Feature articles

28 May 2019

Protect and profit: All things Apis mellifera (European honey bee)

Environmental issues| PPC95 May 2019

Norman Guiver from Bee.Watch investigates how the chemicals that are necessary for life as we know it in the 21st century have had widely documented negative impacts upon invertebrates, and what we as pest management professionals can do about it – while potentially making more of a profit in the process.


  • A common obligation towards pollinators has provided a unique opportunity for beekeepers and pest controllers to work together
  • A reduction in swarm numbers has resulted in beekeepers paying for swarms to replenish lost colonies
  • Pest controllers can learn to collect honeybee swarms and it is recommended a relationship is established with your local beekeeper
  • A swarm carries enough honey to last four days and in that period the swarm must establish a new colony and build comb to survive
  • Speed and good communications will underpin our ability to control the Asian hornets and pest controllers will undoubtedly be on the front line.

All things Apis mellifera - profile and profit

Environmental celebrities and the media present many visual eco-disasters, but a lot of chemical use is invisible and results in the disastrous loss of insects going almost unnoticed. The sheer volume of insects many of us knew as children no longer exist. Remember wiping the windscreen for insect residue on car journeys? 

Honeybees (Apis Mellifera) are the only insects commercially managed to produce a food crop. Honeybees as a species are subsequently invaluable indicators of insect health. However, it is not only beekeepers who are acutely aware of these issues. The British Pest Control Association actively calls for pesticides to only be used as a last resort.

Environmental awareness and a common obligation towards pollinators has provided a unique opportunity for beekeepers and pest controllers to work together.

There are several important aspects that offer unique business opportunities for the environmentally aware, business-minded pest controller to consider:

  • Honeybee swarms (often mistaken for wasps by members of the public) have a commercial value. A dramatic reduction in swarm numbers over recent years has resulted in beekeepers paying for swarms (up to £75) to replenish lost colonies.
  • Wasps already have a commercial value as normal business for pest controllers.
  • The Asian Hornet Vespa velutina (AH) could potentially become another source of income for the trained approved pest controller, following its UK expansion in 2018 from mainland Europe. There were over 10,000 AH nests in northern Spain in 2016[1] and they prey exceptionally well on honeybees (more of this later).

Steve Light of Shire Pest Solutions working with Bee.Watch beekeeper Filipe Salbany removing an established colony of 40,000 bees. Both companies regularly communicate through the Bee.Watch app and look forward to a busy swarm season.


UK honeybee populations have the potential to be negatively impacted by many environmental factors, including the Asian hornets. Thus it is really important to collect honeybee swarms and help ensure their survival.

Pest controllers can learn to collect honeybee swarms and it is recommended a relationship is established with your local beekeeper (search your local beekeeping association or contact Bee.Watch for help finding them) to:

  • Know who to contact when you have a swarm of bees
  • Inform them who they can contact about wasps, hornets or other pests.

Easily sourced from beekeeping suppliers, a simple 35-50L box with a loose-fitting lid is required for collecting swarms, together with an understanding of bees and how to collect the swarm into a box then transfer to a hive.

Bee.Watch ‘Swarm Harvest’

Concerned beekeepers at Bee.Watch have developed a comprehensive system to efficiently manage the reporting and collection of honeybee swarms, with additional features to include reporting wasp nests and sightings of Asian hornets.

How it works

  • Without the necessity for telephone calls, Bee.Watch allows anyone to report a swarm and instantly deliver a smartphone ‘buzz notification’ to all Bee.Watch registered swarm collectors within 10 miles of the swarm’s location
  • Only one swarm collector can ‘claim’ the notification, instantly removing it from other collectors and preventing duplicate call-outs
  • If wasps or hornets have been reported via Bee.Watch, the notifications can be seen and claimed by any registered pest controller users of Bee.Watch
  • Bee.Watch includes the ‘iWas’ feature for Beekeepers Users, who register an ‘i Want a swarm’ alert, providing collectors with an immediate outlet and potential market for collected swarms
  • The Bee.Watch API (application program interface) allows any website visitor to report a swarm, wasp or hornet nest, and can easily report seasonally changing pests. As the season progresses, your site becomes the place people go to for help. Install it on your website to gain new traffic.

Working together

One of only two swarms collected by Bee.Watch in South Oxfordshire in 2018 was residing in a garage ceiling. Shire Pest Solutions called upon Bee.Watch swarm collectors to extract the colony; it was successfully rehoused at the Bee.Watch apiary and produced honey later in the year.

To start a new colony, beekeepers must make new queens and then it is a year before the colony is big enough to produce honey.

Alternatively, they can purchase a ‘6 frame nucleus’, or small established colony from a bee supplier which can cost approximately £200.

An early season swarm with more than 5,000 bees can become a thriving colony and produce honey the same year. And that’s where a honeybee swarm’s value lies. There is an opportunity for collected swarms to be distributed to beekeepers in need. As an example, 15,946 batched number of queens were imported from the EU into England, Scotland and Wales in 2018 [2].

Grubs and brood of bees

Long live the Queen

The Queen bee is an egg laying machine who may live up to four years. An average forager bee will live only six weeks in peak season.

So why do swarms happen and what should the pest control industry be looking out for? Understanding the basic life cycle of the bee helps understand swarms: egg > grub > pupa > bee > egg...

