Rehousing a swarm of bees – Part 1…

Even the most diligent of beekeepers employing a strict inspection process to manage swarming gets it wrong occasionally…

We have eleven active hives in the Fleet Beekeepers training apiary and try to ensure that  we manage the colonies to spot the signs of swarming and deal with it appropriately. But about two months ago, as we arrived at the apiary, we saw a huge swarm departing from one of the hives and settling high up in one of the apple trees within the Orchard.

The nest was deeply imbedded in the centre of the tree canopy

Typically, the first stopping point is purely temporary as the swarm sends out scouts to find a suitable home for the bees to go to and as we could not get close to the swarm we had to simply leave it there.

However it appears in this case, the swarm moved into another tree as a few weeks ago we spotted the swarm settled into another tree in the orchard about 15′ off the ground.  They had been busy building combs and had created a nest about 18″ square in the centre of the tree.

James carefully cutting away the branches around the tree nest

The nest was quite exposed in the tree and very unlikely to survive the winter once the leaves had dropped, so James, Geoff and I decided to mount a rescue and retrieval mission.  James built a scaffolding platform underneath the swarm and I supplied a Jumbo Langstroth poly hive to put the bees into.  James and Geoff then proceeded to carefully cut away the surrounding branches so that we could get access to the nest itself. This took quite some time and although the bees were extremely calm it soon became apparent that the bees had greatly expanded the nest and it had become huge!

It was the biggest wild nest we had ever seen!

Eventually, James and Geoff managed to cut away the surrounding branches and they carefully lowered the complete tree nest into the prepared brood chamber complete with tree branches, leaves and even whole apples within it!  Even now the bees stayed very calm as we placed them inside the hive and then we realised that the nest was so big it would not fit…

The nest was about 10″ too high, but as luck would have it, James had a spare brood chamber with him that we placed on top of the other lower chamber and closed the hive up.

The nest filled two jumbo brood chambers!
The nest filled two jumbo brood chambers!

We then left the hive for the rest of the day so that all the flying foragers could return to join the rest of the colony now happily inside the hive. We had no space to keep the colony inside the training apiary and so we decided to move the bees that night to my out apiary south of Odiham and then possibly shake the bees into new brood frames before overwintering them there.

In the next posting I’ll describe some of the difficult choices we faced when we tried to set the bees up in the new apiary…

A day in the orchard…

The bees in the training apiary (including the FreeBees) are located in the middle of an old orchard which is absolutely perfect for the bees. It’s warm and sheltered with a little stream nearby and lots of local forage, and we use it rent-free in return for helping to restore and maintain the orchard. The orchard is planted exclusively with apple trees, but none of them produce apples that you might see in a supermarket. They are clearly very old, but how old? What varieties are they? and how do we look after them?

Well, to find out we contacted Gerry Edwards, fellow beekeeper, Chairman of the RHS Fruit Group, apple guru and all round top chap to give us some advice. Gerry is passionate about the preservation of old orchards and estimates that most of the trees in the orchard were planted in the 1890’s using many old varieties. He first visited the orchard in March to advise us on how to manage the trees as they had not been pruned of otherwise maintained in decades.

So yesterday, myself, Gerry and Lisa the landowner had a wonderful time going through the orchard tree by tree, mapping their location and attempting to identify each variety by picking sample apples for Gerry to look at. This was not easy as many of the trees are only producing fruit at the top of the tree, requiring the use of an apple grabber deployed on a long pole.

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As the trees are so old, most of the fruit is a bit deformed and so it took time to find a suitable reference apple from each tree in turn. Gerry can identify most varieties by their shape, smell and taste, but some required reference to his apple book and he also took away a carrier bag full of apples for further research.

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It turns out that most of the apples are cooking varieties and it’s likely that this was previously a commercial orchard, providing fruit for local markets. The apples he has so far identified have wonderful names such as Warners King, Laxton Superb, Lord Derby, Ashmead Kernel and the Rev William Wilkes. There’s a great website here with descriptions and beautiful pictures for those that want to know more