May Swarm


The garden in May is beautiful.

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)

The old favourites are back.

Madame Isaac Pereire and bumble bee

Madame Isaac Pereire is flowering and welcoming the bumble bees.

Male Bombus praetorum in Cotoneaster

I see more and more male spring bumble bees so I know that their season must be finishing.

But this May was special as my husband had decided at the end of last year that he wanted to keep honey bees.  Over the winter preparations began.  We were enrolled in the bee-keeping federation of the Charente Maritime and their classes for beginner bee-keepers to start in April.  In the winter two hives were bought and painted and decorated by me (at least they could look good in the garden!).

Painted hives

Then came the bad news in the spring that the bee population had been decimated over the winter.  Long-time bee-keepers had never experienced anything like this.  So many hives were opened in spring to find dead bees and unconsumed honey supplies.  The winter had not been severe or overly long.  With no natural causes apparent the bee-keepers suspected pesticides.  Was it a good thing to start keeping bees in an agricultural area growing rape and sunflower?

Our friend Michel lost 27 of his 30 hives but has set out to continue and build up, so my husband, encouraged by Michel, decided to continue but was unable to source any bees in April – more experienced bee-keepers had booked up available bees from companies before him.

In April, under Michel’s advice, a ruchette or small hive was placed with its entrance facing the south on top of an outbuilding.  Michel had provided a lure of old comb and the inside was rubbed with “Charme d’abeilles”.  I remained sceptical about their efforts although the ruchette was being visited by bees.

On the ninth of May I was weeding in the back garden and an amazing noise of buzzing bees alerted me to the incoming swarm.

4.37 sky view

I rushed inside and grabbed my camera.  At 4.37 p.m. the sky over the outbuilding was full of bees and they looked as if they were heading to the ruchette.

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The ruchette has only a small entrance hole and the bees appeared to be entering still at eight o’clock in the evening.

Not quite believing his new status as a beekeeper my husband went happily to bed to rise before sunrise and bee flying time to block their exit and transfer them to their new situation at the bottom of the garden.

10.5 Ruchette in place

Michel provided an almost compatible feeder and advised on feeding them a 50:50 sugar solution to settle them into their new home.  Moss had to be added to the water feeder to help them access the water safely.

Ruches and ruchette

Bee watching has taken up a lot of my husband’s time as he checks that they are still there and watches mesmerised as they fly in and out.  Such excitement when one returns with pollen on her legs!

Then a week later I notice scout bees patrolling our house roof as they have frequently done in previous years (see Uninvited Guests).  The now experienced swarm catcher leaps into action and a second polystyrene ruchette, similarly lured is placed on top of our dining room roof and accessed from the front garden.  The considerable interest in our tiled roof is transferred to the ruchette but the weather clouds over and no swarm results.  However, the bees have not renounced their interest before we had to leave on holiday to join my daughter and family.

10.5 Ruche

Michel has promised to look after the bees while we are away.   What shall we find when we return?  I think May can be a difficult time for gardeners and bee-keepers to leave home.


60 thoughts on “May Swarm

  1. How exciting – if very bad news re the loss of colonies locally. A friend of mine has asked if he can site a hive at the Priory. I’ve bit his hand off. We used to have a bee colony in the chimney of our old house. It was jaw dropping when they swarmed and filled the sky above our heads. Dave


    1. It was my first experience of a swarm and I found it very impressive. They were very single-minded and went straight for target – no hanging about. I think the priory would be a lovely location for bees. Amelia


  2. Emily

    So you are now beekeepers! Very exciting. I think a big part of the secret to keeping healthy bees is keeping varroa levels low. Get that right and keep the hives well insulated over winter and I bet you can buck the trend for losing bees.


    1. That is the problem but what is the answer? I have considered dusting them with icing sugar (makes the mites feet less grippy and they fall off – 50% success rate) and I have bought a bee gym. I know you treat in winter but in between times… Amelia


      1. Emily

        The treatments with a high efficiency rate are the important ones to do, treatments like Apiguard and oxalic acid or non-chemical husbandry methods like a shook swarm, drone culling or queen trapping. You don’t have to use all of those but spacing 2-3 different ones during the year will help.

        The icing sugar is a nice-to-do one but doesn’t have a high success rate because it only gets the mites on the adult bees. The 50% success rate you have read will be referring to killing 50% of the mites outside the brood cells, but most of the mites are actually in the brood during summer. If you do it, take each frame with bees on out and hold it horizontally to shake over the bees, just shaking over the tops of the frames won’t help much.

        I read a very good article in last month’s BBKA news about varroa treatments, I can scan it and email it to you if you like?

