BOGOF

The swarm season this year has been atypical. At least here in the coolish, dampish, East coast of Scotland.

I hived my first swarm of the year on the last day of April and – as I write this – my most recent one in the middle of July.

The intervening period has been pretty quiet as the weather in May and June was – after a warm early spring – rather poor 1. The weather picked up a week or so ago, but it’s not been consistently good.

What we have had recently are some very warm and sunny days. The combination of some iffy weather, a bit of nectar coming in and then a few hot days are great conditions to trigger swarming.

Bait hives

For this reason I keep bait hives in my apiaries and one in my back garden throughout the season. These consist of a brood box with a solid floor, one old black frame anointed with lemongrass oil on the top bar, ten foundationless frames, a plastic crownboard and a roof of some sort.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

Any interest in these by scout bees suggests that there’s a colony nearby thinking of swarming. Scouts clearly check out potential locations before the colony swarms, but the scout activity increases significantly if they find your offering attractive and once the colony swarms and sets up a temporary bivouac from which it subsequently relocates.

Watching scout bee numbers increase allows you to guesstimate when a swarm might arrive. It’s an inexact science. A few scout bees are nothing to get excited about. Dozens are good and a hundred or two are very promising.

However, what’s best of all are a hundred or so scouts that rather suddenly disappear leaving the bait hive suspiciously quiet.

Which is more or less what happened on Sunday at the bait hive in my garden.

Walking wounded

Scout bees had discovered the bait hive sometime on Friday (or at least, this was when I first noticed them).

The weekend started warm with thunder threatened. I finished my colony inspections and returned for lunch to find a couple of dozen scouts checking out the bait hive 2. As the cloudy and muggy conditions continued scout bee numbers increased during the afternoon and then eventually tailed off as the evening cooled.

Sunday dawned warm and bright. Scouts were up and about before I’d made my first mug of coffee at 7 am. Numbers increased significantly during the morning.

While taking a few photos for talks I noticed a handful of corpses and walking wounded bees crawling around on the ground by the bait hive.

Missing in action

On closer inspection it was clear that there were intermittent fights between scouts at the hive entrance. There were more fights than cripples or corpses, and most fights ended with the scrapping bees breaking apart and continuing to, er, scout out the suitability of the bait hive.

Scout bees fighting from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

This behaviour seemed a bit unusual, but there wasn’t an obvious explanation for it. I wondered if I’d inadvertently used a frame with some stores tucked away in the top corners, with the fighting being between scouts and robbers perhaps 3.

Gone but not forgotten

Scout numbers continued to increase …

The calm before the storm

By Sunday lunchtime I was confidently predicting a swarm would be arriving ‘shortly’.

This prediction was upgraded to ‘very shortly’ once I realised – around 3 pm – that the scout bee activity had suddenly dwindled to just a few.

This happens when the scouts assemble en masse and persuade the bivouacked swarm to take flight and relocate. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley has a full explanation of this fascinating behaviour.

And, sure enough, ten minutes later a swirling maelstrom of bees approached purposefully down the street at chimney height, spiralling down to the bait hive.

You hear it first. Is it? Isn’t it? You look up and around. You can’t place the direction the noise is coming from. Then, at walking pace, they appear.

Hundreds, then thousands, milling around, getting lower, festooning the hive front, landing all around, taking flight and settling again.

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

At the hive entrance are hundreds of bees fanning frantically. The queen must have already entered the box. Slowly, over an hour or so, the bees settle, enter the box and just leave a few stragglers around the entrance.

One hour later from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Swarms are a fantastic sight in their own right. They’re even better when you have some insights into how ten thousand individuals with a brain the size of a pin head are corralled and coordinated to rehouse the queen, the flying workers and a few dozen drones that are ‘along for the ride’.

Again, I cannot recommend Honeybee Democracy highly enough as a very accessible guide to swarms and swarming.

Late evening, another move

The evening slowly cools. I can’t resist gently hefting the box to guesstimate the size of the swarm. Small to middling perhaps … a view pretty-much confirmed when I peek under the roof to see about 5-6 seams of bees occupying the back of the box.

We have a new puppy and it was clear (i.e. I was told in no uncertain terms) that the occupied bait hive must be moved to a less accessible spot.

I plug the entrance with some tissue and gently carry them around to a puppy-free location on the other side of the house.

Swarms suffer short-term geographic memory loss. They can be moved any distance you want for the first day or two after hiving them. After that they’ll have reorientated to the new location and the standard 3 feet/3 miles rule applies (which isn’t a rule at all).

Early morning, more activity

Monday dawned calm, warm and bright.

It was clearly going to be a fabulous day.

