Bringing in the bees

The air is alive with the sound of bees as new swarms settle in the garden

A colony of honey bees moves into its new homeHaving seen four bee swarms arrive last year, we've been waiting to see if the magnolia tree in the garden will attract more this year. It is said that 'A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay' and it would have been good if one had arrived then, as an early swarm has more time to settle and grow.

This year, however, May did not bring a swarm, at least not that we noticed, and our swarm collector friend, Steph, had no call outs. It would have to be 'a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon' – not as good as May, but good enough. 

Bee colonies divide and set off for new living space when they outgrow their current space and they like to go on warm, still days. The cold spring must have held them back and may have reduced colony sizes – I spoke to a beekeeper who told me that two beekeeping clubs he knows of locally lost all their bees over winter, so there may simply be fewer swarms this year.

Attracting swarms

The new swarm box hanging in the Magnolia treeLast year at home, we tried out a DIY swarm box in the hopes of attracting a colony searching for a new home and it worked. Only a short time after we fixed the box in the magnolia a swarm moved in and set up home. They are still there, living quietly as wild bees high up in the branches. This year, Steph wanted to try a ready-made swarm box – this is made of waterproof papier-mâché and looks much like a cardboard plant pot with a lid. You put some swarm lure inside (the 'homing' pheromone, Nasonov), hang the box in a likely tree and wait. 

June was into the second week and there still no swarms, but then the 11th dawned warm, dry and still, a good bee day. Late in the afternoon, Steph happened to visit and we went into the garden where, as luck would have it, we noticed many bees active around the hole of the swarm box, enough that we thought a swarm had already moved in. The box was swaying as if it hung in a breeze, but the air was still. I wonder now if scout bees were carrying out some final measuring up, flying from wall to wall, to make absolutely sure the space was the right size before summoning the rest of the colony. I can't think what else would cause the box to sway like that. We pulled up garden chairs and sat admiring them before Steph left, saying she'd come back later and collect the new colony. 

There were a lot of bees around the swarm box entrance but they were only the fore-runners. An hour so after Steph left, the swarm proper arrived and we had the thrilling opportunity of watching them move in. As seen last year, first the swarm circles the tree for several minutes, presumably for the bees to orient themselves, then they cluster at the doorway and gradually make their way inside. For the beekeeper, all that needs to be done, is to transfer the colony to a hive and move it an apiary at dusk, once the bees have gone inside for the night. 

You can buy bees - a nucleus colony will cost around £250 - but collecting your own is not only pretty much free, it's part of the entertainment. The two colonies that we keep are caught swarms and they are both well-tempered and incredibly vigorous. It feels good to have given them somewhere to live where they won't be bothered.

If you have a swarm on your property and don't want it there, the British Beekeepers Association has a register of swarm collectors who offer to come and remove it for no charge. 

See also

Grow plants for pollinators

Are native plants better for bees?

Top 10 patio plants for pollinators


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