Getting started in Beekeeping - and why a swarm on the ground may not be good

Getting started in Beekeeping is proving to be an exciting and unpredictable affair!

Beginner Beekeeping

We have been planning to have bees for about a year. I attended a Beginners Beekeeping Course at Mantel Farm last year, and some training run by the British Beekeeping Association too.

We then met Jennifer, also known as Wayward Bee. She lives a couple of villages away from us and has 8 hives. We spent the morning with her talking about sustainable beekeeping, some of which mirrored the training I'd had elsewhere, and some of which was a little bit different.

At this point we decided that Jennifer's way felt more like 'us'. Jennifer suggested that we start our beekeeping with a swarm rather than purchasing bees from a breeder. We agreed that Jennifer would get us one when the opportunity arose. As Jennifer is the HWBKA Swarm Collector for Hellingly, that most likely wasn't going to take long.

So we put together our Poly National Hive, painted it with masonry paint, filled it with hive frames and waited.

The swarm season got going a lot later this year. Then, almost 3 weeks ago today, Jennifer contacted us to say she was collecting a swarm that evening. Unfortunately our allotment rules prevent us from keeping bees there. So we had arranged with our friends Chris and David at Hidden Spring Vineyard to keep our bees in their beautiful vineyard instead. Our hive was there, ready and waiting.

A Bee Swarm on the Ground

So on a beautiful, warm evening we met up with Jennifer and put the swarm in the hive. The bees had been on the ground in someone's garden for the best part of a week before Jennifer got the call to collect them. A swarm laying on the ground doesn't bode well, it can mean there's a problem with the queen and the bees won't leave without her.

Bee Swarm on Ground

So whilst a marked queen had been spotted, we knew this swarm was a risk in the sense that they might not make it. And sure enough, within a couple of weeks, they had sadly left us. 

On Friday when we discovered the bees had gone, Jennifer happened to be collecting a swarm from somewhere else. So on Friday evening we popped the second swarm into the hive. It was a case of '1 in, 1 out'. Only it wasn't, because this is a secondary swarm or 'cast'.

What is a Cast Swarm?

The first swarm to leave a hive (the Prime swarm) is the largest and can contain 50-60% of all the workers. This swarm is often followed by one or more secondary swarm or casts, which have a smaller number of worker bees in them. Cast swarms normally have one or more virgin queens. A virgin queen needs to mate before she can lay eggs. So we have given them a feed, but basically we are now are leaving them to it. They do have some comb built by the first swarm in the couple of weeks we had them, so hopefully that gives them a bit of a start.

So what happens now?

We are working on the assumption that at least one virgin queen is in the hive and that, at some point in the next few days, she will go out on her virgin flight to mate. Virgin queens are harder to spot in a heap of bees because they tend to still be small, so look a lot like the workers. We haven't managed to find her yet. We don't want to fiddle with them too much in these early days in case we spook them and they leave.

So we have to wait and hope that the queen(s) is ok and will go out to mate. How will we know that's happened? Because in a couple of weeks, when we check the frames there should be eggs. If there are, the queen must have laid them and she can't lay eggs if she hasn't mated.

This is a small swarm, smaller than the first one. There are risks attached with this swarm too, cast swarms are harder because they bees are not quite ready to go until the queen mates. But we figure we could walk out tomorrow and buy a colony and they might just leave too. That's the nature of beekeeping, there are never any guarantees.

Our new swarm are a feisty little bunch of young bees, not as docile as the first one. Knowing what we know now, we wonder whether the first lot were 'docile' because the bees were on their way out and were never really a viable swarm. I guess we'll never know.

Anyway, onwards and upwards! And now: we wait to see what happens next...

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  • Thanks Kerry and great to see you at the Mead Making course! – Bev

  • Hi Bev, thanks for the mention and link to our website, we hope your swarm is now doing well.
    Looking forward to our Mead Making courses with Steve, using your equipmnent
    Best wishes
    Kerry, Mantel Farm


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