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 swarm from 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
- Inspect regularly
- 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?
I collected my first swarm in April 1978, which started me off as a beekeeper. I’ve been on Dorset’s swarm collector list for many years but have had very few calls in recent years. On the other hand, lots of swarms hive themselves in my bait hives. Sometimes people offer me money for collecting a swarm, but I always refuse and, instead, suggest a donation to Bees for Development. I do, though, accept a bottle of wine or similar.
Surprised you haven’t had many calls… here we have a lack of swarm collectors and many areas could do with more. A bottle of wine is a good idea!
Great post, thank you. I agree that these days swarms often have a failing queen or one that vanishes soon after, and the days of knowing a swarm would equal a colony seem to have gone..I reckon about 1 in 4 swarms I collect will actually make it even to the autumn and about half make it through winter. I do love working with swarms though and think it’s a great way for people to start in spite of the potential disappointment.
So you have found the same… I wonder what happens to these queens, whether something goes wrong on the mating flights or if the bees finish them off because they don’t get in the swing of mating. Agree, swarms are great fun!
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It seems to be more systemic than that…there’s all the resources there for them to succeed (weather, drones, forage) but it’s like they don’t know what to do. I’ve had swarms where the Q is sat there on the comb being ignored and all sluggish, and any efforts to reQ are ignored or rejected. Much more with casts but then with a prime they often supersede and end up in the same situation. It’s odd.
Interesting, thanks Jen. Such a shame.
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Interesting . . . and again, somewhat offputting, mostly because there’s a lot to learn and I’m busy with too many things as it is.
Maybe one day I’ll catch the bug (pun intended).
You do already have many hobbies and things you are talented at (eating spam, for example 🙂 )
I missed this comment, sorry.
… and not a hobby . . . just a passion.
It’s always interesting to look for and find the queen in a swarm- it’s common to find more than one, once a queen is found and caged it makes the process of collecting the rest of the bees easier as they follow her scent – the comment “it’s not bomb disposal” made me giggle as I’ve done them both 😊😊
Thank you for your comment Simon, there can’t be many beekeepers who can say they’ve done both! I’m guessing collecting a swarm is slightly more relaxing?
Great post Emily! This year, my 10th as a bee keeper, I signed up to the BBKA Swarm Collector map, so have been getting several phone calls re: local swarms! I’ve hived 3 (pretty successfully), confirmed a buff tailed bumblebee nest (in a front porch roof) and fortunately didn’t need to collect the swarm on the ground of a cricket pitch (the day before a match)…
Fantastic, well done Sara! And congrats on your 10th year as a keeper 🙂
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