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Nature’s Resilience: The swarming of honeybees

Beekeeper and Permaculture magazine editor, Maddy Harland, explores the fundamental lessons of survival and cooperation that we humans can learn from the honeybees.

 

In spring 2018, the bees awakened from their winter slumbers; their stores were low and they needed to go out and forage. It was then that the Beast from the East hit them. In England, 40% of beekeepers’ colonies were killed. In Scotland, the figure was 60%. It is difficult to assess the survival rate of wild colonies, but we can assume they too suffered.

I nursed my little colony through the freeze by feeding them and they survived and thrived, but it got me thinking that I needed to provide more ‘homes’ for other bees. Last winter, I therefore made a Top Bar hive (see my previous blog ‘A Gentler Way of Beekeeping’, Part 2) and two little nucleus hives to house swarms, and researched how to attract bees to them.

Nature is incredibly resilient when encouraged. Little did I realise what would happen this spring (2019) and I have to tell you it was humbling. In April, I set the Top Bar up in the apiary and ‘baited’ it to attract a swarm. This involves rubbing the interior with beeswax and placing a mixture of Geranium and Lemon Balm essential oils in the entrance. The oils mimic Queen pheromones and the wax tells the bees that the space is friendly. I added an old frame filled with comb and rubbed the essential oils into the entrance of the nucleus hives and placed them in the garden. I strapped one to the branches of an apple tree and placed the other one on the flat roof of the garage in the front garden (bees like their homes to be placed at least 5 feet high, ideally higher, like a hollow in a large tree). Soon scout bees were investigating and I held my breath and waited until the swarming season was underway.

Bee colonies are composed of one Queen, thousands of worker bees (non-fertile females who run the place) and a seasonal possé of drones (males) who hang out in a bee congregation area ready to mate with Queens on their maiden flight.

Queens are an egg-laying phenomena - 2,000 eggs a day in Spring and Summer, with a lifespan of up to five years in a wild colony. Drones do very little, their sole aim is to pass on the colony’s genes by mating with the Queen; and it is the workers who feed the babies, gather forage, make honey, wax, Royal Jelly and propolis and maintain the hive. They decide when a Queen needs to be ‘superseded’ or when the colony has run out of space and needs to swarm, and when to kick the drones out of the hive to die of cold when they have performed their duty in early autumn.

Why do bees swarm?

Swarming is the way honeybee colonies reproduce. New Queen cells are produced by the workers by feeding them concentrated Royal Jelly. The new Queens hatch and the strongest kills her sisters (natural selection), whilst the old Queen flies out of the colony, seeking a new home with some of her workers, the scout bees having sought out some options. If it is a prime swarm, 60% of the workers leave with the old Queen (up to 20,000 bees). Before they fly, they gorge honey and store it in their abdomens. These stores enable them to convert the sugar in honey into wax in a gland in their abdomens once they find a new home. It also means that a newly-swarmed colony, with tummies full of honey, cannot bend their abdomens to sting so swarms are usually harmless (unless they have been out for a few days and are hungry).

The best made plans…

In May, I was eagerly checking my bait hives and watching scouts enter them. I love the way Nature (and especially honey bees) is set to confound and humble the best laid plans. After a weekend away, one early evening, I wandered up the garden to find a large prime swarm nestling in our Medlar tree. I checked my two existing hives and it wasn’t from them, it was a wild colony. We simply cut the branch and shook them into the empty Top Bar hive that awaited them just 10 feet away, ensuring that the Queen was housed. There they have stayed; a most peaceable and hardworking colony, now happily drawing out comb and building brood and stores for the winter.

The next day my friend, the area swarm collector, brought me a nice little swarm that I housed in one of the nucleus hives. But the bees were laughing at me. Within another two days another huge prime swarm landed at the top of the garden, ignoring the bait hive. I watched it appear, darkening the sky, swirling in a vast buzzing spiral above my hedge. If you have ever had the privilege of watching bees swarm, you will know that feeling of quickening, when Nature shows you its power. It is incredibly exciting, like watching salmon leap or mackerel run, the whole world before you is transformed into a primal feast of raw energy and abundance. That day, I also discovered that collecting swarms is extraordinarily energizing. It literally gives you a buzz!

Walking up to check the hives again, I was able to confirm these were not my bees but another wild swarm. It was too large to be homed in my last nucleus bait hive, so I called up a friend and asked her if she wanted it. Together we shook the swarm into a box, being careful to catch the Queen, and then placed it on a bedsheet propped by a brick so the stragglers could follow (The sheet makes it easier for the bees to crawl into the box and we can watch them too.). Once they were all inside, we sealed the box and took the wild colony to her apiary to be housed in a hive.

But before all this, the bees had another laugh. I found another little swarm, called a cast. So whilst we were collecting the prime swarm, we also scooped this one up and placed it in the last nucleus box. From two colonies my apiary had grown to five in just three days … plus I had the gifted prime swarm.

The last laugh came with a call from my neighbour who told me a swarm was sitting on her barbed wire fence beyond my garden. I called the swarm collector. They were very fierce, hungry bees that had been out for a few days and had consumed their stores. We had to don gloves and suits to protect ourselves before we shook them into a traditional straw skep (the kind you see on honey jars). I gladly gave these away.

Natural Resilience

Last year, post-Beast, there were hardly any swarms at all. This year has been a bonanza. The outcome of the season so far (late June), is that my five colonies are doing well, loving their life in a wildflower meadow, surrounded by fruit and broadleaf trees. The swarm collector for the local area has collected over 60 swarms in just a few weeks. These have been given to all the new beekeepers in the area on the ‘swarm list’; to existing beekeepers wishing to expand their apiaries, and now the extras are filling training apiaries. Left to their own devices in the wild, there is always a risk that they will not find safe homes. We manage our woods too well, felling diseased trees whose cavities would have provided space for a wild nest, and we humans fear bees and tend to exterminate colonies in our roofs or cavity walls.

Swarms on this scale are one of Nature’s ways of bees recovering from threatened extinction. Would that we humans had those instincts. My dream for bees is that more and more people provide homes for them whether they are unmanaged log hives, natural designs like Top Bars and Warré hives, or the more conventional Langstroth or nationals.

My dream for humans is that we learn more about the fascinating world of bees and chemical-free beekeeping. Ultimately, though, we learn that other species can be our teachers. We are part of the web of life, inhabiting a place in the ecology of the planet, and we are not at the pinnacle of evolution. We need to learn our place in the system, not dominate it to the point of our own extinction.

All species of pollinators matter deeply to our survival. Their vigour indicates the health of an ecosystem, yet there is something about honeybees that particularly captivates me. After over 120 million years of evolution, bees have developed a collective intelligence very different to our own. They can teach us a lot about cooperation, household economy, planning for the future, adapting to the seasons, extreme climate events, when to be collectively powerful, and when no aggression is needed.

There is something faintly ludicrous about thinking we ‘keep’ bees. Bees are wild. They chose to stay. We provide homes for them and they should be asked to only give us their excess honey, wax and propolis in return. It is time that we treated them with greater respect and symbiosis.

 

Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture Magazine. She is the author of Fertile Edges – regenerating land, culture and hope – and The Biotime Log.

Photo credit (main and above): Tim Harland
 

You can build a Top Bar hive in a day with Jim the Bee in Dorset here.

Free Top Bar hive plans are available here.

 

Bees top bar hive - Tim Harland

I discovered that collecting swarms is extraordinarily energizing. It literally gives you a buzz!

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