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ACT Beekeepers collect swarms to maintain healthy worker population

Inviting fury, ACT beekeepers John Johnston and Stephen Beggs shook a branch coated with 60,000 bees in Theodore, at the peak of this spring's swarm season in Canberra. 

The queen bee had left one of Mr Beggs hives and clustered with its workers 15 metre up a Grevillea robusta​ tree, while scout bees searched for a new hive.

Amid furious buzzing, Mr Johnston helped Mr Beggs unload the bees, pouring them like water from buckets into a wooden hive on the ground. In spring beekeepers everywhere are gathering swarms to bolster their hives.

At nearby Gordon, novice beekeeper Kevin Wode​ has 40,000 bees thanks to Ian Crabb, another of the ACT Beekeepers Association volunteers, who collected 80 swarms last season.

World-wide concern for bees health is boosting the number of beekeepers, including in the ACT. Mr Beggs, a bus driver, says he often talks to passengers enthralled and wanting to get involved in bees. 

Mr Wode says rather than go into his hobby blind, he and his wife Tracey enrolled in a course, where the emphasis is on avoiding diseases through good housekeeping of hives.


Apiarists are on the lookout for American brood disease and say colony collapse is a major concern in Europe and the United States.  ACT Beekeepers Association has an agreement with Plant Health Australia to place sentinel hives around the territory which will be checked for exotic pests like Varroa​ mite which are killing honey bees around the world. 

Mr Crabb used four swarms to colonise Mr Wode's new hive. One swarm is put on top of the other, separated by sheets of newspaper and an excluder, a grate that enables workers through, but excludes the queen.

As workers chew through the paper, they become accustomed to pheromones of the other queen, but the two queens can't reach each other because of the excluder. Later one queen is killed. As more swarms are added, queens are killed until only one queen remains in the new colony.

"If dumped in all together there would be an almighty fight, you would find hundreds and hundreds of dead bees the next morning at the front of the hive," Mr Crabb said.

A former agriculture teacher at Dubbo and Queanbeyan, Mr Crabb has worked with bees for 30 years, and says it can take five or six swarms to put together for a strong hive.

"If you just start with one swarm in a box you may not get any honey at all this year, they will use everything they bring in to raise more bees, making honeycomb, and getting enough stores to get through next winter. 

He does two trips to a swam, first transferring most of the swam, and collecting the last of the scouts and foragers after dark.