Honey Bees: It’s rather (s)warm, isn’t it?

Due to the exceptionally dry and warm Spring weather (according to the weathermen it’s been the driest since the 1953), like other bee colonies in the region, some of the allotment bees have begun to swarm. We had a routine visit on Monday from Julian Routh, a colleague from Sutton Coldfield and North Birmingham Beekeepers who is also a Seasonal Bee Inspector. He was very impressed with our bees and stated that wanting to swarm was the sign of a happy, healthy bee colony.

Swarming is the term used to describe the normal method by which honey bee colonies reproduce. The bees start by raising new cells with queen larvae in (these will form a new colony in the original hive). Then the original queen and up to 50% of the flying bees take off and form a swarm. A large swarm will make a considerable amount of noise as it is flying around and can be quite a frightening sight to the non-beekeeper. It is no small wonder that people are frightened, as there is little in the media to familiarise everybody with honey bee swarms, so that they will not be alarmed when a swarm does occur. The so-called ‘killer bees’ (or more correctly, Africanised honeybees) beloved of movie-makers DO NOT OCCUR IN THE UK.

Although people may think swarms are terrifying, in fact the bees are normally very docile and do not sting unless severely provoked. Even if bees land on you, they will simply fly away again if you let them. I remember Julian telling us a story of his young daughter in the middle of a swarm wearing only a light summer dress, being completely unharmed. This is because bees normally sting only in defense of their home – and a swarm does not have a home to defend. Their main concern is to stay together, protect and guide their queen, and get to the new home. If they get caught in your hair or clothes it is possible they may sting you but in general they are not after you. If bees land on your hair, do not flap at them or try to brush them away – you will rub them into your hair and they will then sting! Just keep your hands in your pockets and let them fly away when they are ready. Please do not try to swat them – bees like slow movements, so move slowly and calmly. Here is a video of a swarm showing how calm the bees are when swarming.

Lin and Ming with assistance from Julie, Rob and Leo managed to recapture both the Court Lane swarms. But as Winnie the Pooh says, “you never can tell with bees” and one of the swarms has since taken exception to the nice new home we provided for them and absconded. The other swarm is already settling in to their temporary new home and is drawing out comb for the queen to lay in.

As well as our own bees, Court Lane Allotments are in an area of Birmingham where there are many beekeepers, several of whom may have bees swarming at present. If you see any swarms of bees at the allotments, the best thing to do is step slowly and calmly away from the area. Try not to shout or wave your arms about as the bees may perceive this as threatening behaviour. Please do contact Lin (plot 45) and Ming (plot 14), the Court Lane Allotment Beekeepers, who are used to handling swarms and will come and deal with the bees. If we are not around, then either Julie or Ken have our contact details.

We are also happy to talk to any plot holder about what is happening with the bees, at any time, and welcome interested observers when we are carrying out beekeeping duties.

As the bees are very active at present there is always a slight risk of being stung. This is what to do if that happens.

  • Firstly, immediately scrape out the sting using a sideways action with a fingernail. This stops any further bee venom being injected into the wound.
  • Retreat away from the area as bee stings exude a pheromone which may attract more bees. If possible wash the area to remove the pheromone smell and to clean the skin to prevent bacteria entering.
  • If possible, apply a thin smear of Antihistamine cream to the affected area. There is a tube of Antihistamine Cream in the portacabin, by the sink, which can be used to treat any type of insect sting.
  • The area around the sting may swell up or itch for a day or two, so continue with the Antihistamine until it lessens.

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