A couple of months ago, I put a bait hive out in my garden. An empty National brood box, apart from a dark old brood comb pushed to one side and some lemongrass oil smeared on the walls. Then I waited.
At first… nothing. But then… I saw some bees coming in and out, inspecting the empty premises. The next day, it was clear something was afoot. More and more bees could be seen around the entrance, until the air in my garden was filled with masses of humming bees. I went and stood outside, looking at the sheer number of them. You can see them against the white wall in the photos below.
The swarm descends
Bees fill the air
But often life is not easy, and so this was not quite as simple as I was hoping. The bees had come to me – fantastic – but they’d also landed not inside but under the bait hive.
Swarm under the hive
The next day, I went out in my beesuit and attempted to gather them up. I used some highly specialist equipment for this job – a bee brush and a bucket. Although this was obviously an easy place to gather a swarm from, it still meant a bit of squeezing myself under the picnic table, hovering holding the bucket with one hand while brushing the bees in with the other as gently as possible.
Just in the space of about 24 hours, they’d made the beautiful, pristine comb below, which the swarm was gathered on under the table. The wax is produced by glands in their abdomen, which they then chew and manipulate into the perfectly formed honeycomb shapes using their mandibles. Pretty amazing when you think about it.
Freshly made new comb
My first attempt failed and the bees quickly reverted to hanging out under the table. I realised I must not have gathered up the queen, so they had all returned to her.
On my second attempt, I tried to make sure to get almost every single bee. This time the bees lined up on top of the frames, lifted their bottoms and fanned their Nasonov glands, which I took as a good sign. They were telling the other bees that this was now home.
Putting the bees in the hive
A couple of months later, the bees are still here. I have named the new queen Lowen, which means ‘Joyful’ in Cornish.
Some photos of the flowers I’ve seen out and about in Cornwall and in my garden over the last couple of weeks. I like to see what’s in flower and available for the bees.
Below is my miniature apple tree. I mainly see hoverflies and bumbles visiting this. Honey bees tend to favour big collections of one type of flower, so this wee tree is probably not worth it for them.
One of the first bees of the year I see in my garden is the enchantingly named female Hairy-footed flower bee . I always see them on the deep blue flowers of lithodora, which they will visit all day until the early evening. I say ‘see’ them but I usually hear them first, as they’re noisy little bees and very fast, efficient movers – which is why my photo is blurry!
Female hairy footed flower bee
Below is the male hairy footed flower bee, which I first start seeing a couple of weeks after the females. They visit the lithodora flowers too.
Male hairy footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes)
Bluebells, daffodils and primroses grow in profusion in Cornwall. I can’t recall seeing as many primroses anywhere else I’ve lived in the UK. Most of the primroses are yellow, but there are some pink blooms too.
Bluebells and daffodils
I went for a walk along the coast by St Mawes, where a variety of white flowers decorated the verges.
The ones below are not wild garlic, although they smelt very garlicky! Wild garlic flowers have a more star-like, upright shape.
Three cornered leek
Think these flowers below are three-cornered leek, which can be identified by the green stripes inside their flower. An edible plant which can be used like spring onions.
Three cornered leek
Below are stitchwort flowers, these grow along hedgerows and in woodland
Sadly my bees, having survived the winter, somehow became queenless around March. I’m now bee-less for the first time in years. I will probably put out a bait hive soon as the bee year is beginning again. I still answer emails for my local association and the queries about swarms and bees in chimneys are just starting!
And so we’re in 2022… another year for us… but the first and only winter for my bees. Huddled in their nest, resting their wings, winter bees tend to live longer than summer bees. But still their life-span is measured in months, not years.
On any dry day this winter, my colony has continued to be active, flying and finding yellow and orange pollens. In the photo below (taken a week or so ago) I’ve found one returning with bright orange pollen. I’m not seeing much in flower, so am not sure what this might be. Possibly willow or mahonia? Gorse flowers all year round here, but I rarely see bees on that. Bristol beekeepers have a good pollen guide showing the UK pollens available in different seasons: Pollen guide
I did an oxalic acid trickle over the Christmas holidays to treat for varroa (the bees were not feeling in a Christmassy spirit towards me!).
They still have plenty of fondant up above the crown board. I see some of them nibbling away at it when I check on them every couple of weeks. I also find wood lice and the occasional slug enjoying the warmth above the colony.
