Honey bees – wild colonies or managed hives – can sometimes swarm: the number of insects in the colony expands to the point that they run out of space and so, somehow (and we still don’t know how on earth these insects communicate the need) they will deliberately breed a new queen and, just before she emerges, the old queen will vacate the hive along with about half the workers – several thousand of them.
This swarm need to find a new place to live but that can take several days. In the meantime, they need somewhere to rest and they don’t always pick the best of locations! Whilst high up in a tree is common, hidden amongst brambles or other out of the way places is safe – this lot decided a good spot would be tucked right up under a horse box at a stable! Hardly ideal: it makes it rather hard to use the vehicle until they move on, a swarm can spook horses and often scares people, too.
The solution is to help them out: transfer them to a hive and make sure they’re cared for properly. The usual way to do this is to shake the branch or whatever they’ve settled on so they drop into a collecting box – but we don’t know a way to shake a three-tonne horse box…so the only way was to get in under the chassis and gently brush them into a transfer box by hand. There are two issues with this: we have no idea what the colony temperament is like (yes, bee colonies have different characteristics; they’re not all identical) and access means lying on the ground and wriggling half-under the truck until you’re within touching distance. This job definitely calls for the bee suit and gloves. Taking a picture wasn’t easy, either: there’s not a lot of space under the truck!
The majority of them drop into the transfer box but a substantial number take to the air – not a problem if you’re familiar with their behaviour but concerning if you don’t know what to expect. As long as the queen stays in the box, most of the worker bees will join her but some will continue to cluster at the ‘old’ resting place. Given a little gentle encouragement to take flight, they generally pick up the scent markers the others are giving off and head to the ‘new’ home.
Once we got ourselves and the box out from under the lorry, we check to ensure we’ve got the queen and as many of her brood as we can before the box is put carefully into the van and we’re safely away. After that, it’s simply a matter of monitoring them for a period of time to check for general health before they’re taken to a bee keeper to be moved into a custom-made, permanent home in a safe place. Job done!