Keeping bees. Part 4: Swarming

Alison Benjamin

11 April 2012

April is the start of the busiest time of year for experienced beekeepers. It’s when their bees could swarm leaving a half empty hive. 

Swarming is the honey bees’ natural way of propagating, creating two colonies from one.

The queen and half her colony of worker bees leave the hive in search of a new home. They leave behind young bees to raise a new virgin queen and develop a new colony.

Swarming is a spectacular sight as darting bees fill the sky before clustering in the shape of a rugby ball on a nearby post or branch as a temporary resting site.

If a beekeeper can get to the cluster before it heads off, they will shake it into a box and claim it as their own. 

As a beginner, if you know a beekeeper or have joined a beekeeper association and put your name down on a ‘swarm list’, you might be given a collected swarm to start your beekeeping. 

The advantage of a swarm is that it's usually free of charge. The drawback is you could be waiting a long time for one. 

This is especially so if lots of other beginners are ahead of you on the swarm list. It’s not unheard of for people to have to wait until the following summer for their allocated swarm.

Bees swarm when the conditions are right:

  • Warm weather.
  • Lots of available food.
  • A strong and healthy colony.

But most beekeepers try to prevent swarming. For a start they could lose half their honey-making workforce. 

Also they can scare the neighbours. Some 25,000 bees pouring out of a hive can be alarming. 

In built up areas bees can cluster in inconvenient places such as shopping centres, leading to streets being closed until the swarm collector arrives. 

So it’s probably safer to buy your bees from a supplier (see my previous blog).

And while you wait until they are ready to collect in a few weeks, try to get some hands-on training at your local beekeeping association.

Next month: Collecting your bees.

Alison Benjamin is co-founder of Urban Bees with Brian McCallum. Their latest book is "Bees in the City: The Urban Beekeepers' Handbook" (Guardian Books, £12.99). To buy a copy, visit our Shop.

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