One of the great things about being an academic is the flexibility you have once the students have disappeared to Ibiza or Machu Picchu or wherever for the summer 4.

I was therefore looking forward to a day of wall-to-wall meetings, at least 3 hours of which would be in a basement room with no windows 🙁

At 7:30 am I checked the relocated and occupied bait hive. All good. Almost no entrance activity but a contented gentle buzzing from inside suggested that all was well.

As I left the house I noticed a dozen or so bees milling around the stand where the bait hive had originally been located.

Puppy territory. Oops!

I quickly dumped a floor, a brood box with half a dozen frames and a roof on the stand in the hope that any stragglers from the swarm – which I suspected were scouts that had got lost, or workers that had already reorientated to the occupied bait hive late the previous afternoon – would settle (or clear off).

No signal

Having been trapped underground in an overrunning meeting on the hottest day of the year I missed the following messages that all appeared in a rush when my phone reconnected on surfacing.

11:55 Lots of bees

13:27 Even more bees. I thought you’d moved them last night?

15:06 Bl%^dy hundreds of bees. Where are you?

16:11 HUGE swarm

As I blinked myopically in the bright sunlight, like a lost mole, I realised what I’d seen yesterday were scouts from two separate colonies fighting at the bait hive entrance.

The bees I’d seen the following morning had been scouts from the second swarm.

Another day, another bait hive, another swarm …

Which had now arrived.

Overestimates and underestimates

As a beekeeper I’m well aware that a puppy-protecting non-beekeeper telling me about Lots of bees and Even more bees probably means Some bees.

The term ‘hundreds’ might mean any number less than 100.

It’s worth noting here that the partner of a non-beekeeper is considerably more accurate than the general public. If I get a message from someone with no experience of beekeeping about ‘hundreds of honey bees. Definitely honey bees!’ I know what they’re actually talking about are 12-15 solitary bees … probably Osmia.

Or wasps.

HUGE is tricky though. It has a sort of indefinable unmeasurable quality of largeness about it.

Thousands would have been easy … a small cast perhaps?

But HUGE … ?

It was huge.

Certainly the biggest swarm I’ve seen in recent years 🙂

I had to open the box to add a full complement of frames. The poly hive was heavy. You could feel the swaying mass of bees hanging from the wooden crownboard over the empty space in the box 5. The few frames present were completely covered.

I bumped the bees off the crownboard, lifted it away and the bees formed a very deep layer at the bottom of the brood box 6. The new foundationless frames I added projected well above the frame runners supported by the writhing mass of bees and only gently settled into place as the bees moved out of the way and up the sidewalls.

I strapped the box up and moved it to a puppy-safe location.

The following evening I treated both swarms with a vaporised oxalic acid-containing miticide and the morning after that I shifted them to an out apiary.

Look and learn

Only last week I discussed the importance of learning from observation.

Here was another lesson.

What did I learn from these two swarms and what assumptions can I make?

  1. Evidence of fighting between scout bees strongly suggests that there are two different swarms looking for a new home. I’m making the assumption here 7 that the two swarms issued from different hives (rather than being two casts from the same hive 8) because:
    1. I wouldn’t expect scouts from the same hive to fight, even if they were from different swarms. Is this actually known?
    2. I’m told the two swarms approached the bait hive from opposite directions (I saw the first one of course, but not the millions of bees in a huge swarm that arrived the following day when I was – literally – buried in meetings).
  2. Scouts are active well before a hive gets busy in the morning – at least one containing a recently hived swarm. I’ve noticed this before. Perhaps the recently hived swarm is concentrating on drawing comb as a priority?
  3. It is important to have sufficient spare compatible equipment available for all sorts of eventualities. I got away with it this time … just. The first bait hive used a planting tray as a lid. The second used some spare bits kicking around in the back of the car and a handful of foundationless frames just out of the steamer.
  4. I must remember to save time after the swarm arrives by preparing the bait hive properly in advance. This includes giving it a full complement of foundationless frames (and the one dark frame) and – if you intend to move it any distance after swarm arrival – making it ready for transport. In my case this includes using an insect mesh travel screen instead of a crownboard, adding a foam wedge to stop frames shifting about during transport and strapping the whole lot up tight.
Foam block ...

Foam block …

Natural cavities

The whole purpose of putting out bait hives is to attract swarms. As a beekeeper this saves me collecting them from the neighbourhood or – more frequently – politely refusing to collect them from 40′ up a Leylandii, a chimney or the church tower 9.

If something is worth doing you might as well do it properly. The optimal design for a bait hive is well understood (essentially it’s a National hive brood box – Honeybee Democracy again!), so that’s what I offer. Not a nuc 10.

