeed its expansion. But for bee-keepers, this annual exodus of more than half of each hive is a nuisance for two reasons. For one thing, the departing bees eat up hugely prior to leaving and carry along with them large stores of extra honey from the hive to last them for their journey to a new home. Therefore, if the swarm flies into your car, as indeed one did into mine, then the resultant mess of dead bees is firmly glued to the vehicle by a thick paste of honey, the removal of which requires much energy with warm water and a rag!

Secondly, the departing bees leave a worker-depleted hive which now has to wait for its new queen to hatch, mate and lay some eggs to produce new bees. So, honey production slows to a trickle and it takes the hive a whole summer to build up to full strength again.

Unfortunately, no-one has devised a method for preventing bees from swarming, only of making it less ‘necessary’ by inspecting the hive in early spring and manually destroying any queen cells. But even so, when nature calls, bees swarm. And, while most swarms come to no real harm, those which follow their leader across a road do, occasionally, tangle with other users of the road.

Bees, when swarming, are a slow and ponderous lot. They cannot fly very fast because they are so laden down with their plundered cargo of honey. And when they first leave the hive they do not go very far because they are following their queen and her navigational skills are worse than useless. She wavers about, her loyal troops following blindly, until she finds somewhere convenient to stop. Having found that their leader has stopped, all the bees stop too and they ‘cluster’, forming a large mass, all tightly clumped together. Almost immediately scouts are sent out to do the really hard work of looking for a nice new place to live. In a rural area this is going to be a hollow tree trunk, branch or stump. In town it may well be a chimney, a down pipe or a vent in the eaves or under the floor. Having found a home-sweet-home, the scouts return to the swarm and pass their information around. Suddenly, usually within 24 hours of clustering, the swarm breaks up, takes to wing and vanishes. They have gone to take up residence in their new ‘hive’. Unfortunately in town this will result in more problems when the owners of the house object to sharing their residence with bees.

In rural areas, swarming goes largely unnoticed, but in town it presents some difficulties! In general, people don’t take kindly to the sight of 25,000 bees hanging about on the clothesline or suspended like a great dome from the pergola and they ring the number for such matters and report that they are being harassed by bees. Meanwhile, for a bee-keeper to replenish the workers in their hives rather faster than the new queen can following the departure of a swarm, catching bee swarms and merging them into existing hives is the easiest way to keep bee hives productive. So bee-keepers usually agree to catch swarms and when a bee-bothered call is received by the relevant government department, the caller is advised to contact someone from a list of bee keepers who have agreed to catch swarms.

At this point it is probably worth noting that once a bee swarm has established itself in a new home it ceases to be a swarm and becomes a colony. A colony of bees quickly becomes a honey gathering and storing entity with the bees foraging daily from dawn to dusk. Therefore it is only as a swarm that the whole potential colony of bees can be caught. Once they have become a colony they are almost impossible to retrieve short of cutting their branch off the tree and trying, by night, to smoke them out of it and into a hive box. The activity is a nocturnal one of course because during the day, most of the bees are out and about.

If indeed a colony sets up in the eaves of your house then more serious problems may develop. Even if the sound of busy buzzing day and night does not disturb you, the eaves may not have been designed to support the weight of up to 80kg of honey the bees will collect in a good season!

Therefore it is best to try and catch swarms before they take matters into their own hands, so to speak.

Catching swarms involves convincing all the clustered bees by means fair or foul, that they should move themselves into a large cardboard box. Having done that, the box is shut and the bees are transported to their new hive. If it is an empty hive, they are simply dumped into it. But if it has bees in residence then it is not possible to simply add the new bees. Bees maintain an allegiance to their queen by continually passing about a chemical ‘smell’ which is unique to their colony. If a bee meets another bee whose chemistry does not match, the bees will fight to the death of at least one of them, probably both. Therefore, in order to avoid bee wars with lethal consequences, the bees must be introduced to each other gradually. This is achieved by placing a sheet of newspaper between the existing top box of the hive and a new hive box which is placed on top of this one and which now contains a lot of hot and bothered bees from the swarm. By the act of chewing through the paper, the bees get their identities all fudged and muddled up and thus see no real reason to be enemies. But the combination of two queens (one from the hive and one from the swarm) results in a battle from which the stronger emerges supreme. She now has lots of willing workers and honey production proceeds apace.

As a swarm collector, I now find it easy to collect swarms which are reported as being a nuisance. It means setting forth with my large cardboard box and sticky tape to tape it shut, my smoker, fuel to feed it and matches to light it, a small soft ‘bee brush’ for brushing bees from here to there, a strong stick for banging on the tops of clusters to encourage them to drop into my box, my bee suit which theoretically keeps all bees on the outside, and gumboots (because bee stings to the ankles are exceedingly painful indeed!). And thus with all the sang froid of a knight in shining armour, I can, with a minimum of fuss and bother, remove the terrors from suburban back yards in true ‘bee buster’ style. It was not always so, however, and the collection of my first swarm was well nigh a total disaster!

But I’ll write about that some other time.

Rosanne Hood

This tale was first published in The Stony Creek Gazette in 1992.