a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France

A swarm in April can change its mind


Amelia and went on a couple of weeks of holiday in March, but before that we made our first inspection of the four hives.  All four hives seemed be doing well but we discovered that although Cornucopia, our strongest hive had six frames of brood cells, she had also built queen cells on one frame.  After some agonizing, it seemed to us that the best course of action was to let it bee (sorry!).  So we kept our fingers crossed and left to go on holiday.

Our bee hives at Virollet

Two weeks later on our return we once again opened Cornucopia for inspection and saw plenty of bees, but sadly all those lovely broods had disappeared.  The explanations we could think of was that either something had happened to queen Cornucopia or she had swarmed and a new queen had actually emerged but in such an early season could not be mated.

Whatever the reasons, that only the bees were aware of, we felt that we had very little choice left.  We had to act quickly.  The most obvious solution was to merge Cornucopia bees with Sunflower, which was our youngest and hence smallest colony.  We did so using the newspaper method, that is we removed the crown board of Sunflower, placed a sheet of (English newspaper, of course) on top of the frames, followed by a queen excluder and then placed Cornucopia on top.

Bee hives being united by newspaper method

We left them in place for a week, allowing the bees in Cornucopia to get used to the pheromone of Sunflower queen and accept her as their new queen and the bees in Sunflower also accept the newcomers.  We watched them regularly and there was absolutely no war between them.  Interestingly we were told that the bees chew away the newspaper and we would find scraps of paper under the hive.  We saw no debris, but then Amelia actually observed the bees carrying away bits of newspaper high in the sky far away from the hive.

After a week we lifted Cornucopia and saw no sign of the newspaper.  All had been removed by the bees (I hope that improved their English).  We checked there was no queen in Cornucopia then shook and brushed the remaining bees down to Sunflower.   There was only a few minutes of upset at our intrusion.  We wondered that at the end if some of the bees might have drifted and been accepted by other two hives.

beehives just successfully united

At this time of the year there are acres of fields with rapeseed in flower no more than a hundred yards from our house.  The bees collect nectar to make honey….

A bee collecting nectar from rapeseed flower

…… and, as you can see, they also collect pollen.

A bee with pollen also collecting nectar from rapeseed flower

However, we never see large numbers of bees on the rape seed flowers.

We inspected the other hives.  We saw lots of bee on the inside of the crown board of Violette actually building beautiful honeycombs.  That seemed a sure sign that we need to place supers on all the hives.

Bees building honeycombs on crown board

So far so good, we thought, until a few days later we observed that Amelia’s favourite beehive, Violette, was apparently considering swarming. Here in France they call it ‘faire une barbe’ (to make a beard).

bees getting ready to swarm - faire une barbe

We know that there is no sure method to prevent swarming, but if there was a queen cell in the hive, then perhaps we could divide the hive.  We quickly put on our bee suits and prepared a hive ready in case on opening Violette we might see queen cells.  Returning only a few metres away from the hive, I shouted to Amelia, who had the honour of pushing the wheelbarrow, to stop.  It appeared that we were too late and Violette had already swarmed on the quince tree nearby.

bees just swarmed on the nearby quince tree

So we were left to wonder if we can persuade them to ‘walk in’ their new home, or should we just bring in a bucket to collect the swarm.  Meanwhile, queen Violette, like some ladies, could not make up her mind.  In the end, she made the first move; she decided to go back home!

Bee swarm returned back to their original hive

In this short video you can actually see the bees walking up the stand into their hive.

We waited and waited until they all returned andhad obviously gone off swarming.  Impatient, as I am, I opted for opening the hive and see what was inside.  Sure enough apart from plenty of brood cells, there was a closed queen cells as well as unclosed cell with royal jelly in it.  I made the decision of removing two frames with the queen cells and plenty of nurse bees, plus a honey frame and placed it in a six frame hive (ruchette).  The wisdom is to place the mini hive some three kilometres away, or keep it in a dark cellar for two nights.  We opted for the second option and closed the entrance and kept them in the dark feeding them syrup.

After two nights, we place the mini hive near the other hives and opened her up.  The theory is that the nurse bees will not abandon the brood.  Sure enough all appears calm – for now.

Mini hive placed in the apiary

I don’t have the heart to cut the daisies in front of the hive, which now form a beautiful white carpet.  We will have to wait about a month to see if a new queen is born and can go on her nuptial flight.

