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When the Queen leaves the hive
It’s Tuesday afternoon and I am standing with a pot in my hand, hand trowel in the other. I am planting out my seedlings which have quietly taken over the lawn up by the garden shed, a shed which for most of it’s existence has housed honey boxes in the off season. My garden tools as a result are scattered about the place. Some are in the honey house(garage), some are in the house, others are at the front door. Note if you take up beekeeping it will quietly take over your life. I am looking at the flower bed where a few gaps still exist as the spring to summer growth ramps up. I figure I can squeeze in a few nigellas in a gap I spy and as I lean in to navigate what is already plants I notice a few bees. That’s weird I think to myself, immediately searching for a bloom for them to be hunting, out wondering if I should go grab my camera. But there are too many of them and I realise they are showing no interest in the catmint that is flowering. Rather they are forming small circles in an upward spiraling motion. They are orientating.
I look further, bending into towards my favourite lavender. This lavender is a staunch white version assisted by a rather lovely steal stack to stop it from leaning to far to the right. Beneath the new spring growth at the base I see it. Quietly murmuring away is the golden warmth of a swarm, so still I had not noticed it for the past hour I had been in the garden. People are often fearful of swarms. The motion and action of a mass of bees in flight is an awesome sight, it’s activity can feel a bit terrifying. I have watched before today a swarm move across the garden, settling on a tree and before I have time to organise a swarm box to catch it, they have melted away, disappearing to somewhere else at a rather remarkable speed. I stood at the gate for a while trying to figure out where it went and to this day I have no idea. Looking at this little swarm, I imagine, that there will be a bee keeper in the valley looking at their hive, wondering where all the bees have gone. I smile a little to myself that this new swarm thought my garden was a good space to make a new home.
I advise the senior beekeeper who is at work of events with texts and videos. Atlas watches this all unfolding, lying nearby, head on his paws in indifference as Airedales do. He is not bothered by all this. Beekeeper and I debate about leaving it until the he is home from work but I head to the honey house and fish out a box with some frames, planting it on the path near the swarm in the hopes the the scent of old honey frames might draw the bees in. Once they have left their hive the swarm will send out scout bees to search for a suitable new home. These scouts will fly off from the main swarm returning with updates about possible sites which are no doubt discussed and if they meet the approval of the queen they shall head off together.
The swarm is essentially the bees main way of dispersing population. Once a hive reaches a certain size where in a simplistic view resources are used up the hive will split with half leaving while the other half stay. A new queen will be created as part of this process, so that the remaining hive will have a queen as will the swarm. Before they leave the bees will gorge on honey knowing that where ever they go it will take time to build up the comb to store future food supplies. It is a very vulnerable time for a swarm when it leaves and that is why we use a box as means of capturing the swarm. Hopefully it presents itself as an easy new home. Senior beekeeper returns and we suit up ready to try and move the swarm across to the box, since they have decided not to do this of their own accord. We lay some old sacking underneath, give a good shake and the bulk of the bees fall into the sack which when we then lift and place on the box hoping the bees will head in. We watch to see which way the bees are moving. Their movement indicates whether we have moved the queen as they tend to follow her lead. It is rather amazing to watch this steady stream of foot traffic all marching along in one direction. Thankfully we see a steady stream of bees heading towards the comb and then we spot her. The queen. A nice big golden queen. We realise it is not one of ours, having marked our queens and as we watch her head towards the comb, we think we have done a wonderful job at capturing the swarm.
But, she wanders. She wanders this way and that and no amount of directing her will she see her settle into the comb and then horror of horrors, she takes flight. I stand and watch as her plump body lifts off, wings just seeming to capture the light in a way that echos the tawny colour of her body. No we do not want this to happen. We admit defeat and let the bees settle. We sit and watch and wait. There is something mesmerizing about the movement of bees when they are calm and peaceful. They slowly start to turn back to the lavender bush and as we watch I spy one that looks different to the rest. That tawny colour gives her away. It is the queen. I motion to the Senior beekeeper, “She is there”, I reach out and gently cup my hands around her. She crawls on to my glove as the Senior beekeeper fumbles for a match box which we could try and catch her in. She moves again and I try and hold her which is hard in clumsy beekeeping gloves and her royal status makes me nervous. My delicacy gives her too much room and as we try and move her into the match box (we will liberate her into the hive don’t panic), she takes flight once more and in the haze of bees in flight we loose her in the crowd. We will have to wait again until they settle.
Postscript - We left the bees until dusk and attempted again to move the bees across. This meant the uprooting of the beloved lavender and shaking it all into the box. I checked in the morning and the bees have stayed in the box overnight which is good. I just need to figure out where my lavender bush has gone.