bees and tailsA swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
The earliest attribute to this well known rhyme I can find is from a French publication of 1682 and relates to the days when beekeepers kept their bees in straw skeps and a swarm of bees in May or June would produce a crop of honey, but a swarm of bees in July would not have enough Summer forage left to collect enough nectar.
Few people keep bees in skeps today but records show beekeeping on an industrial scale, particularly in the Tamar Valley and throughout Cornwall from those times and before, with the country town of Callington ( Kellywick) having a Honey fair… revived in the latter half of the last century with honey sellers still evident even today.
Many bee boles or special cavities to place skeps still survive to this day with fine examples at The Lost Gardens of Helligan and Godolphin where the beekeepers still keep our almost lost Cornish native black honeybee… even if in the modern moveable frame hives which revolutionised beekeeping in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century.
The skeppists used the bees natural instinct to swarm to increase their number of colonies and actively bred their bees by selection for swarming propensity, today beekeepers seek non swarmy bees, many in the past moving away from our native dark bees and importing exotic yellow varieties, Italian and Carniolian bees that had a Mediterranean brooding cycle that increased rapidly in the Spring and shut down when forage became scarce… and of course seduced by the promise of huge yields of honey.. which never seemed to materialise!
However all bees do swarm, and to see a colony of your bees disappear into the blue yonder is heart-breaking… but to the lucky swarm collector is a delight!
My own first recollection of bees swarming was back in the 1950s when my Grandfather kept a couple of hives on his allotment in Beddington Surrey. He had an old chimney pot on his plot to force Rhubarb, and every May a swarm of bees would arrive… to this day I marvel at the wonder of a swarm arriving into a “bait hive” I leave on the old cherry orchard boundary wall, here at Kings Orchard, placed on the intersection of a number of Leylines.
The air is filled with bees swirling up into the branches of the old boundary oak and the noise is incredible.. then total silence as the bees, hopefully with their queen move into the hive to set up their new home.
I never sell a swarm of bees…. As I consider it bad luck and somewhat ungentlemanly to profit from another beekeepers loss… neither do I give them away… as who would want swarmy bees?
I keep the bees for at least two brood cycles to ensure they are not carrying disease.. European foul brood and American foul brood, both notifiable bee diseases, the “foot and mouth” of honeybees… and then provided all is well, use the bees in my queen rearing and bee improvement programme breeding the native Cornish black honeybee with my 150 plus colonies spread around the Tamar and Lynher valleys… over to Bodmin moor and down to Looe and over to Rame!
David Ledger …. Beekeeper