        You two will be great beekeepers, I’m sure 🙂


        1. I would appreciate that article. We know the varroa treatment is important but at the same time the different treatments make it very difficult. The association here uses Gaultheria essential oil which I think might be what we call Wintergreen. I have also read about a treatment using hop extracts that has yet to be approved in Europe. Decisions are approaching too quickly. Amelia


    1. Bees are fascinating whether honey bees or solitary bees. I try and care for my solitary bees and provide lots of flowers and habitat. My husband is going to have a difficult job keeping the honey bees healthy but he is well-prepared. Amelia

      Liked by 2 people

  3. That looks more like a Pokemon Orchid, but I suppose it could be a bee orchid.

    I think that once we settle in our next place (wherever that is) I might look into keeping bees . . . I read that it’s hardly any work at all. And no worries, too.


    1. Plants have lots of common names, I’m with you for adding the Pokemon name for this orchid. I’ll make sure my husband updates you on how much work he finds the bees, so far it is not looking good when you count the time he spends watching them fly in and out of that little hole. Amelia

      Liked by 3 people

  4. There is new research here in Australia that has shown bees are actually attracted to the pesticide laden crops, despite the fact that it kills them (they did trials with identical crops; some treated and others not, and in all instances the pesticide crops were favoured as pollination sources). It’s an un-nerving discovery but I hope you guys have success with your bees


    1. I had heard about that, very unfortunate. The Minister of Ecology (Ségolène Royal) over here has just announced a new strategy for pollinators and seems very much behind the new initiatives for biodiversity. Here’s hoping. Amelia

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t like hearing about all those bees dying but I don’t know what more could have been done to prevent it besides banning pesticides and herbicides.
    They say seeing a bee swarm is a rare event but I’ve seen two in my lifetime. It’s unforgettable!


    1. The Minister of Ecology (Ségolène Royal) appears to be backing radical changes in the use of pesticides and herbicides over here but legislation for private individuals are not planned before 2020. I will never forget seeing my first bee swarm! Amelia


  6. Well done K….
    but has Amelia got you hooked, too?

    And… obviously your property has a “Bee light” glowing over the front porch…
    rather like cat and dog people have an invisible “neon light” attached to the top of the skull… seen only by the respective animal types!!
    The light goes on and whilst others had to buy…
    yours come as a gift from the Gods!

    May you get honey… even if it is but a little, it will have been worth it…


    1. Honey will be a by product, if we get any. The first objective will be to have healthy bees. I am learning too, as especially for a beginner, two pairs of hands are better than one. Amelia


  7. Wonderful post Amelia, you had me totally absorbed to the last word and wanting to know what happens next, I hope its good news. I saw a Bee Swarm last summer in our lane, it took me a few minutes to realise what the large dark cloud was and then they all rested on a large Rowan tree in a neighbours front garden. Hope you have a lovely holiday, May is a tricky time to leave your garden, but then so lovely to come back to.


  8. This is very exciting news and I wish you both good luck with your new garden inhabitants! Our neighbours (about 1/2 km away) keep bees and gave us some of their first honey last spring. Nothing like it!


    1. We have been sampling Michel’s honey and I am very surprised at the different flavours although he does not attempt single flower honey. I think he could tell what the main flower in his honey was but there were other flowers mixed in. Amelia

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We had fresh Dandelion honey given us – it was mild but got stronger towards the bottom of the jar and it was twice as tasty because we knew exactly where it had come from – the fields just beyond our garden fence!


  9. Mattb325 is right that there is new evidence that bees are attracted to crops treated with neonics. It’s the nicotine component, and does not apply to all neonics, only certain ones, and does not apply to pesticides in general. And remember the main neonics are currently banned on crops in Europe. Bees like a buzz, and are also attracted to flowers which give them a little caffiene hit (eg citrus). However, the real bad news is that the little dose of neonic the bees are getting has a devastating effect on wild solitary bees — they don’t breed. Exposed bumble bees don’t put on weight and have poor winter survival and breeding rates. But honey bees are much less affected — sheer colony size saves them, and they metabolise the neonics more rapidly (I presume excrete it, but possibly break it down into inocuous substances very quickly and so neutralise it).

    I totally agree with Emily regarding controlling varroa mite. She’s got the practical experience and the thoughtful informed mindset to give good advice. Based on my reading (and no practical experience of beekeeping) I’d say she’s spot on.

    The evidence at the moment suggests that mass bee deaths are a husbandry problem. Beekeepers are naturally having difficulty accepting that.


