A SWARMING GOOD TIME

a box of bees third swarm in june

That’s the third swarm of honeybees I caught within this past two weeks. Of course I was expecting the bees to start doing this anytime. They are a little later than last year but what I’d call summer was also a bit later too.Apparently this is happening all over Ireland this week.

It’s no real use panicking at the last minute when your honeybees decide to swarm. If it’s your first time, you’ll probably have read and watched films, winding   yourself up  into a right old panic , tight ,like a rubber band, thinking what you will do the first time those wee wild honeybees decide to leave home.You’ll no doubt have read- up on  swarm cells and you’ll be looking out for the signs of that first occasion.The thing is you’ll already have so much buzzing through your fevered brain . You’ll be trying to differentiate between  worker bees and drones .You might even be lucky enough to have spotted your first queen, There’ll be fat  drone cells to look for and you’ll want to get a look at some new eggs.You’ll be studying the laying pattern and the various shades of pollen in the cells. You’ll see your first capped honey ,possibly.

When you start off , you might have been supplied with an already marked laying queen honeybee. Maybe not . if you have a marked one , she’ll have a neat coloured dot of paint on her back in one of several colours to denote her age. That’s the way they are sometimes sold so that you’ll have some idea how old she is  and which year she harks from.Not only that , if you ever have to split the hive and want to take the queen to a new location , she’s easier found.When later on you end up with several unmarked queens across various broods, that is not so easily done.

At the start there may not be many bees in that first hive box so you’ll have a chance of seeing her  among her workers as the hive grows. She’ll be a slightly different colour from her offspring , usually a tawny amber and she’ll have a longer distended body. She’ll scuttle about in a very specific way while laying her eggs in each little cell and you’ll soon be aware that she’s surrounded at all times by a retinue of bees who look after her every whim .They’ll clean and feed her and fuss about like little courtiers. The drones, you’ll get to know. They are the only males about the place They are squat little fellows like boxy, stubby gangsters from a  Humphrey Bogart film of the 1940’s.Remember those broad-shouldered suits? They look a bit like that with their squat flattened bottoms.  They have no stinger and they  appear  as lazy as be-damned . They are also looked after by the females of the hive.There are always a few of them about the place , lolling about in that lazy sort of way, getting in the way of any real work to be done.Their only purpose in life is to fly away to the treetops and mate with a  virgin queen ….Probably any available queen.Of course a hive needs a few of these guys around …just in case a queen dies or is lost  to some accident .A clumsy beekeeper could very easily crush a queen and throw the entire community into chaos.The colony will need a few males about for fertilisation. That really is their lot in life .They might be quite surprised to learn that in that single moment of ecstasy  and release , the drones literally explode with a noticeable pop and their  undercarriage dissappears in an  eruption of insect passion….usually in flight , high above the treetops.The queen keeps that for herself and future generations. It doesn’t bear thinking about.  No , it ‘s not a kind fate , but then again , they’ve had a right handy old life of it up to that point .It could be a whole lot worse . The ones that don’t get to that  glorious exit are unceremoniously booted out of the hive , quite unrequited , come Autumntime and are left to their helpless, indolent fate . They’ll probably end up as a robin’s repast if they don’t die of starvation.Such is the life of a male bee.

Anyway , back to being prepared . Your first hive of bees will eventually make you a second hive of bees by splitting into two . The queen will get out with half of the troops when the colony is big enough and ready to evolve . The bees will become very agitated and you’ll gradually be able to read the signs and the sounds of this perturbation.Around the front of the hive, the bees will begin to spiral like a gathering cyclone as the scout bees go off in every direction to determine a new home .sometimes they’ll suddenly call it all off and all will be quiet but usually if the day is warm and conditions feel right, the queen will exit the front of the hive , followed by a storm of courtiers issuing like black smoke in an endless cloud. They’ll whirl about with much noise and clamour and most likely scare the hell out of anyone who doesn’t realise what is happening.

You might catch them and hive them or attempt to split them yourself when you see them building queen cells.That’s fine in theory when you only have one hive to worry about . If you have a few strong hives , you mightn’t get a chance to even spot your queens because there are so many bees and  all  of them  are in constant  motion .You might miss a queen cell in a bottom frame and before you know it they’ll be on their way. It’s not easy to see the signs all the time when you’ve maybe 50,000 bees in one hive . You might be offside at work or away for the day and lose your original queen and half the hive with half of your potential honey crop.