However, to have two swarms essentially fighting for access to a single bait hive suggests there is a shortage of good natural or man-made cavities to which a swarm could relocate.

I live in a small village surrounded by mainly arable farmland. There are lots of hedges, small spinneys, conifer plantations, old farm buildings and houses about 11.

Rather too much arable if you ask me …

I’ve got a fair idea where bees are kept locally. I don’t think there are any within a mile of the bait hive other than my own colonies (and they did not swarm).

I would have expected there to be several suitable local natural or man made cavities that could ‘compete’ with a bait hive to attract swarms.

Clearly not … or they are already all occupied 12.

STOP PRESS Both were prime swarms as they had laying queens when I checked them on Thursday afternoon. I should have also added that a bait hive in the same location attracted another swarm in the preceding week. It’s been a successful spot every year I’ve been back in Scotland.


Colophon

Buy one, get one free (BOGOF) seemed an appropriate title for this post. It dates back to 1985 where it was first used in the journal Progressive Grocer (who knew there was such a thing?). Two for the price of one offers have been blamed for spiralling obesity problems and there has been political pressure to ban such offers in supermarkets.

In draft form this post was entitled twofer. As in two for the price of one. Etymologically this is an older term, but surprisingly the OED does not associate it with cricket.

Twofer is regularly used by cricket pundits to mean two wickets in successive balls. However, I decided to avoid the cricket link so as to not upset any of my valued New Zealand readers who might still be smarting from the double-whammy of a cricket World Cup defeat to England and losing the claim to have the World’s steepest street to Wales.

My commiserations 😉

Footnotes

  1. Actually, rather average. However, last year was so good that any comparison makes this season seem rather disappointing.
  2. The nearest apiary is mine, but all queens had just been accounted for and they were far too busy to swarm.
  3. I hadn’t … I’m careful to avoid any stores in the frames as it’s a surefire way of attracting robbers or wasps
  4. If I got £1 for every time someone asked What are you doing during your long summer holiday? I’d be wealthy … and no longer working.
  5. In retrospect I could have weighed the bait hive before and after it was occupied – a swarming worker weighs ~160mg (~6350 bees per kilogram) – perhaps a fun project for next year.
  6. They had already built a two inch teardrop of comb on the underside of the crownboard.
  7. Correctly … see the STOP PRESS at the end of the post.
  8. Timing would likely preclude it being a cast and prime swarm from the same hive.
  9. I thought beekeepers always wanted bees?

     

    No I won’t pay for a cherry picker.

     

    What do you mean ‘take the wall down’?

     

    I was sure they were honey bees but, yes, that does look like a wasp.

     

    Call out fee? You must be joking!

  10. Yes, a nuc can work, but it’s not optimal. There’s no way that the swarm that hived itself on Monday this week would fit into a nuc.
  11. Indeed, some of the holes in my roof are almost 200 years old and there’s all sorts of other wildlife living there already.
  12. Which I doubt as I keep a good look out for feral colonies.

19 thoughts on “BOGOF

  1. Tony Harris

    Julia Rangel has lots of unpublished work on scout bees fighting over potential nest sites and even occupying the nest for a day or so until the swarm actually arrives. Interesting stuff!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Tony … I’ll look out for it. It’s not unusual to find a few corpses under a bait hive, but this is the first time I’d looked closely enough to see them fighting.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Robert Clare

    Another good entertaining read thank you David.
    I have had phone calls from people with swarms in their garden asking me how much I will pay them for the privilege of collecting it. I also had one “gent” this week who expected me to remove bees from his weather boarded garage “as they could be my bees” for nothing. I declined both. FOFF

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Robert
      Bombus hypnorum is the cause of most confusion. I always ask early on if they are in a bird box … that usually sorts things out.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Jacqueline Cottam

    As always, an informative insightful and entertaining post, sincerelely thank you… I always learn something and enjoy the process too, brilliant!

    Reply
  4. Andy Cameron

    Just wanted to quickly say thanks. A plethora of bee knowledge in print and online can easily mix-up a new beekeeper like me. However Discovering your page I have greatly enjoyed the evidence and local knowledge based learning and only just realised I may be if not the closest Apiary to your certainty pretty near approx 2 miles away, I look forward to continuing to learn from your blogs and advice.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Andy
      I’m assuming these weren’t your bees?! Two miles is probably at the limit for a relocating swarm and I’d be disappointed if central Fife was so ploughed/planted and sterile that there wasn’t a suitable tree cavity somewhere closer.
      I saw a lot of borage west of me earlier today. If your bees are near that they’ll be doing very well 🙂
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Andy Cameron

        Hi David, no happy to report no swarming for now and hopefully by Spring I will be all prepared to mitigate, my plan is to buy far too many brood boxes etc during the sales and have a complete hive ready for each pre swarm , easy! 🙄and yep I’m West if you and really enjoying many an interesting hour sitting watching the bees bring in an interesting colour pallets of pollen, only 2 hives and slightly nervous as they seem to be doing well and I don’t want to be the one who creates any issues , I’ll carry on reading and popping along to local meetings and enjoy the journey.

