Photograph of Richard the beekeeper Blog written by Richard Rickitt, Co-editor of BeeCraft Magazine

For me, and most other beekeepers, May is the most optimistic month of the year. This is a highlight we share with gardeners. It’s when the potential of the season ahead is most tangible and becoming more evident by the day. In the garden, and in woodlands and hedgerows, life is surging; buds burst, leaves unfurl, stems begin to reach out. In the apiary too there is an explosion of life. Colonies of honey bees are expanding rapidly – in hives with the healthiest queens perhaps as many as 2000 new bees emerge each day. When it’s warm, clouds of worker bees queue at the hive entrance, bringing home cargoes of pollen and nectar to feed all those hungry young mouths. It’s a sight and loud, humming sound that fills me with joy. The bees are happy and summer is coming.

Photograph of bee hives in a garden

In the garden, part of the thrill of this burgeoning of life is that it comes as the result of your own planning and hard work. Bulbs planted last autumn, fruit trees thoughtfully pruned, seeds sown long before the last frosts; all will soon pay dividends. It’s a similar story in the apiary; colonies that thrive now are the result of careful tending by the beekeeper before winter. Colonies thought too small to survive will have been combined, those suffering from the parasitic varroa mite will have been treated, and efforts will have been made to ensure that hives were well stocked with the honey needed by the bees to produce lifegiving warmth in the hard months to come.

Gardeners hope that their efforts will result in a summer of beautiful blooms and bumper crops of fruit and vegetables. Beekeepers hope that their bees will gather enough nectar and pollen to ensure the ongoing health of the colony, with enough left over to provide a few jars of delicious honey for the family. However, except for the devastation that can be caused by slugs, snails and perhaps the occasional rabbit, gardener’s rarely fear the sudden disappearance of their lovingly nurtured plants. Beekeepers, on the other hand, face the very real possibility that the next time they look, many of their bees might have gone.

Photo of a bee on a cornflower

May is swarming season. Healthy honey bee colonies that have grown hugely in early spring instinctively feel that their chances of survival are best served by dividing the colony into two or more parts. To do this they make new queens before sending the old queen and many thousands of worker bees out of the hive to find somewhere new to live. For the beekeeper this can spell disaster; a colony that has swarmed will mean the loss of a queen as well as large proportion of the work force, and little prospect of gathering a crop of honey that summer. It can also make relations difficult with your neighbours.

To prevent swarming, beekeepers keep a careful eye on their bees at this time, opening hives once a week to check if preparations are under way. If early signs of swarming are found, colonies can be divided before the bees have a chance to do so themselves. This means that none of the bees will be lost and the beekeeper will increase their number of colonies.

Beekeepers hate to lose swarms, but they love to acquire them. Once you are known as the local beekeeper, phone calls will be received from concerned householders with swarms in their gardens – bees that could have been lost by another beekeeper or which might have come from wild colonies in trees or chimneys. This is a part of beekeeping that I enjoy most; I am welcomed into places I might normally never get to visit in order to catch swarms and take them away. To the uninitiated it seems dangerous work and I am sometimes treated as a hero. But honey bee swarms are generally benign and a pleasure to work with – not at all like the angry, swirling black clouds depicted in the media.    

Photograph of a swarm of bees

Bees that swarm in May stand a good chance of growing their colony over the summer and gathering enough honey not only for themselves but for the beekeeper too. Mid-season swarms are less likely to thrive and won’t provide any honey for the beekeeper that year. Late season swarms will require time, effort and skill on behalf of the beekeeper if they are to go into winter with a chance of surviving. This explains the origin of the old rhyme:

A swarm in May is worth a bundle of hay
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.

If you see a swarm, don’t be frightened. Contact your local beekeepers’ association and they will arrange for someone to come and take the bees away. In the meantime, enjoy watching what is truly one of the great wonders of nature.  

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