Honey, I saved my first swarm...

... or rather watched, as the professionals stepped in. David Randall reports that bees are in trouble – but there is a way to help

A A A

Funny things, bees. You wait all winter to see one and then 8,000 come along at once. A whole swarm of them, clinging to a tree, filling a bush, hugging a wall in Muswell Hill, a VW Polo in Somerset, a gatepost in Birmingham, or even a boiler cupboard in The Wirral, Cheshire.

These places are where just a few of the 150 calls to the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) swarm helpline have come from since it was set up less than a month ago. And that takes no account of the hundreds of calls this warm, dry spring to councils asking for assistance. No one knows if this number is unprecedented, but it seems that 2011 will be a bumper year for swarms. "We are," says the BBKA's Christine Gray, "inundated with calls" – as indeed they were last year, which prompted the association to inaugurate the swarm helpline. It opened on 26 April, in time for the peak season of May and June, but before that could start, at an almost unheard-of early date, the first swarm was reported on 3 April.

It's not entirely unknown for people to ring council pest-control lines and report, in a slightly hysterical voice: "There's a swarm of killer bees in my garden!" Needless to say, "killer bees" are the stuff of cheap DVDs, and climes far warmer than our own. Chris Deaves, chairman of the BBKA's education and husbandry committee, says: "Honey bees in a swarm are usually very gentle and present very little danger. They can be made aggressive if disturbed or sprayed with water. Sending out a swarm is the natural way that honey bee colonies increase their numbers. They are looking for new homes."

What usually happens is that a hive approaches an optimum size, produces a new queen, and the old queen takes off for flower pastures new, trailing thousands of followers in her wake. They are, you could say, like hyperactive groupies who will not leave the object of their devotion. And so, when beekeepers collect a swarm, what they must do is scoop up the queen, then nearly all the rest will loyally follow.

I would know none of this had I not gone to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre at Arundel on Tuesday and come across the first swarm I have ever seen. It was clustered round the trunk of a modest tree, and I started watching – at a cowardly distance – just as two beekeepers from Worthing arrived to take charge. They looked, in their white suits and gauzed headgear, like scene-of-crime officers. They had barely begun to work out how to handle things when the swarm broke up, and the air was filled with bees, who, after a few moments of indecision, took off in a south-easterly direction – towards Worthing.

They didn't go that far, but instead settled on another tree about 150 yards away. It was an old oak, and the queen had taken a shine to a deep hole, and most of her disciples followed while outliers buzzed around in the vicinity. We watched for almost an hour as the old queen resisted all attempts, with smoke and sweet nothings, to coax her from her hole. "Silly question, I know," I said to a warden, "But why can't you just leave them there?" His answer: visitors, schoolchildren, health and safety, duty of care, etc. There is, I later learned, a far better reason to capture the bees: if left in the wild, three-quarters of all swarms die by the onset of winter.

And we can ill afford to lose them. In the winter of 2008, one in three British hives died out, and there has not been a lot of cause for optimism since. Yet a swarm, safely gathered in, will form the nucleus of a new hive – something which, for a queen and 8,000 bees, would cost a keeper between £120 and £150. And, if captured in May or June, they are likely to repay their new owner with some honey. I hope they so reward the Worthing experts, who, later in the afternoon, secured the Arundel swarm inside the "skep" – a wicker container which looks like a small, old-fashioned, bell-shaped hive.

Beekeeping has proved very popular in recent years, and the BBKA has more than 20,000 members. For those with neither the space nor the inclination to keep bees, there is another way to do your bit to help a species that pollinates so many of the plants from which our food comes. The BBKA runs Britain's only non-profit Adopt-A-Beehive scheme, details of which can be found at adoptabeehive.co.uk. I'll be signing up; I hope you will, too. Otherwise, we'll send a great big swarm round to get you.

The BBKA Swarm Helpline can be contacted on 07896 751205

Nature's little helpers

* Swarms vary widely in size, and can contain as many as 20,000 bees – one queen, some drone males, and the rest workers, all of which are females.



* Wasps and bumblebees do not swarm. Neither do hornets, funnel-web spiders, rattlesnakes or any other of the things shown behaving with collective menace in the movies.



* A swarm often settles in a ball, hanging from a tree or bush. The bees are not only gathering around their queen, but are also keeping tightly together to stay warm and so save energy.



* Honey bees, despite pollinating the plants that give us about a third of all we eat, are not protected in law. Without pollination, crops such as beans, apples, strawberries, peas and berries would not bear fruit.



* Honey is what bees make to feed their grubs, and fuel themselves. They are fantastically efficient – a honeybee does about seven million miles to the gallon, at a top speed of 22mph.



* The honeybee's chief enemy in this country (apart from us and our destruction of wild flowers, laying down of decking, etc) is the varroa mite. This crab-like creature feeds on bees and their young, eventually killing the whole colony.



* A bee has a brain about as big as a grass seed. This is still considerably smarter than the brains of those who spray pesticides on crops and gardens, and so kill wild flowers, and, possibly, chemically affect the mechanism by which bees navigate.



* In the United States, says the British Beekeepers' Association, the number of bees per acre has fallen 90 per cent in the past 50 years. In China, bee populations have dropped so sharply that some crops have to be pollinated by hand using feather brushes.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?