Something that surprised me recently was seeing honey bees visiting the moss on my roof. From my attic window I can lean out and see the different mosses up close. I’d never paid much attention to moss before, just seeing it all as soft green lumps. It took me a little while to realise that actually a few different species live up on the roof, with a variety of velvety textures and shapes you would never guess at looking up from the ground. This side is south facing and so even in these chilly winter months some of them appear to be flowering, with tiny light green flowers sticking up on stalks.
Were the bees finding tiny amounts of nectar? Or perhaps drinking from water collected in the moss? It’s hard to know.
Some of my longer-term readers may remember that I had bees in my chimney stack. This had turned into a tricky problem, with quotes of £4,000+ to remove them and reseal the chimney. It wasn’t even my fault (honestly!!) as when the swarm first moved in my own bees were based around four miles away. The bees just found me.
Well, I found a solution! I joined a Facebook group called UK Bee Removers. Where I then noticed a lady called Molly from Bees Off based in Cornwall. I’m so pleased to have found someone local, who could do the whole job for us. She organised all the scaffolding and rehomed the bees in her own apiary based in central Cornwall. She then resealed the tiny crack in the chimney stack where the bees had got in, so that it won’t happen again.
She’s also got a cracking sense of humour and was very patient with all Tommy’s (many!) questions – “Why do you have a ladder?” “What are you doing up there?” “Where are the bees going?”. She showed him how he glowed red with her heat sensor, which she uses to determine exactly where the bees are in the chimney. She also uses a special honey bee vacuum, putting the sucked up bees back onto their comb (rubber banded into frames in a nuc) part way through.
She said this was a whopper of a colony with combs hanging down around four feet, they’d been really thriving up there! Was a shame to kick them out in a way but I did want to use my fire again!
I’d left some equipment behind in the old location I used to keep bees, and hadn’t got around to moving it yet. Some new visitors took advantage of this des res – a brood box with a few frames in, a floor, and an inspection board acting as a roof, all piled up on top of a load of empty equipment. They’re against a wall and have a hedge and trees the other side, providing shelter from the Cornish rain, and – in the last few days – the Cornish sun!
I was surprised at how large a swarm it was. A couple of weeks on, the brood box is full of bees. On my first inspection, I looked for eggs but found none. I filled in the empty spaces in the box with new frames of foundation. I inspected again four days later and was happy to spot larvae.
The next job to do is move them to the same location as my other bees. The swarm is especially lucky as my sole remaining colony, headed up by Queen Oilel (named by reader Disperser), seems to be queenless (or at least, she has stopped laying if she’s there). Sorry Emilio, your Queen didn’t last long.
I discovered a few fat slugs living in the corner of the brood box, which I ejected for the bees, using my hive tool to pick them up and gently place them elsewhere. I then had to change my hive tool, as unfortunately I discovered bees get stuck to slug slime! Which is presumably why the slugs get away with it.
The bees have been taking advantage of the beautiful sunshine after the rain. On my last visit they had bulging light grey pollen baskets – I believe from blackberry brambles. Honey bees and bumbles can also be spotted enjoying clover at the moment.
In my garden, campanula has been very popular, attracting honey bees but also more unusual small solitary bees a third of the size of the big honeys. If you look closely below you can spot a honey bee nestled in one of the flowers. The campanula self-seeds and drapes itself daintily everywhere, seemingly needing barely any soil at all.
A few weeks ago I moved my two little colonies in nuc boxes to a new location nearer to home. I’d never had to move bees before, so asked other beekeepers for tips beforehand and as luck would have it the BBKA News that landed through my door that day had an article all about moving bees.
The main thing with moving bees is make sure the bees can’t get out.
Earlier in the day I had put ventilated travel screens on top of both nucs, then left their roofs resting on them just in case it rained (it didn’t). Around 9pm, as the darkness of evening was drawing in, I returned and turned the dial at their entrance to the ventilation only setting. Very quick and easy. I had a kind helper with strapping the boxes together and moving them up to the car.
I haven’t been driving that long, and never with bees, so was a little nervous, particularly going over bumpy country lanes. I hadn’t anticipated the sound of the bees hitting the travel screen as they repeatedly flew up.
The roads I was driving down were very quiet at that time of night, so much so that for about the first fifteen minutes I only passed a couple of other cars. Was nice to be able to take it slowly without worrying about other drivers.
None of the bees got out, and they are now settled in nicely. One recently hatched queen is now laying and the other colony appears to be queenless, so I’m planning to combine them this week. I will need to think of a new Cornish name for the queen, a long dark beauty. Any suggestions?
