Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Buzzing with excitement

In between Son walking back to school one evening last week to act as an eagle in his Year 6 performance of 'The Circle of Life', and Daughter heading off to rehearse 'Songs from the Shows' we were treated to an unscheduled performance on the allotment. So much excitement on one evening.

In the manner of the very first Winnie-the-Pooh story, there was a buzzing noise and "if there's a buzzing noise, someone's making the buzzing noise...". Yes, a swarm of bees had arrived.

Whilst they were swarming in the air we observed them from afar with binoculars. What wimps we are. Once they had settled Husband crept around the allotment gingerly to find out what they were up to.

Fortunately Corsham has a thriving bee keeping scene and after a chain of phone calls, we found a local bee keeper who was happy to come and see what could be done.

Feeling much braver with an expert on hand we chatted away near the bees before he donned his gear. He assured us that bees that have swarmed like this are usually happy, well fed bees. They are what is termed an 'after swarm', a breakaway contingent from another swarm, who are looking to set up a new home with a new queen.

Can you see any waggling?

Whilst they were hanging out temporarily at our allotment we could see the scout bees disappearing off for up to two or three miles to check out the credentials of new homes for the swarm. On their return these scouts bees were communicating the details of the places they had found (how far off the ground the new home was, which way it faced etc) to the rest of the bees in the hedge, via their waggle dance which was fascinating to witness. If we hadn't intervened they would eventually have come to a communal decision as to where to go, and all at once they would have buzzed off.

In this type of situation, it's an unwritten law of bee keeping to try and deal with a swarm to prevent the bees from setting up home somewhere unwanted like an attic or chimney.

Once he'd trimmed a few branches from the hedge to faciliate an easy transfer, our friendly bee keeper shook the bees into a basket called a skep.

The skep was then turned over and lodged ajar with a piece of wood and we waited anxiously to see whether the queen was in there (in which case the bees would stay inside and the bees that were still flying around would gradually make their way in). "You never can tell with bees" after all.

By sunset most of the bees had congregated in the skep and Richard was able to wrap the whole thing in a sheet and drive them to a temporary hive he had set up.

We haven't heard from the bees since then but we hope they are settling into their new home and that we can take up the bee keeper's invitation to go and visit them over the summer!

Ironically on the very same day that our honey bees arrived, I had read about Friends of the Earth's Great British Bee Count; our small swarm was estimated to comprise of 20,000 bees. Should I add that to the Bee Count?!

Other bee facts:

  • The situation for bees is generally not good at the moment - according to FoE 97% of wild meadows have gone in the UK in the last 60 years, so bees are going hungry and homeless. Not only is this bad news for the bees but as polllinators of our fruit and veg it's bad news for humans. It really is a circle of life.
  • 20 species of bee have become extinct.
  • We can help bees by planting wildflowers in our gardens and building bug hotels (see the Friends of the Earth website above for links on how to do this). One of our allotment neighbours who came to join in the fun last Thursday says that he plants borage especially for the bees as they love it.
  • Richard the Bee Keeper told us that his honey has relieved the symptoms of local hay fever sufferers. I've put my name down for a jar next year! Propolis (which is made by the bees and used to seal small gaps in the hive) is also a great pain reliever.
  • In the few hours that our bees were in the skep they would already have started making honey comb. It's too late in the season for this swarm to produce any honey but hopefully they will make some next year.
  • Honey can have the flavour of the plants that the bees have been visiting. This year in Wiltshire, chestnut and lime trees have flowered well and been a good source of nectar for local bees.
  • Gale's honey originated in Wiltshire and our bees were collected in an old skep that came from their beehives and workshops towards Marlborough. The picture below, however, shows Richard with a skep that he made himself.
  • Sadly, as well as habitat loss, disease kills many bees. 
  • In times gone past, bee keepers would kill their bees at the end of the season so that they didn't have to keep them alive over the winter, safe in the knowledge that they would be able to gather a new feral colony for their hive in the spring. Nowadays the feral colonies just aren't out there.
  • A hive of bees is affected by the queen - an angry queen means an angry hive of bees whereas a gentle queen means a gentle hive.
  • Corsham is doing its bit for bees - there are at least 12 hives belonging to bee keepers in the centre of Corsham and Transcoco has a sub group, Corsham Community Bees, which looks after some community hives. This year we even have an unoccupied decorative bee hive in the town centre as part of the Corsham in Bloom display.

Although we were already very aware of the plight of bees in the UK and learnt all about them when we visited the New Quay Honey Farm in West Wales a few years ago, it was a real education and privilege to see and hear about bees first hand and so close to home.


  1. Wow you are very brave I would have been up the road in the house with Windows and doors firmly shut and would not have surfaced untill the little chaps had been moved on lol. They are beautiful fascinating creatures but I prefer to watch them from a distance ie the tv or online lol. Well done for making sure they were properly relocated. Much Love Claire from frugal living xxx

    1. We got braver as the evening wore on and we learnt more about the bees!

  2. Fascinating aren't they? I never tire of watching them and far from running away I bet you were inching closer and closer to the swarm (swarms are such gentle creatures)
    As a beekeeper I thank you for this post which will inform others and highlight the issues for bees at the moment.

    1. You're right. Although the bee keeper took the photos for us, we did get much closer by the end of the evening. The decline of the bees is a very sad result of what we have done to our countryside :-(

  3. Such an interesting post! I haven't seen a honey bee around here in ages. We have bumblebees by the score, fortunately, and they seem to do a good job of keeping things pollinated. We have a bee hotel and I'm trying to get better about planting flowers that pollinators like. I always plant a lot of marigolds, because they're easy and pretty, but it turns out that they're not much good for bees. I'll do better next year!


    1. I never knew that about marigolds. I'm going to pay more attention to the flowers I plant too.

  4. how fascinating, bees are so precious

  5. Really interesting read! I hope the bees liked their new home!

  6. What an interesting show you had. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It was just as exciting as the shows and rehearsals the humans were in that evening!

  7. Really impressive and had a great experience from your post. Thanks for sharing.

  8. That's truly interesting! Brave hearted and you made a good inspiration for others to give it a try!

  9. We need to brave enough to do such things..! Hard one.

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