Yesterday, when I checked my hives in mid afternoon, one of them had a huge cluster of bees on the front. This hive was in 5 Warré boxes (comb built in 4, bees festooning in the 5th). I thought at first that the bees were ‘bearding’, ie just hanging out. But, there was a small cluster of bees in a young fruit tree about 15 yards in front of the hive. Could I be witnessing a failed swarm? By evening the bees had all retreated inside the hive.
Today, just after 2.00pm I had a feeling that said ‘check the hives’. As I went through the gate into the apiary I could see considerable activity in front of the hive that had been bearding yesterday. Bees were rushing pell mell out of the entrance and swirling in the air. Many were also clustering on the front of the hive. After a few moments I decided that this hive was indeed attempting to swarm. What struck me as odd, however, was that the aerial bees did not seem to be moving away from the hive; they were just swirling in the air but not flying away across the paddock as they normally do.
I retrieved a used top bar from the garage and put a couple of drops of lemon grass oil on it. I then stood in the middle of the swirling aerial bees and waved the bar before putting it into another of the small fruit trees. The bees picked up the scent and started to cluster on the bar, but many remained on and around the hive. After a while there were two sizeable clusters of bees, one in the tree and one on the hive. The bees in the tree were agitated and defensive; they indulged in giving me several dermal punctures when I investigated them – an extremely unusual thing for a swarm. By contrast, the bees on the hive were calm and allowed me to examine them at close quarters.
I began to wonder if the queen in this hive was, for some reason, unable to leave with the swarm and that what I had seen yesterday was a similar attempt at swarming that had also been frustrated. I gently disturbed some of the clusters of bees that were hanging below the alighting board of the hive and, out of one, ran the queen – perhaps I should say, ‘a’ queen, because one never knows. She was darkish with a noticeably large abdomen. Ah ha, this could be the explanation! Queens are supposed to skinny down before swarming to enable them to fly. Maybe this one was still on the heavy side – given the way that this hive had expanded, she was certainly a prolific layer. I saw the queen for only a moment before she disappeared under another bunch of bees (as queens do when in the open) but I continued to visit the hive over the next half hour and gently disrupted the clusters of bees. During this time the cluster in the tree was growing and eventually very few bees were left on the front of the hive. Indeed, the hive now looked normal. In addition, the swarm in the tree was now calm and allowed me to place a skep above it without demur. I suspected, and hoped, that the queen had made the short flight between the hive and the swarm.
After a couple of hours the swarm had moved up into the skep and I was able to hive it without further ado. (I did not wait for evening as rain clouds had appeared.) I watched carefully as the bees went up the slope and into the hive and I saw the queen again. This was a better look than last time and it was clearly the same queen. As I write, the bees have all entered their new hive and are clustered inside (as I can see through the windows).
Conventional beekeepers who clip their queens (ie cut off part of a wing) maintain that this does no harm – the bees attempt to swarm and, finding the queen left behind, return to the hive. They sometimes repeat this several times. However, it was quite clear from the demeanour of the queenless swarm I have just described that this is a highly stressful experience for the bees. The change in behaviour was marked once the queen joined them. So much for ‘it does no harm’.