As I was inspecting over the weekend I heard a sudden thud and something landed on the ground next to the hive. When I looked more closely, it was a baby bird, hairless and still. A baby blackbird perhaps. Its huge eyes were now permanently closed. I suddenly thought of my own children at a day old, so vulnerable and delicate. By the next day, its skeleton had been stripped to the bone. Somehow, life keeps going, and the remaining blackbirds keep flying.
A few weeks ago I listened into a zoom talk all about swarms by Roger Patterson. I last heard Roger speak in person almost a decade ago, back in 2012, when his talk was “Improve your bees and beekeeping – simply”. I think he’s one of the most well known beekeepers here, as he does so many talks and is very active in the beekeeping community. He has also written a book, called ‘Beekeeping – A Practical Guide’ (2012).
Roger began by saying that swarms have changed:
Pre 1990s, they used to be reliable:
– Large prime swarms had fertile queens (unless there had been a beekeeper error) – You could chuck it in a hive – No need to feed – Add 1-2 supers if early in the season, 1 if later – Leave it alone – Often gave you a honey crop
Can be as they’re supposed to be
But more often find large swarms have a virgin or failing queen
Lots of small swarms with a failing fertile queen
Fertile queens often soon fail, supersede or disappear
They then swarm on emergency or supersedure cells
Quite a lot riddled with varroa
I was interested in this as I have had a lot of queen problems myself after doing splits or capturing swarms. Like Roger says, often the new queens seem to disappear.
Roger then went on to talk about good swarms – these he thinks:
Have a mix of ages
Far more young bees than usually thought
Fertile queens lay within a day of the swarm settling into their new home
He is a fan of swarms and thinks they make a great learning experience for beginners.
About being a swarm collector
Most associations have a list of swarm collectors, which may be managed by a local swarm co-ordinator. This is not an easy job, as all the calls come at once. If you go on the list, it is a service to the general public. Please commit yourself for the summer (not just collect enough swarms for yourself). You also need to be competent.
Before going on the swarm collection list, you should fully understand the swarming process and have experience of collecting swarms. Also learn about wasps, hornets, bumblebees, solitary bees, hover flies (all the things the public mistake for honey bees). You are dealing with non-beekeepers. They may need patience and understanding, but most are on our side.
Have kit ready – x2
Smoker, fuel, matches/lighter, hive tool, several queen cages, clipping/marking kit, secateurs, spare veil for onlookers, bee proof container (e.g. skep, or poly nuc, or tough cardboard box). You also need a sack, cloth or sheet. Make sure it hasn’t got a hole and is breathable. Some old, dry brood comb can also be helpful, as a swarm in a thick hedge will often climb up onto an old brood comb.
When the call comes
Ask where the person lives
How long have the bees been there?
Did you see them arrive? (If yes – good sign)
Where are they? (Avoid cavity walls or in the ground. Bird box likely to be bumbles)
What size – football, rugby or tennis ball?
How high? Relate to something like a window or gutter
Ask if any other beekeepers have been called, and if one lives nearby
Is a ladder needed – and have they got one?
Give them your mobile number and ask them to call if the swarm leaves
Take their number
When you arrive
People who have found a swarm can be very different. Some are frightened or allergic. Some get too close. They can be helpful, difficult and everything in-between. We are ambassadors – diplomacy may be needed! Don’t cause damage. Leave everything tidy and say thank you.
If the location is too difficult to collect from, say so. Be calm – you may have lots of observers – but it’s not bomb disposal! Check your BBKA insurance, make sure you know what you are covered for.
Hiving a swarmfrom an unknown source
Hive on foundation
Don’t feed for 4 days (just in case they come from a colony with foul brood. If you hive on foundation the foul brood is used up out of their system as part of the wax making process. However Roger has only come across one swarm that had foul brood).
You can put a queen excluder under the brood box to stop the queen leaving, but the downside is that it can get clogged up with drones and if the swarm has a virgin queen she then can’t get out to mate.
Building up a swarm
Let it build up naturally
Only feed if necessary – Roger hasn’t in about 40 years
Re-queen if needed
Thanks Roger for a great talk. As you can see, he covered a lot! I didn’t get notes for all of it. What do you think, have swarms changed since you started beekeeping? Is there anything you do differently when collecting/looking after a swarm?
