As a pest controller I had been used to handling honeybee swarms for many years, but being short on space at home had never really considered becoming a beekeeper myself.
Perhaps some honeybee facts by way of explanation.
Honeybees reproduce by swarming, when numbers of bees in a hive start to increase, normally in the late spring or summer, the temperature in the hive rises and the bees prepare to swarm.
The worker bees decide to create new queens by feeding some emerging larvae with royal jelly.
Once a new queen has emerged the bees will swarm. This process involves several thousand bees leaving the hive along with a queen.
At this stage they have no destination in mind and will often settle on the branch of a tree or a structure. Sometimes very inconveniently.
This can be quite dramatic and disconcerting for anyone nearby and quite often considerable panic ensues.
However at this point the bees are actually quite docile. Before swarming they have gorged on honey to sustain themselves for the journey and having no stores to defend and so are not at all aggressive.
What they are doing is sending out scouts to look for a suitable place to live and once the scouts are successful the whole swarm will move off, however this process can take a week or more.
People often mistake these hanging swarms for wasps’ nests and that’s where I get involved.
Taking a swarm is usually a simple and straightforward task but does often gather quite a crowd of onlookers with their cameras.
The process is simply to shake the swarm into a container, often a simple cardboard box and then place the container on the ground leaving a small entrance open. As long as the queen is inside the majority of the workers will follow and after twenty or so minutes the swarm will be ready to take away.
This can be problematical for me as clearly I cannot ride around all day long with a swarm of bees in the van so one does need to work with a reliable beekeeper who will come and collect the swarm at short notice.
For years my mate Andy Donnelly of Lancashire Honey has fulfilled this role.
It is a simple matter of tipping the bees into a hive and all being well they will soon be producing honey.
So how did I end up as a beekeeper?
Well one day in the spring of 2012 I got a call from a customer about 20 miles away. His father had been a beekeeper many years before and when the old chap died his son took an empty hive home and stuck it in his garden, just on the off chance that one day he might want to take up beekeeping.
Well the years rolled by and he never did become a beekeeper, the hive stood vacant, vacant that is until a wild swarm decided to move into it.
The bee scouts must have thought they had hit the jackpot, a new home with wax frames all ready made for the swarm to move into.
However by this stage the customer was going through a divorce and in no position to take on the responsibility so not only did he give me the hive complete with bees, he paid me to take them away.
I plonked the hive in my backyard whilst I pondered what to do with them and they stood there for a few weeks during which time they caused me no problems whatsoever, even though I was walking within inches of them every time I left the house.
The problem was that even though I was totally confident in handling bees having done so for many years, I had no idea how to actually keep them.
Time to call in Andy!
He came round to inspect them.
It was a smallish swarm with an Italian queen. They were in the wrong part of the hive, in a super rather than the brood chamber and the hive itself needed some attention.
Andy told me that there was no ‘brood’ in the frames indicating that the queen hadn’t mated.
We decided that the best plan was to take everything up to Andy’s place where there would be a better chance of the queen mating and he could carry out necessary repairs to the hive.
Four weeks later I got my hive back, complete with a shiny new base and frames and set them up in their permanent place in my yard.
However, things were not to go well. 2012 was a very wet summer in my part of the world and the bees not build up numbers or stores as quickly as they needed to.
In addition the winter of 2013 went on forever and we were well into April before temperatures started to rise.
Sadly, despite my best efforts the bees died from starvation.
Andy told me not to feel too badly about it, he himself had lost seventy-five percent of his own hives, a desperate situation when it is your livelihood.
Now I was in a situation where I had a newly refurbished hive and no bees.
However, nature was soon to provide the remedy.
On Sunday of the May bank holiday 2013 I got a call from a desperate surgeon at a hospital in Liverpool, a honeybee swarm was hanging in a tree directly outside the main entrance and the hospital’s own pest control contractors weren’t willing to deal with it until they returned to work on Tuesday.
I only needed asking once, a free swarm and they would pay me to remove it at bank holiday rates.
The swarm was quite large, hanging on the extremity of a branch where there was nowhere to lean my ladder.
Added to which this was a busy hospital entrance and if I spooked the swarm or dropped it people would be in danger.
Luckily a couple of passing policemen held people back while we drove the van directly under the swarm and reached it by standing on the van roof.
I was back in business!
Andy confirmed that this was a much healthier colony with a native British Black queen and they certainly lived up to expectation providing me with twenty jars of honey in my very first season.
As I write this it will be a couple of weeks or so before I inspect them this year but I am much more hopeful.
They went into the winter with a large store of honey and the winter has been much milder.
This accidental beekeeper looks forward to a bumper harvest and dare I say it, maybe a second hive?