The big difference between keeping bees in France and the UK

Sue Adams explores the contrasting approaches of French and British beekeepers

A congested hive will cause bees to swarm and an old Queen is forced out

Keeping bees in France is a different proposition to doing so in the UK due to a surprisingly strange approach: French beekeepers let the bees swarm.

I was first taught to keep bees by a French beekeeper and so learnt French rather than English procedures. It was quickly apparent that there is one big difference in how they manage swarms, which peak at this time of year.

In England, hives are carefully managed to deter bees from swarming. At the slightest indication a hive could swarm, you dupe the bees into dividing into two colonies – each with their own beehive. This reduces numbers in the original hive, allows a healthy young Queen to establish a new community and – importantly – stops some bees flying away.

My French teacher took a different approach; she was not so concerned with bees swarming, but was always on the lookout for a swarm in the wild, which she would then capture and bring back to the apiary, where - she hoped - they would remain. 

Read more: French motorway closed after hives fall out of lorry releasing bees

Congested hives form swarms

This French system works well if you are adept at catching swarms and fortunate enough to catch one early in the summer when it has the time to build up into a strong new colony. 

Furthermore, French hives tend to be bigger than their British counterparts, so swarms are less likely to occur. France is also a bigger country, so rural beekeepers tend not to keep their apiaries so close to populated areas.

A swarm occurs when a congested hive creates one or more new Queens and the old Queen is forced out. She leaves, taking thousands of her workers with her. The swarm clusters in a convenient place, while scout bees look for suitable new premises. 

Swarms are not usually aggressive. However, you would be foolish to intervene unless you know what you are doing, as when a bee stings you it releases a chemical which causes nearby bees to do the same. In the case of a swarm, this could result in a very large number of stings.

Once the swarm has settled into its new home the bees quickly set about creating a new comb where the queen can lay her eggs.

What to do if you find a beehive in France

The problems really begin when the new nest is in your chimney, wall or roof, or even between the shutters and window panes of your French holiday home. 

Many a second homeowner returns for the summer, only to find sheets of bee-filled honeycomb hanging behind the windowpanes and possibly even dead on the floor. 

If this is the case, get professional help. You can also photograph the swarm/nest location with your phone, if it is safe, as this will help a professional understand the situation and confirm whether the insects are bees, wasps or even hornets.

Read more: What is France’s new national plan to fight against Asian hornets?

If you know a local beekeeper, contact them; the bees could be theirs. If the beekeeper can collect the swarm, they will be very grateful.

If you don’t know anyone, then you could contact your mairie as they may keep details of beekeepers who are happy to collect swarms or remove nests.

 Finally, there is a national register of beekeepers who are prepared to collect swarms, as well as (in some cases) deal with nests of Asiatic hornets:

If the hive is inaccessible, under roof tiles or in a wall for example, then you have two choices – leave them alone if they are a safe distance away, or have them destroyed if they are not.