Approximately 20 days after a queen has laid and fertilised an egg, a (female) nurse bee emerges. Her role is to feed the next generation of grubs and produce royal jelly, a rich protein that is fed to a normal fertilised egg to ‘make’ a queen, or wax to make new cells. As new bees hatch, existing nurse bees become worker bees. Worker bees have various roles, evolving from basic hive cleansing, preparing the nectar to make honey, capping cells, guarding and then foraging.

Foragers collecting pollen


Worker bees decide to make a new queen when:

  • An old queen is reaching the end of her life, becomes sick or is not laying
  • The colony is growing too large for the hive or nest in which they are located, or
  • The hive is infected with growing levels of disease or infestation (varroa, wax moth).
  • They do this by feeding a normal fertilised egg with royal jelly.

Approximately 16 days later, the new queen is ready to emerge. Prior to this, the old queen will leave the hive, taking foragers with her in a swarm and leaving workers and nurse bees behind, plus those foragers who were out foraging at the time.

When the old queen leaves the colony she releases a pheromone for her swarm to follow. She has not flown since mating, perhaps several years earlier, so initially she and her swarm will gather in a resting place near the hive. Swarming bees don’t sting, although guard bees from the original colony could if nearby.

As afternoon temperatures drop a swarm will look for somewhere to rest. As morning temperatures rise, swarms may move on. Typically, a swarm carries enough honey to last four days and in that period the swarm must establish a new colony and build comb in which the queen can lay, to survive.

Swarm collection

Time is of the essence and the key to swarm collection is the queen’s pheromone or smell. There are many methods of catching a swarm, but the sooner collection occurs the greater the chance of survival.

A familiar honeybee swarm is one hanging in a tree shaped like a rugby ball. Relatively simple to collect, a box with any gaps in the lid (~6-7mm) should be held with the lid open under the swarm. The branch on which the swarm is located should be shaken so the swarm falls into the box or if the swarm is against a building, they can be scooped into the box with a brush or by hand.

The lid should be loosely closed and left for approximately an hour allowing the other bees to follow the queen’s pheromone into the box. Although a few bees will be left behind, the box can then be removed for rehousing and any remaining bees will return to the original colony.

Transferring the swarm

A beehive or nucleus box (small bee colony box) containing frames and a white sheet is one way to make the transfer. If the swarm collection box contained frames, put these in the hive first and put the roof on.

Tuck one end of the sheet under the hive entrance, with the remainder, spread in front to create a ‘ramp’. Empty the contents of the swarm box, including the queen, onto the white sheet. Within approximately 30 minutes, the swarm will have walked into the hive!

 A ‘Taranoy’ artificial swarm with a gap between the hive and a white sheet so only foragers can fly across. Separated nurse and worker bees can be relocated to start a second colony.

Asian hornets

Pest control technicians are called to all manner of pests, but the Asian hornets may need your attention in 2019.

The Asian hornet is an invasive species that predates on honeybees. It is aggressive and will sting and chase away anything that comes within 5m of their nest. An AH will consistently return to a beehive to gather protein for their brood [3]. A single colony produces on average 6,000 individuals in one season [3], their spread through mainland Europe has been well documented [4]. They can easily be identified as their legs are yellow from the knee down, sightings should be reported to the Non-Native Species Secretariat (NNSS) immediately at alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk

Tracked sightings notified through Bee.Watch should also be forwarded to the NNSS. AH ID posters can be downloaded from the National Bee Unit [3]. The Asian Hornet should not be confused with other hornets (images sourced from the French Museum of Natural History [5]).

Speed and good communications will underpin our ability to control the Asian hornets and pest controllers will undoubtedly be on the front line. There is plenty of opportunity for pest controllers to be aware of Asian hornets presence. Please make sure you know who to contact in the event of seeing one or a nest.

Asian Hornets vs European Hornets

Have positive effect on the plight of honeybees

With increasing honeybee losses there is a growing need for new colonies to replace them. The UK’s combined imports of queens and colonies together with those reared by UK beekeepers far outweigh the official numbers for annual colony losses.

In 2018, there were significant reductions in feral swarms across some areas of the country, with some areas reporting none at all. Cheshire beekeepers reported 100 while Oxfordshire was down 97% from 400 in the previous year [6]. It would really help beekeepers to help pollinators, if swarms were efficiently collected.

Do your bit to notify and catch swarms, put the API on your website, get to know your local beekeepers and grow the environmentally aware image of your business.

All Bee.Watch information is securely hosted on a cloud database with police approved ‘Secure by Design’ status, so the veracity of Bee.Watch data can be traced. No data is stored on a smartphone or PC. Consequently, there is a nominal annual fee for the hosting service. Once collected, the data will be valuable for monitoring the spatial and annual trends of swarm and other environmental issues across the UK.


01491 651229

[1] BBC News 12th September 2018 ‘One nest’ could spread Asian hornets across Britain bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-jersey-45500004
[2] EU Import Record (accessed March 28th 2019) nationalbeeunit.com/public/BeeDiseases/euImportReport.cfm?year=2018
[3] National Bee Unit Bee Base March 2019 – Asian Hornet nationalbeeunit.com/index.cfm?sectionid=117
[4] Keeling, MJ et al (2017) – Predicting the spread of the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) following its incursion into Great Britain – Scientific Reports 7, Article 6240 nature.com/articles/s41598-017-06212-0
[5] Referenced at National Bee Unit (see [3]) – the Vespa velutina identification information sheet as sourced from the French Museum of Natural History
[6] Feedback to Bee.Watch at various UK beekeeping events and BPCA Regional Forums

Source: Online

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