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A swarm of bees

‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay’

Caroline Dilke is one of the West Dorset Beekeepers who will collect honeybee swarms in the area. She explains the process and the ‘strange madness’ that comes over beekeepers when dealing with this phenomenon.

May is the month for swarming, when honeybees flood out in a joyous throng to make a new colony.

For a beekeeper on the swarm register as I am, this can be a busy time. We learn always to have the kit in the car — beesuit, gloves, secateurs, cardboard box, smoker, matches and an old bed sheet — because we never know when the call will come.

In this area, many beautiful, grand old houses have honeybees in their roofs and chimneys. The bees may have been in residence for hundreds of years. One colony dies out, often because of disease, and another swarm discovers the bee-friendly space and moves in.

Generally these resident bees cause no problems to the house owner, who may not even realise they are there. But once a year, they swarm and are seen to be a nuisance.

It is one of the interesting aspects of a beekeeper’s life, to be called out to deal with a swarm of bees.

Sometimes they turn out to be wasps — and the home owner may even be trying it on, knowing that the council charges a fee for removing wasp nests, whereas beekeepers’ services are free.

The offending insects may be harmless bumblebees (perhaps in a bird box) or mason bees. If honeybees, they might not be a swarm at all but a well-established colony in a roof or a shed, which the owner has only just noticed — or only just realised could be a problem. I have been asked to climb a ladder 25 feet high to deal with a clearly long-established colony of honeybees. I have also been asked to remove several tiles from a roof to get at honeybees. On that occasion I did offer a spare bee suit to the homeowner so he could remove the tiles himself, enabling me to get at the swarm. He declined.

A strange madness comes over a beekeeper whose own bees have decamped in a swarm. This means that not only half the bees are gone, but also half the honey (they gorge on it before they go). The beekeeper is desperate to get them back. Perhaps the swarm is in a tree, high up. You fetch a ladder. It is not long enough. You climb from the ladder into the tree. You still can’t reach them. You climb down, fetch a saw, climb up again, saw through the branch, with the aim of lowering it and the swarm to the ground — it is easy to see how things can go wrong!

But a swarm in May is worth a load of hay, as the saying goes. So we do our best to save the bees from themselves and bring them back into domesticity, where disease can be monitored and they can be properly looked after.

If you find a swarm on your property, call the West Dorset Beekeepers Association on 01308 456210, or visit their website: www.westdorsetbees.org.uk. The bees will be dealt with promptly by a nearby beekeeper.

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