    1. Once the bees are re-housed in the proper hive I will be able to keep a check on varroa levels. The swarm looked very healthy from a visual check with no sign of deformed wings. This is one aspect that we understand requires vigilance. Amelia


    2. That’s very kind of you to say Susan but I am definitely still learning myself and don’t get it right all the time. It’s so sad about the poor solitary and bumble bees being affected the most, they are struggling with habitat loss as it is.


    1. I took it that the comment referred to the problems with varroa and other diseases that inflict the bees. However, reading the beekeeping magazines over here the losses this year have been unprecedented and include the hives kept by senior figures in beekeeping. Amelia


    2. I’m not sure which particular husbandry methods Susan had in mind, but thinking about the deaths in the U.S. especially I can think of many stressful/not ideal practices by commercial beekeepers that go on, such as trucking bees thousands of miles from monocrop to monocrop or using antibiotics to try and prevent AFB occurring (illegal in the UK).

      And then hobby beekeepers all over the world are not always perfect, including myself. Ideally I should have a different hive tool for each hive and change gloves between inspecting each one to help prevent disease, but in reality I don’t. Not all beekeepers change their combs regularly. Some beekeepers leave out frames of honey in the open for bees to clean up, which encourages robbing and can help spread disease. Some beekeepers don’t treat for varroa. Except for a very few expert and dedicated beekeepers there are probably things most of us could do to improve our husbandry that would lead to healthier bees and less losses.


      1. I was talking about beekeepers not being quick enough to keep on top of varroa and nosema particularly, but other diseases and disease vectors too. This is partly because they often don’t recognise them (I’ve met beekeepers who can’t distinguish a honey bee from another species of bee, let alone identify a diseased bee…). Beekeepers can be susceptible to science-woo and are all too ready to blame pesticides rather than their own lack of attention to detail and lack of understanding of the complexities of hive life. The case is building against neonics in particular as another problem for bees in general, but it has never, and is unlikely to ever, be the main problem. For wild bees, habitat loss is the main problem (and I guess one can roll neonics into habitat loss, since it is being shown to contaminate even non-agricultural land). As Alex Wild (curator of entomology Texas Uni, blogs as Myrmecos) says if you are not concentrating on habitat loss you are just fiddling at the edges.

        With regard to honey bees you also have the issue Emily refers to, where bees are trucked all over the place, and beekeepers who Chris Luck (experienced beekeeper, blogs at French Wildlife and Beekeeping) refers to as ‘bee-fiddlers’ — people who can’t leave their hives alone. There is a fine line between attention to detail and fiddling and it takes experience to master. He’s very critical of many routine modern beekeeping practices, including supplementing the bees food with artificial pollen or syrup.

        And then there is the practice of only exposing bees to a single variety of flower, or boom and bust situations with crops like canola. Also the weather, which can be just bad luck, but it seems that every verifiable case of colony collapse is disease + bad weather.

        On the entomological listserver that I belong to members like Doug Yanega and Peter Kevan (Guelph Uni) are very vocal about what Colony Collapse is and isn’t and how long it’s been around as well as passing on and commenting on all the latest research in the field. Peter has focused his research for many years on pollinators and is one of the most balanced and knowledgeable sources on the subject that I know of. Lynn Dicks from NERC is also always worth reading on the subject of pollinator problems.

        Having said all that though, I should note that my principal interest is not bees, but flies (who do all the real work of pollination anyway 🙂 Honey bees are rubbish at it compared to bumble bees and blow flies.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for that Susan. The bright side of the bees problems (if there could be one) is that it has brought a lot more attention to the overall problems habitat and species loss. Amelia


    1. I am really sorry to hear that. It can be very serious. I met a bee keeper at one of the Federation’s meetings and he had found out that he was allergic when he started to keep bees. He was so keen that he went through a de-sensitisation course so that he could start again. That is determination! Amelia

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I was, and still am, more than happy with my solitary bees. I was a bit surprised at his enthusiasm myself. We are enjoying our time with the family although I have never experienced so much wind. We are on the Costa Brava. Amelia


  10. How fantastic that you have your own bee hive now (or hubby does which is close enough). And it sounds really good that at least one colony in your area is strong enough to swarm. I’ve read it really was a horrid year for the honey bee globally.

    One of our silly hives swarmed a couple of weeks ago which is a bit bold this late in the year. We checked it 2 days ago and there are eggs and it looks like the colony will make it (thanks to us importing some brood, nurse bees and honey frames – honestly, how could a swarm expect to survive with a late autumn swarm?). It’s a lovely way to get bees, adopt a strong queen and her favourites.

