In bee world, the honeybee is just one species of the 276 or so different bee species in the UK. Mostly they are domesticated creatures, kept in hives by beekeepers, but wild colonies do exist. In recent years there has been a huge rise in people starting to keep honeybees, sometimes in a misguided attempt to save the bees. A density of honeybees where there are wild bee species on a precipice, can put undue stress on the wild populations and competition for vital food.
Keeping honeybees won’t save the bees – it is like keeping chickens to save the birds. Not sure who first said that, but it is a very apt and relevant school of thought. There is nothing wrong in keeping honeybees, just be conscious of your reasons and your actions and be aware of any potential impact on the local environment too.
Honeybee swarms start to appear in gardens and the countryside anytime from April, but are most common in May or June. A swarm of bees is a miraculous wonder of nature.
Gardeners are in a great position to really help not just bees but all precious pollinators. By sowing and growing organic and pesticide free plants, they can provide a source of safe, essential pollen and nectar.
But in late spring and early summer the role of the gardener is even more vital. It’s swarm season and swarms are the very best chance for honeybees to reproduce naturally. Keep your eyes open – dark, shimmering clusters on trees, bushes and posts and call a beekeeper fast. With few hollow trees and suitable habitats, only around 25% of these will survive in the wild.
The word swarm has long been associated with negative undertones and bad implications. The swarm smear campaign is possibly one of the most successful and widely accepted slanderous campaigns in history. I cannot fathom why the majority sees a bee swarm as a threat; it’s a miraculous wonder of nature.
Bees are without doubt one of nature’s most inspirational creatures. Yes, they can sting, just once, when under threat, but they generally are not aggressive. Unless you are severely allergic, then embrace your fears and learn to observe and admire and you will build an unbelievable, admiring bond with these sentient creatures.
A bee swarm is the natural division of a healthy honey colony. In April and May about half the bees and the old queen leave the mother hive to find a new home, leaving the existing hive to the new virgin queen hatching inside. This is how bees reproduce, dividing a strong, thriving colony into two. To understand it better we need to stop looking at honeybees as individual insects and consider the whole colony as a single living, thriving entity. A bee swarm is really positive. It’s a magical birth of a new colony and charged with such positive, uplifting energy.
The sound of the swarm leaving the mother hive is phenomenal, like a helicopter cutting the air, as thousands of bees follow the old queen from the hive and prepare to cluster near by. Stand among the swarm as the bees fill the air with the glorious sound of bees. There is nothing quite like it.
Once clustered the bees are pretty harmless. Look don’t touch. Their bellies are filled with honey to sustain their adventure and this makes them physically less able to sting. In the very centre of the cluster is the Queen, protected by a glistening, shimmering layer of worker bees, while the scout bees search out suitable new premises; ideally a warm, dry hollow tree cavity or an unoccupied hive.
A cluster can hang for a few hours or a few days. These precious creatures face such monumental challenges that every swarm needs a rescue package. Now is the time to call for a beekeeper, preferably one that nurtures the natural behaviour of bees. Natural beekeepers don’t suppress swarms and allow the bees to reproduce and follow their basic instincts.