'By God, another swarm - a cluster of bees, beautifully shaped like a slim strawberry ...'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's all go on the bee front. With the weather warmed up, activity has risen to a pitch that keeps the nerves and resources of your amateur apiarist at full stretch.

In May, once I had supered-up the hives - that is, put on extra storeys full of empty combs to create more space - there was not much to be done for the time being. The one necessary task was to keep the entrances clear: grass and nettles were growing so fast that I had to snip them down with a pair of shears every few days.

You might suppose that the bees would appreciate such attention, designed as it is to keep damp out of their homes and to facilitate their exits and entries. Far from it: even though I approached only at dawn or dusk - before or after the honey-collectors were at work - militant guards whizzed out at the first click of the shears, giving off the high whine which signifies that they are in overdrive and on the lookout for targets.

One morning I came on the aftermath of a minuscule tragedy. Hanging backwards off a flight-board was the corpse of a slug, arched over in death. Beside it lay the dead bee which (I presumed) had sacrificed itself in defending the hive against the intruder. I felt the blame was mine, for if I had kept the grass shorter, the slug would never have gained access to the bees' front door.

Then I went away for a week, and on returning was greeted with the news that a swarm, presumed to be mine, had taken up residence in an empty hive on a neighbouring farm. When I went to look, I was amazed, because the hive had been so completely overgrown by nettles as to be invisible, and the bees could go in and out only by settling on the leaves and crawling up or down the plants.

"How on earth did they find it?" asked John, the farmer.

"By scent," I said. "They must have smelt the old combs inside."

That was but a preliminary to the events of this week. Returning from an early-morning walk, I noticed something dark in the branches of a young apple tree. A bird's nest? No, by God: another swarm - a large cluster of bees, beautifully formed into the shape of a slim strawberry, maybe a foot from top to bottom, and nine or 10 inches wide at the top.

The taking of this lot was simplicity itself, as it hung within a few yards of an empty hive. Having brought the brood chamber, or base unit, across and set it up on a sheet of plywood, all I had to do was climb into the tree, cut off the slender, upward-pointing branch on which the swarm had coalesced, come down and dump the bees into the box with a sudden twitch.

The fact that almost every one remained inside showed that the queen was safely in their midst. In the evening I carried the hive back to its proper site, and all seemed well.

Then in the morning the telephone rang. John had another swarm, hanging on a tree by his gate. I went to look at it but told him I had no more hives free. When I rang round to offer the swarm to friends, I found they, too, were full up. "Leave them alone and they'll take off somewhere else," I advised. But John, hell-bent on adding them to his collection, drove off to Gloucester (17 miles), got a hive, and tried to lure them into it with honey - in vain. Away they went, into the blue.

By then I, too, had another swarm, this time in a quince tree. Were they the lot I had just installed, come out again? No - that hive was working well. What to do? It went against the grain to pass up a potentially valuable asset. If I had had more time and greater skill, I could have sorted through the mass of maybe 10,000 bees, found the queen and killed her - whereupon the rest would have returned to the hive they had just abandoned. As it was, I left them alone.

That night the swarm remained in place. But soon after noon next day their scouts came back with news of a lodging place and, with a terrific buzz, they all took off.

Hardly had they gone, when another neighbour rang to say that his garden was full of bees. Thank heaven, they turned out to be wild ones - furry little black fellows with red tails, and nothing to do with me.

Comments