    I can’t wait until you get home so we can see a post on the status of your new colony and maybe another swarm as well???


    1. We were just talking about you a couple of days ago and wondering how you were getting on with the bees. Kourosh often mentions your books and wonders if you have published a new one yet. Amelia


      1. I am doing pretty well with the bees. We now have 28 hives (which is about 25 too many if you ask me) and they always keep us fascinated and occasionally surprised. I don’t think I could manage 28 hives in Europe where you have varroa – I wish you (or, more accurately, Kourosh) luck in beating those blood suckers! Your climate sounds ideal for bees and the flowers you post about on this blog will make your bees fat and happy so you’re well on your way.

        I haven’t published anything lately – I did try to get my next book published not too long ago by sending it to heaps of publishers but didn’t get picked up (most don’t even bother to send you a rejection which I don’t understand but have learned to accept). I’ve pretty much stopped all writing / publishing efforts (even blogging) in the past few months as my husband battles a very aggressive and very advanced cancer. That kind of sucks all the energy out of a room. But I still love lurking and reading a few of my favourite blogs – yours included (will Kourosh be guest blogging about the bees?) – and I have my bees, chickens, dog and cat to keep me busy and to remind me of all the wonders of the life.


  11. Hello Amelia,
    Your garden looks lovely, the photos are stunning, and well done for beeing in the right place at the right time to catch and photograph the swarm. Amazing.
    I’m sure you have had good tuition and anyone like Michel with that number of hives clearly knows what he’s doing, so good luck, and it’ll be great to hear how you’re doing.

    I’m literally writing this at dusk looking out for the owner of ‘our’ on site hive to arrive to remove the colony. I’ll post a bit more about this soon on my blog, but will be unable to say anything too critical… But I’ve reached this sad state of affairs after being attacked in the garden or meadow anytime I stray within 50 yards of the hive, the on day after the beekeeper arrived for his once a week inspections. As you can imagine, since we spend most of the time out in the garden, and I can work close by tens of worker bees with no issues, its just aggressive guard bees that have been doing this, but after yet another sting 3 days ago and having to race inside leaving the Camcorder out in the field today, after being charged again by an irate bee, enough was enough.

    Apparently beekepers on forums over here refer to badly behaved bees as ‘cranky’. I wonder if there is a French equivalent term? It really has been a pretty unnerving experience to have a bee flying angrily full tilt into one’s face!

    I’m afraid that from our perspective, our beekeeper strangely doesn’t seem to have much empathy for the bees, and I feel that they may well sense this. I’m sure your bees know that they’ve flown into a very special bee friendly garden so will be impeccably behaved!

    Best wishes



    1. That is really scary behaviour for bees you had hoped to share your garden with. I have had no experience with aggressive bees and I hope that ours will be gentle as we too spend a lot of time in the garden. I have been told that they can resent perfumes such as shampoos and strong fabric softeners. The bees we have handled at the associations apiary have all been well-behaved. There is no way you could risk being stung or any one else who might visit the garden. Amelia


      1. Hello Amelia,
        I did a bit of research on bee behaviour, and options for keeping bees years ago, and bought the book by the Bare Foot Beekeeper who advocates minimal interventions along the lines of the French Abbot Warre(?) and often using different vertical top bar hives. But our beekeeper is more ‘conventional. He reckons on killing about 30 bees per weekly inspection, as a matter of fact statistic – and squashes any bees left on his suit at the end of a visit… so as far as I’m concerned any surviving guard bees will be understandably p**d off after one of his looks in the hive, and I’m fair game – so to that extent they’re very effectively doing their job. But there is clearly a huge difference between how different bee keepers behave with their bees. I think we’ve been unfortunate. I have avoided leather and dark clothing.
        So maybe I just don’t smell nice!!!
        Anyway, I shall read with envy the ongoing saga of your colony(ies)


        1. I have come to realise the very varied difference in opinions in bee-keeping. The relations between the conventional and natural bee-keeping proponents can become quite tense, to say the least. I remember a really vitriolic letter to the editor of the British bee keeping magazine Bee Craft because an article had been published explaining natural bee keeping. The writer of the letter felt that natural bee-keeping methods promulgated most of the ills experienced by bees these days. I think Kourosh is aware he is at the beginning of a steep learning curve.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. We are still building the garden up, there were very few trees and flowers when we arrived. I love the garden and the flowers but it is more what comes to visit and live there that makes it special. Amelia


  12. Pingback: Bye, Bye, Bees. Cuckoos and Camassias. Squashing and Pumpkins. | thegardenimpressionists

  13. Pingback: Honey Bees | a french garden

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