Saturday, 14 May 2011

Keep Calm & Carry On

I procrastinate. A lot. When I’m not procrastinating I’m getting distracted. In between procrastination and distraction I’m writing lists of things to do that I can procrastinate over and be distracted away from. Absent deadlines or pressures I’ve morphed into a butterfly brain flitting and not completing. No surprise then that this week I found myself in possession of a swarming bee colony.

The fact is that honey bees live to swarm. It’s their bee all and end all! No swarming, no procreation of the species, and if ever there was a species that needs to procreate it’s apis mellifera. Sitting in bee school lessons hearing of swarms, how to catch one in a cardboard box, how to prevent one happening in the first place, was all well and good, but the whole time a voice in my head was saying, “don’t worry, it’ll never come to that”. Somehow I convinced myself that my colony would break with thousands of years of evolution and be the colony that never swarms but lives happily ever after in the same hive just churning out honey and causing no trouble. Admittedly this was flying in the face of the evidence before me at each hive inspection. Ostrich. Head. Sand. My bees were intent on building queen cells. Every queen cell is a potential swarm. At the last count I had six of the beggars. And still I procrastinated. The books said I should create my own artificial swarm immediately. My head said, maybe tomorrow.

And so it came to pass that on the only day in the calendar so far this year when I am out all day and due to go out the same evening, a quick post-polytunnel watering hive check revealed that all hell had broken loose at bee central. Bees were pouring out of the hive. Before my very eyes the front & sides of the hive were blackening with a blanket of bees. It’s compelling viewing. The air was thick with bees. If I lose the swarm I lose two-thirds of my colony. At current prices for a new honey bee nucleus, that’s potentially £120 pounds worth of bees flying off over the hedgerow. If it was a deadline I’d been waiting for, I certainly had that now!

Bee suit on, with heart pounding, I tracked the line of bees.


The buzzing grew louder and louder and reached a crescendo about 15 feet along the hedge line. I could hear them but I couldn’t see them. So into the grassland, round the other side and into the ditch I go, and sure enough hanging in the thick of the blackthorn tree was a small rugby ball shaped cluster of my bees. I’d never seen a real swarm before. I thought I never would. Now face to face to with one (or rather face to thousands of 5-eyed fuzzy faces), I felt strangely calm, albeit a hot & sweaty kind of calm. I spread my sheet in the ditch, placed my bucket under the swarm, and reached for the branch loppers. Damn and blast, the angle was all wrong and there was no room for manoevre. I swapped loppers for big stick and gave the branch a whack. Dave chuckled at my performance as the Ninja Beekeeper in the hedge inexpertly abusing a tree with her Kendo sword.


Easy to laugh when you’re watching from a very safe distance.

According to my bee book, one whack of the branch and the whole swarm should fall in heap into your bucket and stay there. When you’re standing in a field in West Wales, sweating in your bee suit, what you actually get is a face full of bees. The bombardment on my suit sounded like a heavy shower of gold ball sized hailstones. Very persistent hailstones that keep coming back for a second, third, fourth attack!

Some whackings later, I had a bucket of bees. Me and my black cloud of angry bee followers headed back to the apiary (grand name for a patch of grass and two hives). According to my bee book, it’s a straightforward task to tip your bucket of bees into your empty hive brood box. When you’re standing in a field in West Wales, dripping with sweat in your bee suit, what you actually get is a trickle of bees dropping into your brood box and flying back out to join the bees that escaped en route. Meanwhile, on the other side of the hedge, the swarm was re-forming. If I don’t get the queen, this could go on forever. It took four increasingly fraught and sweaty trips before the swarm stopped re-forming. My state of mind wasn’t helped by the fact that Steve was determined to test the “curiosity killed the cat” theory to the limit, to-ing and fro-ing across the field with me. It’s difficult to reason with a cat at the best of times, but trying to do so while holding a bucket full of furious bees was never going to work.

The next morning all was quiet down at bee central. The only clue that something untoward might have taken place was the presence of discarded lopped off tree branches scattered amongst patches of flattened grass.


Muted buzzing sounds emanated from the new hive. My swarmed colony had survived their first night. By midday bees were emerging from the hive – thankfully one by one not all at once!


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