It’s been a cold week, but today seemed to mark a turning point in the weather here. I took my coat and gloves back off; my gloves had been put away for the summer two weeks ago, only to be hastily retrieved when the cold winds arrived. In some parts of the country snow has fallen and beekeepers have not found an opportunity to do a first inspection yet.
I lit my smoker and approached Demelza’s hive – I always inspect that hive first as it’s calmer. I still couldn’t spot Queen Demelza, and her workers had not made a start on drawing out the frames in their super. Perhaps they will now the weather seems to be warming up again. I saw eggs and brood across about six frames, and the colony seemed content and calm.
On to Kensa’s hive. I had left them a super of honey on over winter, which I now think was a mistake. They probably had too much space to keep warm, and now some of the brood has chalkbrood disease. The queen had also begun laying in the super, making it a colony on a brood-and-a-half system. I dislike this, as it means inspecting two boxes, and the two frame sizes are not interchangeable. I needed to find Queen Kensa this week for the next step in the Bailey comb change I’d started. I began by moving the top super box a few feet away and keeping it covered with the crown board to keep the bees calm. I placed the super box on top of the upturned hive roof, so that if the queen was there and fell down she would fall into the roof rather than on the ground.
I then spent some time inspecting the frames in the brood box. The colony was only using about half of these at one end of the hive. I also took the opportunity to slowly and gently remove comb sticking up from the top of the brood frames, using my hive tool. Unfortunately the bees became more and more agitated, and I couldn’t spot the queen.
The mood of the bees gave me a clue that perhaps Queen Kensa was in the super a few feet away. The bees very quickly notice if their queen goes missing and you can hear the sounds of the colony change slightly. I covered over the top of the hive and moved over to the super. Moving the brood away is a good trick with an aggressive hive, as the flying foragers are more defensive than the nurse bees that stay with the brood. The bees in the super were in a very different mood, with a busy but peaceful hum. I decided the queen must be with them.
I carefully ran my eyes over the frames, turning them over and taking in all the bees. About three frames in, I saw her. And then I didn’t. My eyes lost her for a second and she disappeared. I turned the frame over a few times before spotting her again, long and chocolate brown. That is how easy it is to lose an unmarked queen.
Returning to the brood box, I removed the half of the frames that were empty and filled them with some of the super frames of brood. I placed the queen excluder on top and then Queen Kensa on the super frame I’d found her on, plus the new brood frames added last time. Once the brood below hatches out, I can remove the old frames and get them down to one brood box with mostly new comb. Not a perfect Bailey comb change but a good start. I plan to mark Queen Kensa next week now I have narrowed down where she is. I was feeling quite tired out by this point!
I can already think of some things I’ve done wrong, but never mind, hopefully the colony is moving in the right direction and I’ll sort it out on the next inspection.
By the way, does anyone know how to edit images in the WordPress media library to make their dimensions smaller? I used to know how but the option seems to have been removed. I can see how to make images in posts smaller but it looks like the original images in the media library remain the same size and take up more space.
In sunny Cornwall I’ve just done my first inspections for 2021 inside the hives. It’s been warm enough for some people to walk about in just t-shirts and for me to wear a t-shirt and cardigan, so it was time.
Good news: both colonies are alive and queen-right. Bad news: one (Kensa) is showing signs of chalkbrood disease.
My inspecting of Demelza went comically wrong. I began by trying to get all my equipment ready so that I could do some queen marking. I opened a brand new queen marking pen bought last summer and tried to use it on some hard surfaces as a test – no ink whatsoever came out. So much for practising on drones first. I have now ordered a little pot of queen marking paint instead in the hope that there might be something in there.
Demelza is doing well, with the bees filling up most of the frames in the brood box, so I added a super. Now I don’t know how, but I put the super on upside down and then wondered why the frames were sticking up slightly and the crown board wouldn’t lie flat. I will blame it on after running around after two small kids all morning.
Kensa also has a laying queen and plenty of brood, but the chalkbrood made me decide to do a Bailey comb change, which I had been considering already. Demelza’s combs were new last year so I can let them crack on with filling a super, but I think it’s important to get Kensa’s bees on fresh new comb. You can find the instructions for a Bailey comb change in the National Bee Unit’s Replacing Old Brood Comb guidance.
I have begun by putting a brood box full of foundation over the existing brood box, and feeding sugar syrup. By next week hopefully they will have made a start on drawing out the comb and then I have to do the hard part – finding the queen. I will place her in the upper brood box with a queen excluder underneath. Once the brood below has hatched out, the old comb can be removed. It can drag on for a while compared to a shook-swarm, but these are not the gentlest of bees and to be honest I don’t fancy shook swarming them.
