As a jobbing pest-controller I had always been used to managing honey bee swarms for many years, although being quite short on space at home hadn’t actually thought about turning into a bee keeper myself.
Maybe some honeybee details by way of explanation.
Honeybees reproduce by swarming, when quantities of bees in a colony start to multiply, typically in the late spring or the summer months, the heat in the nest increases and the bees prepare to swarm.
The worker bees choose to generate young queens by nourishing some growing larvae with royal jelly.
After a young queen has emerged the bees will swarm. This procedure involves quite a few thousand bees departing the hive along with a queen.
At this stage they do not have final destination in view and will most likely settle on the branch of a tree or a building. Sometimes very inconveniently.
This can be somewhat dramatic and disconcerting for everyone nearby and very often considerable panic occurs.
However at this stage the bees are genuinely quite gentle. Before swarming they have gorged on honey to nourish themselves for the journey and having no stores to guard and so are not at all belligerent.
What they are doing is sending out workers to do a search for a suitable home and once the searchers are successful the complete swarm will fly off, however this procedure can take seven days or more.
People often confuse these dangling swarms for wasps’ nests and that is where I become involved.
Capturing a swarm is always a quick and uncomplicated undertaking but does typically gather quite a crowd of viewers with their video cameras.
The routine is fundamentally to shake the swarm into a container, often a simple cardboard box and then place the container on the ground leaving a tiny entrance clear. As long as the queen is on the inside the bulk of the workers will follow her and after about 20 or so minutes the swarm will be ready to remove.
This can be difficult for me as obviously I cannot really ride around all day long with a swarm of bees in the van so one does want to work with a reliable beekeeper who will arrive and take the swarm at very short notice.
For many years my mate Andy Donnelly of Lancashire Honey has completed this job.
It is a straight forward matter of emptying the bees into a hive and all being well they will shortly be making honey.
So exactly how did I end up as a beekeeper?
Well one morning in the springtime of 2012 I got a telephone call from a customer approximately 20 miles away. His father was a beekeeper many years ago and when the old bloke passed away his son had taken an unoccupied hive home and left it in his garden, just on the off-chance that one day he might want to start beekeeping.
Well the years passed by and he never did end up being a beekeeper, the hive stood empty, empty that is until eventually a wild swarm made the decision to move into it.
The bee scouts must have assumed they had struck the goldmine, a new home with wax support frames all ready
built for the swarm to move into.
But unfortunately by this stage the customer was going through a divorce process and in no situation to assume the responsibilities of bee keeping so not only did he offer me the hive including bees, he paid for me to take them away.
I set the hive in my back garden whilst I thought about what to do with them and they stayed there for a couple of weeks throughout which time they caused me no problems whatsoever, even though I was walking within inches of them each time I came and went from the house.
The trouble was that even though I was entirely at ease in working with bees having succeeded in doing so for a good number of years, I had no concept how to basically keep them.
Time to get in touch with Andy!
He came round to look over them.
It was a small swarm with an Italian queen. They were in entirely the wrong bit of the hive, in a super chamber rather than the brood compartment and the hive itself had to have some repairs.
Andy explained that there was no ‘brood’ in the frames meaning that the queen hadn’t mated.
We made the decision that the best approach was to take everything up to Andy’s place, he has lots of space and loads of hives where there would be a far better possibility of the queen mating and he could make required repair works to the hive.
Four weeks afterwards I got my hive back, complete with a sparkling new base and wax frames and set them up in their permanent place in my back garden.
However, matters were not to go very well. 2012 was a very damp summer in my region of Lancashire and the bees could not build numbers of workers or stores as quickly as they needed to.
On top of that the winter of 2012/13 went on endlessly and we were well into April before temperature began to rise.
Sad to say, even with my best endeavours the bees died from starvation due to the weather.
Andy advised me not to feel too badly about it, he himself had lost 75 percent of his own hives, a desperate position when it is your livelihood.
Now I was in a predicament where I had a newly reconditioned hive and no bees.
However, the harmony of nature was very soon to offer the solution.
On Sunday of the May bank holiday 2013 I got a telephone call from a frantic surgeon at a hospital in Merseyside, a honeybee swarm was dangling in a tree directly outside the hospital’s main front entrance and the hospital’s own pest control contractors weren’t prepared to take care of it until they went back to work on Tuesday.
I only needed to be asked once, a totally free swarm and they would pay me to remove it at bank holiday rates.
The swarm was rather big, suspended on the end of a branch exactly where there was no place to lean my ladders.
Added to which this was a very busy hospital entrance and if I spooked the swarm or dropped it patients would be in danger.
Thankfully a couple of passing police officers held the public back while we moved the van right under the swarm and accessed it by standing on the van roof. (Only joking if you are a health and safety officer).
I was back in business!
Andy stated that this was an much healthier colony with a native British Black queen and they definitely lived up to expectation supplying me with something like 20 jars of honey in my very first season.
As I submit this it will be a couple of weeks or so before I look over them this year however I am substantially more confident.
They went into the winter with a large store of honey and the winter has been much milder.
This accidental beekeeper looks forward to a bumper harvest and dare I say it, maybe a second hive?
****Update for 2015. The 2014 harvest was around 50 pounds weight of honey and we are currently able to supply small amounts of local honey to our customers. Please visit our Local Honey page for prices and details.