        Reply
      2. Andy Cameron

        Hi David, No not my bees, unless they are really really sneaky, my bees are still busy building up their brood boxes, I am 2 miles South West of your area so hopefully they are into the borage, however I do quite a lot of “flight path watching”, basically results in me focusing on individual bees and spinning my head round and around to follow where they fly too, great enjoyment for my wife, daughter and neighbours 🙂 And I notice they rarely fly East, main foraging seems to be North around Auchtemuchty common or South East into the Village.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Andy

          It’s a bit of an arable desert East of ‘Muchty … I don’t think I’ve even seen field beans there this year. I regularly try and work out where the scout bees are coming from by watching their flight lines, but my eyesight usually isn’t up to the task 🙁

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  5. Trish Stretton

    I too enjoy and learn from you, but this thing on not being able to move a hive other than 3 feet or three miles isnt right.
    I had to move my hive from where it was and the only place it could go was on my property but further down the back about 20m’s away. Michael Bush said it could be done, so I decided to think about waht would happen if their ‘tree’ fell down.
    It got moved with the help of friendly neighbour cos its a long hive and I made it as difficult as possible for them to find their way out with using shade clothe pegged down with bricks and small branches so they had to literally crawl out and HAD to re-orientate. I left everything as is for about a week and slowly moved branches away so they could get in and out a bit more easily and when it seemed like they knew they had moved and where they were now I took the shade clothe off as well.
    That actually lives on top of the hive roof weighed down with bricks to stop the wind from blowing it off, it stops the bees from getting stuck on the roof when its wet.
    ….cricket, dont care, But that street!!!! grrrr

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Trish

      Intermediate distances aren’t an issue as you say (and as I tried to imply from the “not a rule” comment). In poor weather it’s even easier.

      I think I read somewhere that 3 days trapped inside is sufficient to force reorientation, but can’t remember where at the moment.

      Here’s a great photo of Baldwin Street in Dunedin …

      Baldwin Street by Tristan Schmurr CC BY 2.0

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Kevin

    Hi David
    Really enjoy your posts.
    I find them very well written and in language even I can understand.
    The information is always well presented and useful. My go to site for gathering bee knowledge prior to, hopefully, getting bees myself next year. I am both fascinated and scared stiff of the prospect of becoming a beekeeper.
    Keep up the good work.
    Kevin

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Kevin

      Nothing to be scared stiff of … it can be a little daunting opening a strong hive but, with good training and mentoring, you’ll have a good idea of how to cope and what to look for. Good observation is critical … and a willingness to learn from what you see.

      And keep on learning, as I did from these scout bees 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Sue MacFadyen

    Thank you David for an interesting and enjoyable post. I always look forward to your informative, topical and beautifully produced posts – a highlight of my bee week!
    This one made me rethink something I observed earlier in the season. For several days the number of bees inspecting my bait hive increased. But after I did a vertical split on a nearby hive with queen cells, this activity ceased. Coincidence or do bees sometimes relocate to a nearby location? I have been told a swarm always moves much further away, and that bait hives only catch other people’s swarms!
    Thanks again.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Sue

      I think the ‘swarms move (a long way) away’ is yet another beekeeping myth. They can, but that doesn’t mean that they do. I discuss the science in ‘Bait hive location‘. 200-400 metres appears to be the preferred distance.

      I suspect your vertical split separated the flying bees (which includes the scouts) from the queen cells, so suppressing the urge to find a new home. I’ve seen this with my own colonies which is one reason I’m pretty sure scouts are out and about doing there thing well before the swarm leaves the hive. If I see scouts at my garden bait hive (no hives in the garden) I check my nearby apiary at the earliest opportunity. It’s not unusual to find open, charged, queen cells.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. Matt Holmes

    Hi David, fascinating story, aren’t swarms magical.
    Noticed in last vid on 3 seconds a couple of bees with K wings and black hairless abdomens Is it Chronic bee paralysis disorder. ?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Matt

      I’m on a slow internet connection this w/e so will check later. However, I’d be very surprised if it was CBPV … afflicted colonies are usually hammered and far too weak to swarm.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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