Bee crises always seem to break at awkward moments. Our most recent started at 7.50 one evening, just after I had sat down with a pint of beer. A call came from the village: a swarm had settled in Mr X's garden. "I'm not going near them," he said. "Will you take them away?"
Since the bees were probably mine, I felt morally obliged to help. At least two swarms had gone from my hives during the past couple of days, and this could easily be one of them. The snag was that I had no vacant hive in which to house a new colony - but luckily I knew of one along the lane, belonging to a neighbouring farmer, John.
Leaving my pint half-drunk, I threw some gear into the car and drove down. Mr X, hovering in his porch, pointed out the swarm in the top of a plum tree: an oval lump bigger than a rugger ball, but not in the easiest of positions. What you need is a clear space beneath the swarm, so that when you give a sudden twitch to the branch round which the bees have clustered, they drop into your skep all together.
The fascinating thing about a swarm is its dryness and lightness. The massed bees (maybe 15,000 of them) look as moist and heavy as if they were coated and stuck together with treacle. In fact they are bone-dry and light as feathers, and when you twitch the branch, they fall with a slippery rustle.
Standing on top of a stepladder, craning awkwardly through the tree, I held my skep beneath the swarm as best I could - and shook. About two thirds of it fell into the box; the rest landed on a sheet which I had spread over the grass below, or lodged on other branches.
Back on the ground, I turned the skep upside-down, with the bottom open, and propped up so that stragglers could rejoin the main tribe. Inward migration confirmed that the queen was inside, but it took nearly an hour for all to be gathered in. Then at last I was able to close the skep and drive off.
Three minutes later, with dusk falling, I pulled up outside John's house and scrambled up a steep bank to make sure his empty hive was serviceable. Curses! It was empty no more. A swarm had found it and taken up residence during that afternoon. There on the flight-board was a heap of old wax chippings - proof that the new arrivals were busy spring-cleaning.
Now what? Back home, a rapid rout-about in the garden shed yielded up the rudiments of another hive: brood-chamber, or bottom unit, some combs, a crown-board, a galvanised lid. Hastily improvising, I assembled these in a corner of the orchard - only to realise that I had no base-board, an essential component.
By then it was 9.50, and almost dark. The swarm was still fizzing in the back of the car. I sped to the workshop, found a piece of blockboard two feet square, and quickly carpentered up a rim of half-inch beading round three sides of it, so that the brood-chamber could sit on the rim, leaving the fourth side open as the bees' entrance.
With a serviceable hive in being, I laid a sheet of plywood at an angle, so that it sloped up to the doorway, and at last there came the critical moment of dumping the swarm at its new front door. (There is always a chance that the bees will take against the structure and push off somewhere else.)
One shake of the skep, and out they tumbled in a tawny flood that spread right across the four-foot board. After only a moment's hesitation, the leading scouts began scurrying in through the entrance, and by some form of communication indetectible to a human they drew the whole swarm after them.
Somewhere among them was the queen, and I knew that she was being escorted by her closest retainers, which would be all round her - ahead, behind, above and below - in a solid phalanx, keeping her warm and bearing her bodily forward. But by then it was so dark that, even with my face only three or four inches above the marching troops, I could not make her out.
At 10pm I at last returned to my beer - and never has the second half of a pint gone down better. Soon I lowered another, secure in the knowledge that even if further swarms broke out to torment us, they could not do so before the morning.