But in the meantime will Violette and the other two hives swarm?  Only time will tell.

Just before closing, as this is after all a gardening blog, I have recently seen what I think is a black cap visiting our seed tray.  Hopefully someone can tell me if it is indeed a black cap.

A black cap on seed tray

  • Kourosh


29 thoughts on “A swarm in April can change its mind

  1. Fascinating story. I can’t wait until the next chapter. Keep at it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, John. There is never a dull moment! Amelia and I are on the look out because at this time of the year our other hives could also swarm. Meanwhile I have to wait for a month before I can see if the division of Violette’s hive has been successful. – Kourosh

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A really fascinating post, Kourosh. So much information, and great pictures. You clearly know all the tricks of bee keeping, but is it unusually early in the year to have had so many swarming incidents already?
    Also re lack of bees visiting oil seed rape flowers, I’ve noticed this in other parts of the UK before – and then heard that a lot of OSR has been seed dressed with neonicitinoids, which can persist as the plant grows, so maybe some bees can detect this, and stay away from the flowers?
    Best wishes


    • Many thanks, Julian for the encouragement. I certainly would not claim that I have learnt all the tricks. In fact even professional beekeepers misjudge at times. In this region our beekeeper friend tells me that he collected his first swarm a couple of years ago on 15th March!
      Your comments on the new seeds is spot on. I reported last year my observation on sunflowers field across our garden. There was hardly any bees on them. The new varieties of seeds (sunflower and rapeseed in particular) are, as you say, precoated with systemic pesticides and fungicides and are autofertile. AND the pesticides sprayed on top of them stays in the ground for more than a year.
      Yesterday I asked a farmer near us if the harvest is now much greater than before? He told me that no there is no increase in the yield. The seeds just cost more. So who is the winner? The farmer; us the consumer, or simply the seed manufacturers?
      – Kourosh

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not sure whether to be amused, or jealous of swarms in April. We’re still in the off and on phase of winter/spring. Just when I was about to sow wildflower seeds for the bees, along comes yet another snow storm.
    Your bees look lovely and healthy. A swarm (in otherwise stable bees) is an indication of hive health and vitality. You’re doing very well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks and I do hope that your weather improves allowing you to enjoy your bees more.
      Your encouragement about the state of health of our bees lifted my spirit, as I have been a bit nervous lately, wondering if I were doing all the right things for our girls.
      Amelia and I are anxiously watching the other hives every day, as we have seen queen cells in both of them too. Is that a sign that they too might swarm soon? I certainly do not want to keep more than four hives and have promised Michel to give him any additional swarms collected.
      Meanwhile I see that Poppy has already built up beautiful honey in her first super and has started on the second super. What will do if she meanwhile swarms? – Kourosh


      • You need to decide if you want to split the hives as a management tool, or do your best to keep them intact. If intact, make sure they have all the resources they need, most importantly, space to expand. Last summer we had an aggressive hive (also sporting queen cells) which calmed considerably and did not swarm, when we added extra super space above. Alternatively, you could split the hive, in place (with a divider-making sure the queen is in the newly created hive) and physically separate them later.) I’m using a wonderful book as my mentor–“Natural Beekeeping” by Ross Conrad. It’s reassuring, and much faster than just learning from my failures.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for sharing with me your own experience. I believe that we are of the same opinion about the bees. As I mentioned I do not wish (ideally) to increase my hives more than four. That is already quite time consuming.
          Our hive called Violette proved to be quite friendly and a good worker. In addition she is quite clean, that is to say the varroa count has even in summer been between zero and one. So ideally we like to keep her – if possible. Obviously the division that we just made with her, has no guarantee that she will be as clean, depending on which males she mates.
          As this is our first spring, and the bees have been quite busy, we have now placed super on all and probably will place a second super next week.
          So on splitting hive and placing super we are in full agreement. I just hope that the split is successful. Regards – Kourosh

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve seen two bee swarms in trees and they are exciting things to watch, but I’m not sure I’d like to try to catch them.
    The daisies are beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I try to give some room to wild flowers and the so-called weeds. Apart from our honey bees it is wonderful watching solitary bees and bumblebees on them.
      My father used to ask me that after all, what is a weed? Is it not just another flower that we don’t know its name. – Kourosh

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, Kourosh… a weed is a wild flower in the wrong place…
        everywhere else it can flower and flourish.
        Besides, some are really good ground cover and can be dug in as a green manure…
        it is only plants like the bindweeds…
        or couch/twitch grass…
        that are real problems.
        At the moment, we have an abundance of chickweed on our beds…
        big plants are unaffected…
        and we feed the pullings to…
        the chickens!!
        And some “weeds” are really attractive…viz: Fox and Cubs Hawkweed….
        and others are parents of our garden flowers!


