An Open Letter.......
....... to the 'natural' movement and the 'let them alone' beekeepers
Those of us who know, from long experience, that bees can pay their way and be perfectly happy in a standard box hive. We also know that we can work the hives and walk amongst them without fear. Better than that, we can keep bees and also live on good terms with our neighbours.
At this time of the year we are paying close attention to the process of taking them through controlled swarming which, if properly carried out, will not affect our neighbours AND give us enough honey to see them through the winter in a Biodynamic way AND some more to sell for our trouble.
The swarming process is the bees way of setting up a new colony elsewhere when things get too crowded at home. What it is not is a Teddy Bears' Picnic. The bees do not gather outside the hive, fly up to ten miles, gather again , send out scouts, and finally take up residence because they feel like an afternoon spin round the park. They do it thus because it’s the only way available to them. If the beekeeper has a way of getting round the time spent out of the hive they will gladly except it and get on with the job of collecting honey. Watch the way a thrown swarm scampers up the ramp. It’s a sure sign that that they have no taste for the wild world –even in large crowds.
Now, I have Parkinson’s, am in my latter years and no longer able to do some of the jobs (the shakes make hive inspection difficult and the heavy lifting a strain) my sense of balance is not good and that rules me out for swarm taking. I have reduced my stocks to three and planned to give up next year before my inabilities become such that my neighbours are inconvenienced or threatened. A swarm in flight is a pretty alarming thing.
The other afternoon one of our local handymen rang up while I was having my mandatory afternoon rest. There was a swarm in the laurel hedge right next to the playground at our local school. 8ft up and visible, it seemed a very straight forward job. I don’t do swarms any more but this was the local school and that was important. It sounded as if it would be possible to get it out between school closing today and opening tomorrow. I finished my rest and got over there about four o’clock to do a recce. There was nobody around except the two cleaners to whom the swarm was news. I left them with my phone number and details and went to look at the swarm
And there it was, in clear view, in a natural depression in the face of the hedge, a small swarm about the size of a milk saucepan. The cleaners went home leaving me to do my worst, I reckoned that I could get over after dinner, get the swarm into a box and collect it the following morning before the children arrived at school. By the time I’d collected what little swarm collection gear I’d got left we arrived at 7pm to find the place conveniently deserted. This was a bit of luck because what I found when I went up the ladder was a pretty pickle. The swarm had established itself in the middle of a monstrous tangle of one thick laurel branch and a mass of bramble. It came down to shortening all the bramble runners above the swarm then carefully cutting thorough them below it, carefully separating it with its load of bees and gently passing it down to my wife who, even more gently, lowered it into the box. This seemed to go on forever, right down to individual laurel leaves which seemed to be able to carry a load of 20 or so bees. It left the thick laurel branch with about 40% of the bees still on it. This is where the queen was likely to be. Fortunately I’d brought a long handled pruner with me, and used it to sever the branch above the bees. This left one hand to hold the bit of branch with the bees and two to manipulate the pruners. I don’t have three hands so it was obvious that my wife was going to have to do something. By the greatest of good luck it was possible to get the jaws of the pruner around the branch while manipulating it at full stretch from the ground. The girl, standing on the tips of her toes strained and heaved and wriggled and finally the branch parted with a tremendous crack and I nearly fell off the ladder but managed to get the rest of the bees down with it. Eventually we got everything which stayed on the foliage into the box. We put the box on the ladder step nearest the place where the swarm had been and left it for the night hoping that the flying bees would be attracted to join those in the box.
The following morning we were there at 7am to find most of the bees in the box but enough in the hedge to require a bit more action. We took the box down and I went up the ladder for some more pruning, Fortunately the laurel branch was not involved this time. I’d remembered everything except a new pair of gloves. Yesterdays pair split across the back of my wrists and the bees were soon at them and I took four stings before I went home for a new pair. This took time and the school staff started to wander in and further time was taken up explaining to them what was going on and that they would have to keep the children well out of the playground for the day. They were totally co-operative, bless them.
We took the box of bees away but left the ladder and I came back at lunch time with another box for the remainder and a can of wasp killer for the ones still on the wing. I didn’t need either of these because the remainder had departed I know not where. I’d left the swarm in its box on top of an empty hive at home overnight to settle down. The following morning they too had gone and we agreed that this was the only good thing about the whole experience.
That swarm was too small to have been a prime swarm. It was what beekeepers call a cast. To provide for the new colony the old queen goes off with the swarm. She leaves new queens developing behind her and these can set off with swarms of their own until the availability of flying bees to make up the swarm dwindles. Finding a small swarm is a sign that there is a much bigger one in the area, perhaps making more of a nuisance of itself.
I tell this story in its entirety because there has grown up a certain class of beekeeper who is either through unwillingness to (a) put in a little extra effort to swarm his bees under control or (b) believes that bees should be allowed to swarm at will. This means that a large proportion of the bees are lost to their owner and somebody else has to take responsibility for them. The first is negligence and the second, hypocrisy. Most experienced beekeepers have had experiences like that above and lived to tell the tale and fill in for their irresponsible colleagues until they have had enough of it and stop playing Jimmy Muggins. It must be very satisfying to able to do as little as you like and never have to answer for it.