When we lived in London, we did everything we could to entice a swarm of bees into our little garden. Purchasing a colony of bees is quite pricey and the idea of being able to expand our hive numbers for free was very appealing. In the beekeeping world, lost swarms are fair game and it’s very much a case of finders-keepers. So, we set up a bait box at the back of our garden. An old hive, filled with a few pieces of used honeycomb, a couple of brood frames, and sprinkled with lemongrass essential oil (which apparently smells similar to the queen bee pheromone), to attract any passing swarms to land and set up home. We didn’t catch a single bee.
At our new home in the countryside, and much to our excitement, we have been inundated with swarms (with no need for a bait box). Three landed in the orchard last year, and there have been another three so far this year. They arrive in a chaotic cloud of loud buzzing, which is a little disconcerting at first. However, every swarm we have encountered has always been very docile and rarely stings (the bees fill themselves up with honey before they swarm and seem to find it difficult to muster the energy to sting on such a full tummy). The latest swarm arrived just as we were heading out for an afternoon walk on the hills, so we cancelled our plans, kicked off our walking boots, and suited-up in our bee attire instead.
The swarm landed in the very centre of one of our plum trees. They were positioned in amongst a tangle of branches and bark, and divided across different heights. Extracting the swarm was therefore not a straightforward operation. We grabbed an old, but sturdy cardboard box from the house and some secateurs and set to work. By cutting away a few of the twiggy branches around the swarm, we were able to give ourselves enough room to slide the open cardboard box underneath it. Then it was just a case of giving the bee-covered branches a firm shake and catching the little insects in the box as they fell. Because the bees were in such an awkward position on the tree, it wasn’t possible to land them all neatly, and a lot of additional shaking and sweeping (with a special bee brush) was needed to gather up as many of them as possible.
The key is to capture the queen. Any bees left behind in the tree will then follow her into the box. Without her royal highness, the swarm won’t survive as they will have no one to lay new worker bees and no existing eggs to turn into queen cells for a replacement. Luckily we caught the queen on our first shake. We could tell she was in the box as the bees around the edges started to use their wings to fan her scent towards the bees left in the tree, so they would know where to find her. Eventually, after a good half hour, the remainder of the bees in the tree managed to reunite with her.
Once the swarm was safely inside the box, we moved them away from the plum tree and shook them into one of our spare poly nucs (a miniature hive made from polystyrene). We also gave them a frame of honey from one of our existing hives, to help sustain the colony over the next few days. The nuc is now sitting comfortably on an old pallet in our apiary. From a distance we can see the flying bees circling backwards out of the hive entrance on orientation flights. In doing this they are able to take a mental picture of the hive entrance, so that they can recognise it when they come back from a foraging trip, and don’t accidentally try and land in the wrong hive. This is a great sign that the bees are adjusting to their new home and seem happy to stay for now. Here’s hoping that they will flourish in their new location and, fingers-crossed, they make us a few jars of honey.