Honey, please don’t go


In the beautiful opening passage of his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, HW Longfellow has his subject waiting, watching from the doorway of his wigwam:

All the air was full of freshness, All the earth was bright and joyous, And before him, through the sunshine, Westward toward the neighboring forest, Passed in golden swarms the Ahmo, Passed the bees, the honey-makers, Burning, singing in the sunshine.

Obviously, they weren’t Hiawatha’s bees, or he wouldn’t have been so serene. Along with the swarm went any chance of a decent honey crop that season! For that reason, beekeepers have forever been engaged in a battle of wits with their bees, trying to manage swarming in such a way that their colonies remain at full strength through the main summer nectar flows. There’s a long history to this.

Writing in the 1860’s, English beekeeper James Pagden was one of the first people to describe how we might outwit our bees by moving hives around at swarming time. This idea led some twenty years later to an American bee farmer, James Heddon, explaining how to boost the population of bees left behind after a swarm and, at the same time, prevent after-swarms. It’s this Pagden/Heddon manipulation that forms the basis of the artificial swarm technique described in almost every general beekeeping book. New ideas then came thick and fast, courtesy of, among others, George Demaree, Louis Snelgrove and GF Taranov. Recently, there’s been a revival of interest in the ‘nucleus method’, first aired by Dutch microscopist and all-round genius Jan Swammerdam in a book published in 1737!

All of these ideas come with challenges and pitfalls. Also, there are different considerations depending upon whether we want to intervene before the swarming impulse arises, once it does and we find charged swarm cells, or after a swarm has issued. Let’s face it, if there was one easy solution to this, we would all be doing it.

So, where to go from here? If you are new to beekeeping, open your bee book at the chapter on swarm control, learn the ‘artificial swarm’ technique, gather the necessary equipment well in advance, and more than likely you’ll be fine. Even better, watch the SBA’s Alan Riach demonstrating the routine at the SBA website.

To go into more depth, you could do worse than Wally Shaw’s Apiary Guide to Swarm Control, which you can download free of charge from the Welsh Beekeepers Association website.

Best of all, try to get along to one of our association’s annual Swarm Control demonstrations at our Crathes apiary. Our picture shows a great turnout of ADBKA members at this year’s event on 15 May.

Swarm Control demonstrations at our Crathes apiary, 15 May 2022 [Photo: Matthew West]

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