Your first swarm is something you never forget…
It was our first year as beekeepers. We’d done the course, joined the local association then, come spring, we bought two nucs. We sited them in a quiet corner of the garden but quite close to the house where we could keep an eye on them. The man we bought them from came and supervised our first inspection when we found the queens and marked them but then we were on our own.
We carried out weekly inspections and kept detailed notes – I have them still – and they make for interesting reading. We kept count of queen cells but I’m not sure why. Or, more importantly, what we were doing with them! On the 12th May there was one queen-cell, on the 18th there were 3, on the 26th there were 5 then on the 2nd June there were 12QC’s and a note saying, “…the queen cells are quite advanced – 2 capped” and “Fed 1kg sugar”. How did I think that was going to help I wonder? Then the inevitable – 6th June in capital letters ‘SWARM at 3.30!!’ How did I not see that coming?
I remember the noise – that excited roar – and the shock of it. It was a hot day too – well it would be – and the air was full of bees. I easily traced the source hive – they were still billowing out as if they were being blown out of a hose. Apart from sticking my finger in the hole I didn’t know what the hell to do, so I did the headless chicken thing while I thought about it. Finally – a moment of clarity! I fought my way into my bee-suit and ran back to the garden, smoker in one hand and a copy of Hooper in the other, where the bees were gathering in a lump on top of a post on the other side of the garden wall.
I leapt the wall, landing with a thud in the dust – and began frantically flicking through Hooper for advice but it was buried in chapters of text. Then – a nugget of information! I needed to get a box and I needed to invert it over the swarm.
I went back over the wall and found a cardboard box in the shed. I tossed it back over the wall and followed it with the smoker and Hooper. I upended the box over the bees and blew a tentative puff of smoke at them to try and get them go up into it. The lump of bees on the post pulled their skirts up a bit in response but didn’t really seem to be taking up residence.
It was a blazing hot day and Hooper said to shade the bees from the sun. There was something in my head about a sheet so I climbed over the wall, dug out an old one then clambered back again, the sheet the smoker, Hooper and me landing with a fusillade of thuds in the dust. I draped the sheet as best I could over the box on the fencepost which was not easy as there was a strong breeze blowing.
Before long, the activity attracted the attention of the bullocks, about 20 of them were here for the summer. They came galloping towards us like a cartoon stampede – a cloud of dust with hooves and tails sticking out of it – skidding to a halt and settling in a semicircle with their entourage of flies – coughing and belching.
Then my dog, Bunty, realizing I was over the other side of the wall with the bullocks and being a bit over-protective, suddenly jumped the wall, landed with a thud and started barking madly. The bullocks surged backwards in horror while she snapped at them – some of them began plunging about in alarm and she saw fit to chase them – it was getting a bit like Pamplona.
Apart from this bullock-hell she was creating I was afraid she was going to get stung because she reacts badly so I yelled at her and ordered her over the wall but she wouldn’t go so I had to haul myself back over the wall and call her from the other side and shut her in the house.
When I came back again it was to find that the bullocks were enchanted by the flapping white sheet and had started to tug at it. Horrified I jumped back over the wall landing with the predictable thud which was sufficiently startling to make them back off.
By now most of the bees were up inside the box under the sheet but they were still plastered to the post and I didn’t know what to do. I had a spare nuc box but no frames ready. I had syrup and I had a feeder so I was halfway there but I couldn’t see how I could get the box, the sheet and the bees off the post without crushing thousands of them against the post. Not to mention the bullocks. I knew my nearest beekeeper so I decided I was going to have to phone for help which meant the wall again. He was at work but his wife said she try and get hold of him. Despair!
Of course the bullocks were at the sheet again. I shouted at them and waved my arms but they took no notice so I threw myself over the wall again landing badly and sprawling in the dust. They backed off rapidly nearly pulling the sheet and box right off the post. Then there was another thud in the dust at my side, a hysterical barking started up and the bullocks took off in a body with their tails in the air. I had forgotten to close the bloody door and my heroic dog was here again to protect me, so once again I had to drag myself back over the wall – which was definitely getting bigger – call her over and put her back in the house.
I lurched back round the corner and fell over the wall just as the bullocks completed their circuit of the field and formed their fascinated circle again. After a minute or two the flies came back too.
So here we were in a Mexican stand off – the bullocks, the bees, the flies and me – in the heat of the day and I was beginning to tire. It was very hot and the bloody wall was taking its toll. I was dripping with sweat, it was rolling down my face, soaking my suit and pooling in my Wellington boots and filling my Marigolds. It was going to be a long day.
Then the phone started ringing inside. I was going to let it ring but thinking it might be my friendly local beekeeper I thought I’d better go. I clawed my way back over the you-know-what as quickly as possible, raking my shin painfully on the top but it stopped ringing as I picked it up. I slammed the phone down and staggered outside – as expected – they were at it again.
With the energy born of fury I leaped the wall – black in the face with rage and closely followed by the fecking dog. The bullocks took off on another circuit of the field but this time they stopped at the far corner, milling around in confusion before closing up into a tight arrowhead formation and careering across the field straight towards me. Something snapped, I was incandescent and ran straight at them yelling at the top of my voice brandishing my smoker and my copy of Hooper and followed by the hysterical dog. They scattered, perhaps finally sensing real danger they filtered off into the cool of the swamp where they took to browsing and tossing their heads about as if nothing had happened.
I clung to the wall panting for a while – then heard voices – it was the beekeeper in his bee-suit. He’d phoned, he said, to let me know he’d got off work early to come and help me – there was no answer but he came anyway and hoped I didn’t mind. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to see anybody in my life. He just lifted the whole thing off the post in one go and supervised me as we set up the new box and watched as the bees walked obediently up the ramp into their new home.
As simple as that – I don’t know what all the fuss was about.
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