Recently we had one of those special moments in beekeeping. A moment when you witness in wonder the life of the bees and share that with others. This moment was a swarm – a spectacular event in the life of the Honeybee and one that often people haven’t had the privilege to see first hand. Marco, the vintner at hawkwood, had spotted a large cloud of bees in the vineyard. I quickly gathered what equipment we needed and went to have a look. The Bees were just landing on an elder tree, and the air was still thick with bees. Quite a few interested people had come to have a look at what was happening and while we waited for the swarm to settle I spent some time explaining what happens when Honeybees swarm.
The first thing you’ll see when a honeybee colony swarms is the a cloud of bees taking flight eventually they land and form whats called a cluster. Before this though the colony has been preparing for days, slimming down the queen for flight and engorging on honey so the the workers will have the food they need to get through the time without a nest and food stores.
While the majority of the swarm is hanging in the cluster hundreds of scout bees are out scouring the surrounding landscape. They are looking for a suitable nesting site, a new home. These scouts are looking for an ideal nest with very specific parameters. They are assessing distance from the parent nest, height from the ground, volume, entrance hole size and evidence of previous occupation by bees. When a scout has found a nest site that she thinks has potential she comes back the cluster and dances on the surface informing other bees of the nest location (if you are wondering how that works here’s a video that should answer your questions – www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFDGPgXtK-U). If you observe the surface of a cluster you will see that over time various locations are being danced for. Over time a consensus forms as to the best nesting site and the cluster will take to the sky again and move en masse to the new nest. If you would like to understand this amazing process more deeply then I would highly recommend Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley.
We didn’t allow that process to fully happen because we had a hive ready that we wanted the bees to nest in. So I carefully cut away the surrounding branches and then could access the branch that the bees were clustering on. I then cut this branch and moved the bees into their new home – the Topbar Hive in the Terrace apiary. The Terrace apiary is the second apiary to be created at Hawkwood. We have been working away to get it ready and these are the first bees to be sited there.
This is the first time we have used a Topbar hive at Hawkwood. Topbar are one of the staple hives used in sustainable beekeeping. They are an elegant design that is easy to build and simple to use. We have plans to build more this winter. If you would like to find out more about Topbar hives the check out Phil Chandlers website – www.biobees.com. There’s loads of info including plans for how to build them.
The swarm settled into their new home with gusto, building comb faster than I’ve ever seen. They have now built 12 combs of wax and are looking like a steady, strong colony. The experience of catching this swarm was, for me, a confirmation of how rich the space is between humans and honeybees. I believe that bees offer us an opportunity to learn if we are willing to listen and that apiaries in a community setting are vital to expand the possibilities of this learning and connection.