I listened in to my local Cornwall Beekeeping Association’s last zoom catch up for beginners, it was nice to hear bee chat. It was reported that blackthorn is in flower now in Cornwall, which is a good source of nectar. No physical meeting dates have been set yet, but it’s hoped there will be some bee safaris this summer, so that we can visit each other’s apiaries.
This week I listened into a great talk for the West Cornwall Beekeepers Association by their member Tamsin Harris, she is a very experienced commercial beekeeper. She came across as a practical person with a quick, dry sense of humour. The idea behind the talk was that more swarm collectors are needed, so the association was hoping for people to be encouraged to volunteer.
Here are some of Tamsin’s tips:
Put up bait hives. She does 15-20 a year, using a four or five frame nuc box. It should be watertight with a small entrance, and preferably old, so they smell of previous bee inhabitants. She has also used new nuc boxes before but added melted wax rubbed round the insides of the box. Add a frame of old comb if you have one. Some spots seem popular each year – anywhere you know you’ve collected a swarm in the past is a good bet. Keep checking the bait hives regularly in swarm season.
Feral colonies don’t tend to swarm as early. They haven’t been fed over winter as managed colonies often are, so they take longer to build up.
When you’ve volunteered to be a swarm collector and the bee phone rings, the first question to ask is: “how long have they been there?”. This tells Tamsin just how quickly she has to get there.
The second question is: “how accessible are they?” She has found people don’t judge height well and you can usually double what they tell you! Once you get there, risk assess the situation. You have to be prepared to tell people that the situation is not safe for you and you can’t collect the bees. Tamsin bears in mind that “If I fall, I break”. We only have one body and it’s not worth putting yourself at risk.
You need lots of equipment ready. Tamsin takes with her: straw skep; sheet; water spray; secateurs; long handled loppers; a supermarket shopping basket for keeping things contained; a cardboard box (for swarms clustered on the side of buildings or cars, she finds a box easier to get underneath than a skep); rope; telescopic ladders. She added that common sense is one of the biggest things you need with you!
For inaccessible swarms, the best thing to do is put a bait hive underneath.
Ask the permission of the member of public whose garden it is before cutting any hedges or bushes etc to collect a swarm.
Put a sheet on the ground and then gently invert the skep or box you have collected the bees in over the sheet. Prop it up slightly with something like a brick or branch so that bees can come and go.
Once the swarm is collected, if it is in a busy area, you need to keep the bees away from people as much as possible. Tape condoning off an area or warning signs might be needed. However, you also have to put the swarm somewhere not too far from where they settled, but also safe for the general public.
You can’t just take the swarm off immediately, as any bees off foraging or scouting for a new home then return and hang about for 2-3 days. They fly around looking for their lost swarm mates and become a nuisance. To make sure all the bees have been collected, you need to return in the evening. You can explain to the public that bees go to bed at bed time.
When Tamsin returns to collect the bees, she ties up the sheet they were placed on very carefully over the skep or box they are in. She has a hive net she puts over the sheet too, just to make sure none get out in the car.
Her favourite part is hiving the swarm and watching the bees walk into their new home. She described the roar of their wings as such a pleasure – a beautiful way to end an evening.
She talked a bit about the scenario when bees have been living in a building for a while (for example, in a roof or loft) and the home owners want them removed. She said the kit you need is “immense” and the job is “so, so messy”. It’s one of those where if you start, you can’t stop. Mayhem, bees everywhere, and the size of the colony could be 12-14 brood combs deep. She warned us that though these jobs are rewarding, they are not something for beginner swarm collectors to attempt alone. Always take someone more experienced with you. She added that once bees are established in a chimney you have to persuade people to put a jumper on and not use the fire!
If you want to get experience as a swarm collector, buddy up with existing swarm collectors and ask to help out when they get calls. You can look on the BBKA bbka.org.uk/swarm search to find the nearest collectors to you (see Step 3: Find a local swarm collector)
There was some fun discussing afterwards of times swarms had been collected from post boxes. Another member recommended smearing garlic inside to put swarms off, and someone else wondered if they had ever had any complaints afterwards about letters smelling bad! There’s a lovely photo here of Tamsin collecting a swarm from a letter box: https://penzancefarmersmarket.wordpress.com/producers/bee-special/ (3rd photo down)