There are times , if the weather is inclement, when your hive inspection is at best a cursory peek to make sure they have enough room. The weather might be making them angry and they’ll buzz you away.That can be disconcerting  and who needs that kind of hassle? Sometimes you can just split them and sometimes they split themselves .One way or another , I’m currently up on seven hives .It fluctuates .Sometimes a hive will simply die because the queen is a poor layer and I haven’t a spare new  queen to give to it . Sometimes, as has happened, the hive will reject the stranger queen and she’ll be left helpless on the doorstep….unceremoniously dumped out to fend for herself. Life is cruel like that.Sometimes a queen will only lay male drones , which isn’t much use when you need a  posse of workers to get anything done ..not  a bunch of lazy cornerboys with no work in them .That hive is sure to die out. I already described the hive that wouldn’t play the game and set up home in the honey superbox instead of the brood box…well it didn’t survive , but fortunately it’s now been replaced by the three new split hives.That’s how it goes…up and down . I’d say that there are four good robust hives now and three strong possibilities but that can easily change.

Anyway, when you know the bees will possibly swarm , you have to prepare for it .That means having spare equipment on hand. You’ll need either a five frame nucleus box or a cardboard box to temporarily  catch the swarm. You’ll also need a new hive of course, but you can keep the swarm in the nucleus box for a short time while you get yourself organised. The thing I’ve learned is to have all your equipment ready to go from a cold start. You don’t want to be caught out in a mad panic.You want to be cool, or Kool even, and take things at your ease. No panic ,Mr Mainwaring!If you are in a panic, something will be forgotten or something will go wrong .You’ve got to stay calm.

What I always do after each inspection session is make sure my smoker is charged again and ready for action.I’ve tried all the usual fuels, like dead pine leaves , wood chippings and all the rest.There’s a lot of talk about gradually firing up your smoker like tamping a well-loved pipe of tobacco and leisurely getting the old boy going.That’s lovely in normal circumstances, but when you’ve got a swarm blaring like a hurricane in your ears and frightened citizens and puppies running for their dear lives, what you want is a speedy solution.  You don’t want to spend precious minutes coaxing a fire alive at a time like this. You want instantaneous combustion. The bee specialists will try and sell you smoker cartridges made from cardboard. Yes , they’ll charge you for rolls of cardboard.You want something that lights quickly , gives off plenty of cool smoke and burns  and smoulders for a  very long time without going out. Here’s what works for me.You remember all that red  Malbec and Rioja I like to  drink for purely medicinal reasons ? I keep those old  wine- boxes and cut the cardboard in three or four inch wide strips which I roll up into tight  cardboard cylinders. Squirt some barbecue lighter fuel on the bottom and pop one of these into the smoker.When you need quick smoke to calm the bees and yourself, these spark up and smoke for ages.What you don’t want is your smoker to die at a critical juncture of the operation when that cool smoke will calm the ladies down.That’s like the power failing in the dead of night.Just light the thing up . let it blaze for a minute or two and close the lid down . When you have that organised it’ll be ready and is  something you’ll not have to fumble with at the last minute.

Then make sure you’ve got your beesuit ready and your gauntlets…and don’t forget a pair of wellington boots ,which you can slip on quickly.The books will tell you that the bees won’t sting you when they are swarming  because they’re so full of honey that they can’t bend,but they’ve never heard of Irish crossbred bees. If these guys get up your trouserleg…believe me they’ll have a go at your flesh.  They obviously haven’t read those  same bee books as the experts. I forgot my boots the first time I picked up a swarm and while i was successfully housing the bees from a head- high branch without much bother , a breakaway group was smuggling themselves up my trouseleg at ground-level.

All that said…Yesterday ,I knew in my bones  that the hive in the corner was acting  a little oddly so I figured something was about to happen .Like I say it’ll happen the minute you head for the bathroom or sit down for a meal. “They’re doing it !” cried my wife…and indeed they were .The garden was abuzz with mad life, storming around a particular  bush, but PaddyKool  was ready . That queen had gathered herself and the familly into a  soft ball of humming  activity. I picked up a nucleus box and deftly shook the branch sharply to neatly drop Her Maj et al into its depths .Soon all the courtiers followed her example, neatly trooping in.

In half an hour I had another beehive housed and working in a brand new spot. If only it could be like that every time….

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