beekeepers
North East Worcestershire Beekeepers gather at their apiary at Avoncroft Museum, Bromsgrove.

Dr Alan Woollhead and Chris Tomlin, of the North East Worcestershire Beekeepers’ Association, explain how to identify different ‘buzzy’ insects and what to do if you have a honeybee swarm.

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon, but a swarm in July is not worth a fly – so the saying goes. But what is a bee swarm?

In the UK there are many social bees living in colonies headed by a single queen bee and attended to by worker bees. The honeybee has the largest colonies amongst the social bees, with numbers of worker bees reaching around 50,000 during the summer months.

As part of the natural annual cycle honeybees create new colonies by producing new queen bees and dividing the original colony’s workforce. This is most dramatically observed as a swarm of bees, numbering several thousand worker bees plus a queen. May is the most common time of year for swarming to occur, but it can happen in any summer month.

This group of bees will be looking for a new place to build a nest, but the decision will not yet have been made on where to go, so they land and cluster around the queen while scout bees go off to look for a new nest site.The cluster may be large, around the size of a watermelon and of similar shape, if hanging from a branch or fence.

When the decision has been made on where the new site will be, the cluster departs en masse; streaming impressively as they head to their new home.

For the honeybee colony this has been a valuable exercise as they have increased their number of colonies and spread their genetics further afield, as well as creating a new, young and vigorous queen to head a colony. For the householder whose garden the swarm has chosen to cluster in it may be a less rewarding experience and can cause some consternation, so every year beekeepers will receive calls from people requesting their services to remove swarms.

Local beekeepers’ associations have lists of members who are willing to provide their time and expertise to collect swarms and provide them with a hive to live in. Unfortunately, every year a proportion of the calls received are about other flying “buzzy” insects, which are not honeybees and about which beekeepers can do very little to help.

Being able to correctly identify the offending insects would aid those beekeepers who are volunteering their time to help. On occasion wasps may be mistaken for honeybees, but wasps have yellow and black banding on their abdomens whilst honeybees have orange/dark brown and black banding. In addition, honeybees are hairy while wasps aren’t.

Another insect frequently mistaken for the honeybee is the “bumblebee”, which comes in different varieties. Over recent years the Tree Bumblebee has become a common sight and they seem to have a preference for empty bird boxes as nest sites.

There are never great numbers of worker bees seen, with around a dozen or so passing in and out of the box at a time. Providing they are not disturbed they are largely harmless and will totally disappear at the end of the summer, so if they are not causing a problem then the best advice is to enjoy their company rather than seek to eradicate them.

Larger bumblebees might build their nests in compost bins and there are also bees that build their nests in the walls of houses, hollowing out tunnels in the mortar between bricks. These are the masonry bees and are delightful creatures, completely harmless as they have no sting, and cause no real damage to the structure of the wall.

Like the Tree Bumblebee, their numbers are never very high, maybe no more than a hundred or so at the most, and the bees will totally disappear at the end of the summer. It is only the honeybee that has colonies that overwinter. With all the other bees and wasps, only the mated queens survive the winter.

If you are still in doubt about whether or not you really do have a honeybee swarm, there is a wealth of information and pictures on the British Bee Keepers’ Association (BBKA) website at www.bbka.org.uk/swarm

So, what should you do if you really do have a swarm of honeybees? North East Worcestershire Bee Keepers’ Association (NEWBKA) keeps a list of those beekeepers who are willing to collect swarms and you can contact their swarm co-ordinator, Steven Wall, on 07800 568429.

They also provide courses in bee keeping and have members from all across this area. Find more information at http://www.newbka.blogspot.co.uk