        • I agree entirely and Amelia and I not only enjoy walking through the countryside and looking at all the ‘wildflowers’ but have also learnt the name of many of them. There is a right place for these wild flowers, even in our garden. Some as you say are good ground cover.
          As you say, we just have to learn which ones are useful to us and which ones are invasive. – Kourosh

          Liked by 1 person

  5. My goodness, I had no idea how tricky bee keeping could be. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. The problem with bees as with most animals, is – in my opinion – that we read the manuals of what to do and what not to do, but they don’t read the manuals and do what they fancy! – Kourosh

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Enjoyable and interesting post Kourosh, I have just finished reading an excellent book – The Bees by Laline Paull, its fictional and throughout I wondered if a hive really does work in the way she describes, but you describe events in a similar way. I was going to add in a similar comment to Julian’s about Oil Seed Rape, it was reported here recently that France now has an outright ban on neonics, but guess that does not cover the seed coating. Love the daisy lawn too, I would cherish that and just cut very high if needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Julie. I was given ‘The Bees’ as a Christmas present recently, but sadly I did not enjoy it. Although some of the ways in which the bees live and behave are correct in the book, other facts are – only in my opinion – misleading. Bees are what the scientists refer to as superorganism. The life and thus the function of an individual bee is governed by the overall need of the colony. No individual bee, apart from the queen, is superior to others. In summer the worker bees – all females – live for about three weeks; in winter all males are ejected from the hive and they die. These are complex issues and trying to write them as a novel with our sentiments and feeling does become difficult. Nevertheless, the book is well written and I am sure amusing enough, even though I did not enjoy it as much.

      As for nicotinamides, yes, it is true that recently the deputies in France banned its used …. but effective January 2018…that is to say until the manufacturers finish selling their stock!!!

      I always leave the lower end of the garden uncut in spring as it is covered with daisies and in summer it is absolutely covered with the yellow flowers of cats ears ‘hypochaeris radicata’. All solitary bees love them. – Kourosh


  7. I believe it is a Eurasian black cap (Sylvia atricapilla) in that wonderful photo….at first I thought it was a Warble, then after thorough google image searching…I agree with your assessment. Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for the confirmation. It is amazing the variety of different birds that we have attracted to our garden here in France. The first year there were hardly any birds. – Kourosh


  8. Certainly a Blackcap… watch out for the female…the “browncap”…
    for a warbler, though, it really has a liking for fruit!!
    There are regular visitors stripping the Ivy berries at the moment…
    Blackcap included…. and once the cherries ripen they are almost permanent fixtures… I saw one last year leave our tree with a cherry that was bigger than its head!!
    And you are so right… the wildlife we watch never read the manuals…
    what’s more….birds don’t moult as per the illustrations, either.

    As for mowing… I cut as high as the machine allows! Usually 10cm… or above!


    • Thank you ever so much for the tip. I shall be on the look out for the female – brown cap.
      As for cherries, I have almost given up on them. The birds know the exact date when they are ripe and eat them all for their breakfast!
      Good idea about cutting the grass high. In any case from now on when the beehives are busy, I leave the bottom of the garden a bit wild. Now is the time for daisies and later the grass if covered with yellow cat’s ears. – Kourosh


      • Kourosh, what I do is mow neat access paths through the long grass…then do a full cut after all has flowered and seed for next year has set and fallen…or in the case of the orchids, drifted!
        The paths never have to be in a straight line…in fact, they seem nicer when I wiggle the mower to avoid this flower or that!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Exciting times! The daisies are lovely, much prettier than just grass.


    • Thank you for taking time to drop us a line. Amelia and I have been thinking of you and hope that all is well with you and the baby. Best wishes – Kourosh


  10. Pingback: The bees swarm again | a french garden

  11. Your bees are so interesting but hard work I think 🙂


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