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


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.

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