Bee roads

by Richard Jones

According to the old adage: a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon. So what is a swarm of bees in April worth?

Bees swarming on a traffic lightAccording to the old adage: a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon. So what is a swarm of bees in April worth? No, I couldn't think of a rhyme either.

It can't happen very often, so I was very surprised to see the tell-tale signs of swarming outside Dulwich Library last week. The 'signs' involved lots of people scurrying about with their coats and jackets pulled up over their heads as they dashed into the shops between Badger Bakery and the branch of Lloyds Bank. The air above the busy road junction was thick with bees, but unlike their usual urgent and direct bee-line flight, they were dawdling about, almost hovering.

At first they moved as a very loose cloud, seeming to concentrate their attentions on the roof of one of the shop buildings, or over the library itself. Then the air cleared and it was apparent that they had settled on top of a traffic light.

Having just stopped off for some milk on my way back from Dulwich Park with the 4-year-old, I was unprepared. But a quick dash home for the camera found them still settled, and with fewer airborne insects, the residents of East Dulwich were back going about their business, mostly unaware at the spectacle perched atop the street furniture.

This wasn't a large swarm, perhaps only a few hundred bees. In the past I have seen a swarm cluster as large as a beach ball, which must have contained many thousands. The time of year must be the clue.

The traditional swarm appeared when a nest became so large that certain chemical scents (pheromones) from the queen became diluted beyond a critical threshold, and this stimulated the workers to raise new queens. The old queen then left with a large cohort of workers the swarm to make a new nest elsewhere. Hopefully to be caught by the beekeeper and introduced to a new hive or skep. In a good spring, when nectar and pollen are in glut, an early swarm in May or June would be a welcome increase to the keeper's holdings well worth that hay or spoon.

April does seem very early to be swarming. New queens are also raised if the old queen dies. I guess that could happen at any time of year, even April. Bees also sometimes abscond from the hive. Stories of empty hives have led to widespread concerns about possible new diseases and the term colony collapse disorder was coined. By all accounts, there are strange things going on in the beekeeping world.

The next day most of the bees had gone from the light, but there were still some buzzing about, presumably attracted by mysterious chemical smells lingering on the glass and metal. I don't know what happened to the bees, but whilst I was photographing them I heard a woman speaking on her mobile phone to a friend who was obviously a beekeeper. Perhaps they are now ensconced in a new hive and will repay the keeper with ... I don't know... money in the till?

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Gardeners' World Web User 30/04/2009 at 17:41

Well suprised there was not a local beekeeper in the vicinity ready to snap it up! I never go anywere without my swarm kit in the back of the car. Never that lucky though. A pril is very early perhaps they went back home ......

Gardeners' World Web User 30/04/2009 at 17:43

A swarm today whether April or May,a Bee keepers delight, such a wonderful sight Bees in buzzing flight,is the bee keeping man, thinking a plan loads of Honey, or is it the money,a story of sweet success.

Gardeners' World Web User 30/04/2009 at 20:16

How Wonderful that so many people are at last realising that if the world has to be fed we have to have bees to pollinate and not to kill every thing we dont like A bee only lives for around 8 weeks so a very busy time The Market Gardeners where I live import Bees from Holland to live in the Tunnels for the Early Strawberries and later Runner Beans and Tomatoes Crops The Bumble Bees that live in the Hedges and survive the winter here are the earliest ones and the wild honey bees much smaller are out when the ground warms up for them Ihave been chased around my garden today by the First Hornet and that I am not happy about ! We have had a very warm day after the Heavy Rain of the last few days and everything is making the most of it Looking forward to all of the May Day Celebrations in our village at the weekend with the Children as May Queens and May Kings Face Painting and the usual Fun ! A very happy and Sunny weekend to all

Gardeners' World Web User 01/05/2009 at 11:23

Bees swarm in April, of fruit you'll have your fill.

Gardeners' World Web User 01/05/2009 at 12:54

I always know when spring has arrived because so do the bees. We have a crack in the concrete just in front of our garage and every spring we watch the honey bees come and go down this crack. I would love to be able to see what lies beneath!

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