Colony Defence and August Swarm.

August draws to an end and supers around the county groan with the weight of honey. Beekeepers return to the moors to put more supers on as the heather is in full flow like never before.

I take advantage of hot sunny days to paint up the nuclei needed for next year’s swarm control. I order a load from the Loch Ness Honey Company for myself and friends and we paint while the sun shines. I paint for two days.

The second coat dries overnight and I stack them in my son’s old bedroom ready for 2022. Little did I know that I would need some this season. Never before have I had a swarm in August and I want to believe it came from another apiary: don’t we all!

It’s a hot afternoon and I feel a little sleepy so I set up the sun lounger under the chestnut tree a couple of feet from the nearest bee hive. I lie in the shade on the cushions listening to the bees. Four colonies are close by and I can smell the nectar being processed the resinous odour of warm propolis. It’s the noise that strikes me, it sounds so loud and persistent, like cars on a distant race track.

I reflect on a recent conversation with Jane Geddes who asked, “they won’t swarm in August will they?” “anything can happen”, I replied. But I don’t think mine will swarm so I relax. The sounds become muffled and distant and I fall asleep for over an hour, and when I wake the sun has moved from behind the tree and I’m hot.

Later I’m pruning shrubs and notice a few bees milling around the hedge which is odd on a day when the colonies are down at the river working the Himalayan balsam like it is their last day. I find a massive swarm clinging to the viburnum bush and scouts are dancing in the direction of the bait hive on the wall.

However, within 10 minutes the swarm is hived thanks to having all the equipment handy, and swarm catcher Linton at home. We sit and drink tea watching the familiar yet ever mesmerising sight of bees marching into the hive.

The bees are dark so I check 4 dark colonies missing out the one that has recently superseded. After all is has a double brood box system and plenty of room. Nothing, no queen cells to be found. Next day I watch and identify the least active colony. This is the dark colony recently superseded that I didn’t inspect the previous day. Sure enough there are queen cells, but not just newly capped cells. No, these have queens who emerge as we watch. Sometimes it is impossible to work out what is going on inside a bee hive and maybe why I love beekeeping so much.

The New Bee Girls.

I’m missing the wee bee apprentice Connie who is now in Wales and hoping soon to meet up with her new mentor Mary. Connie calls me on the phone once a week for a catch up and we have engaging conversations. I hear all about the recent visit to The Tower of London and The Crown Jewels, and Connie has just enjoyed watching cabbage white butterflies emerge from a jar.

Left to right, bee girls Keira and Kayleigh Morrison.

Meanwhile, back at the Sonas apiary, delightful sisters Kayleigh and Keira have joined the team and are as keen as mustard to learn beekeeping. They’ve been coming for several weeks now but I’ve only recently asked Charlene, their mother, for permission to post photographs of them on the blog. There is a bee boy called James (5) who woud like also to be a beekeeper but I can only invite him near a hive when I have more support in the apiary. He knows that wasps are important to farmers and surprised his sisters and me by telling us why on one of his visits. As if on cue, down at our feet flew this enormous giant wood wasp which I was lucky enough to catch on camera.

Greater horntail (Sawfly) Uroceras gigas.

Colony Defence.

Colony defence is a complex subject for it includes protection against infection and disease by the collection of plant resins by honey bees to form propolis which is used inside the hive as an antibacterial and antifungal agent. Propolis is not ingested by bees but works by releasing volatile odours and gases from around 80 of the different components comprising it.

But more on this another day: I want to cover colony behaviour at the hive entrance in defence against robbers and predators. We all know that our bees behave more defensively at different times of the year, and depending on situations inside the hive. Having said that, I wouldn’t tolerate a permanently defensive colony in any of my apiaries and I would re queen, after a few weeks of monitoring, if passers- by were continually stung, or if the bees followed me more than a few metres after every hive inspection. I had one such colony this season that sent guard bees out to sting anyone who passed within a few feet. This colony was waiting for a new queen following swarm control manipulations by me. It is now perfectly calm and was the one I fell asleep a couple of feet in front of the other day.


Who guards the hive and stings the passer-by? Not the forager (unless she tangles in your hair accidentally) as she is busy with her mission in the field and flies out of the hive and up into the skies. Rather it is a few highly tuned guard bees who detect and interpret odours. They progress through a series of indoor duties developing specialised glands which enables them to carry out different roles. 

Only 5-10% of worker bees will become guard bees when their sting glands are fully developed, and duties commence between the ages of 12 and 25 days. According to Winston, in Biology of the Honey Bee, they many only guard for a few hours or days before becoming foragers. If you look closely at the hive entrance you can identify the guards not by their uniforms but by their posture. A typical pose is standing on their 4 hind legs with front legs raised and antennae held forward. Each guard in on duty in a limited area at the entrance and incoming workers are inspected using their odour-sensitive antennae which allows them to recognise the familiar smell of a nest mate or a foreign odour from another colony bee. Behaviour is noted and the jerky somewhat sneaky flight of robber bees, or wasps, instantly identifies them as foe instigating defence strategies and stinging. If a colony was under attack from robbers more guard bees would be called to the front.

However, nest mates are allowed immediate entry as are some young benign workers from other colonies, or foragers from other colonies bearing gifts of nectar and pollen when drifting occurs if colonies are positioned close together.

Beekeepers can be alert to times when colonies may become defensive and cause problems and, in some cases, take action to reduce risks. These times include:

  • During and following any manipulation/inspection of the colony
  • During a period when the colony is without a queen which is common during several weeks in early summer in swarm season
  • When a nectar flow comes to an end, or when there is a dearth of nectar income
  • If the weather is poor and the colony has consumed its stores and is facing hunger/starvation
  • If someone working close by is sweating/vibrating the ground/mowing/strimming
  • At the end of summer when wasps are desperately trying to obtain sugar, they harry colonies
  • When colonies build up in strength mid-season to around 60,000 bees, they tend to become more defensive and more challenging to handle
  • During certain weather conditions such as impending thunder storms
  • Some honey bees are genetically programmed to be more defensive than others
  • During the honey harvest

Next week I will explain how to deal with a super defensive colony.

6 thoughts on “Colony Defence and August Swarm.”

  1. Morning bee folks, wow lots more looking after those we have that’s supports and looks after us , bless the humble Bee.


  2. This year has been a bit odd in regard to swarming here in East Sussex as well. I mentor a new beekeeper, who got a colony made up from an early swarm. After they had established themselves and increased in numbers, this new beekeeper asked me anxiously “will they swarm again?”. No I said, they comes from a recent swarm, they won’t swarm again. And then soon after they did.

    I later on caught a swarm coming from my beekeeping neighbour, and we managed to catch it and hive it. My neighbour was very happy that we had managed to keep his old queen (which was only a year old) since she laid very well. “Will they swarm again?”, he asked anxiously. “No I said, they have just swarmed, and it’s late in the season – they won’t swarm again”. (!) And then soon after they did of course swarm. This time they flew high up into a tall leylandii, out of reach, and then left after a couple of days. A.A. Milne was right; “You never can tell with bees.”

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