June usually sees the first sweltering day of summer, the day when the air is still and the temperature is in the low 20s. All the annuals and vegetables are sown or planted and we can settle down to enjoy the garden. It is also likely to be the day that the bees swarm. We have three hives of honey bees in the garden and despite a number of strategies employed the bees still swarm. This is the natural way to reproduce at the colony level.
For some weeks the old queen has been laying eggs at the rate of a thousand a day and as the colony grows the worker bees decide it’s time for the old queen to move on and start to develop a new queen. After eight days the workers seal these queen cells and this is the signal for the old queen to leave. She leaves taking with her all the flying bees and leaving the nurse bees to look after the developing virgin queens. This primary swarm departs the hive and usually gathers close by on a post, shrub or tree, there the colony sends out scout bees to identify a new home. This is the time for us to capture the swarm and rehouse it in a new hive. Back in the hive the first virgin queen emerges and she has two choices: she can move around the hive and kill the remaining developing virgin queens or she can take half the remaining bees and leave the hive to form a new colony. These swarms are known as casts and are noticeably smaller than the primary swarm. As the next virgin queen emerges she then has the same two choices, sadly it is possible for a colony to cast itself to death. During the season we will capture swarms, settle them and merge them back into the three colonies, all the time hoping that we are securing enough honey for the bees but also a little surplus for ourselves.
It is often reported that bees are good for gardens but it is probably truer that gardens are good for bees. Bees not only collect nectar but also pollen collected in sacks on their back legs. This is mixed with the nectar to provide food for the new brood. In spring they pollinate the blossom on the fruit trees which leads to the fertilisation of the apple seed, which of course is surrounded by the flesh of the apple. But in summer the bees pollinate the flowers, again helping set seed. As with the apples, once the seed is fertilised the flowers die. As gardeners we need the bees in spring to help produce apples but as a display garden they cause flowers to go over, regular deadheading will see replacement flowers on most species. We would not be without our bees but there are times I am grateful that they leave our flowers, preferring to visit the Himalayan balsam along the riverside.
Mike I’Anson – June 2016