1. Swarms*

There is much confusion, in my experience, as regards the ownership of swarms. There is also a perception held by some that a beekeeper whose bees swarm has an absolute right to follow them and take them from wherever they go. Finally, collecting swarms may involve risks not only to others and their properties but to the beekeeper himself.

Ownership of Swarms

Background Note.

In earlier times, for all but the very rich, cane sugar and similar crops were unaffordable luxuries, so a swarm or colony provided a vital source of sweetness for the beekeeper and his family. Until the widespread introduction of the moveable frame hive, enabling the beekeeper to adopt swarm prevention measures, the acquisition of swarms was the only means of establishing and maintaining apiaries. The emergence of a swarm was therefore a major event in village life. Servants were kept on the lookout for each swarm as it emerged and pandemonium ensued as soon as it did. Bells were rung, drums were tanged (beaten), mirrors shone for a dual purpose: to induce the swarm to settle where a beekeeper could catch it and, as a general warning to the then many fellow beekeepers, that its former owner wanted it back!

What did the law make of all this? More pertinently, what is the legal position today?

The law can conveniently be summarised in the Swarm Ownership Indicator below.

Swarm Ownership Indicator




A. Bees in your hive; your colony shows evidence of swarm plans e.g. larvae in queen cells but no swarm has emerged.


Those in hive belong to you.

B. Bees out of the hive on colony business not in swarm.


Their intention is to return to the hive.

C. Bees in swarm and you did not see them emerge.

No one. Your ownership is lost when the swarm emerges [but may be regained see E below].

Bees have reverted to wild state over which you have no control, and nor does anyone else.

D. Bees in swarm and you saw them emerge.

No one but your right to follow them starts. You can become the owner of the swarm if you can take it under E or F below.

A beekeeper who sees his swarm emerge has a right to follow them (see below).

E. Bees in swarm described in C or D have landed -

i) on your land.

ii) on somebody elses private property.

i) You if you catch them and to the extent that they remain under your control.

ii) You if you are allowed access and you catch them, as above.

N.B. If someone else takes them, whether the property owner or a person authorised by the property owner does so, he/she becomes the owner.

(i) and (ii). Control gives you ownership

F. You have successfully followed and collected the swarm described in D.


Based originally on Roman Law a beekeeper who keeps his swarm in view and collects it, can claim it. But if the swarm settles on private land, the right to follow and claim is lost.

G. Swarm has got away, living wild anywhere, including your land.

No one.

No one controls it.


Problems entering neighbouring land to collect swarms.

(a) Swarms on Private Property.

'Private Property' means any land of any kind to which the general public does NOT have right of entry whatever its use and whoever the owner, e.g. householder, company or government department e.g. H M Treasury.
Beekeepers do not have a right to enter private property to collect swarms. A beekeeper's so-called "right" to follow and collect a swarm from where it landed, if that land is another's private property, has long been rejected by the English Courts. That means that if your swarm lands, for example, in your neighbour's garden, you have no right, whatever the temptation, to collect it without your neighbour's consent. If your neighbour refuses, that should be the end of the matter. If your neighbour decides to keep it or offer it to someone else, again, you have no right to be compensated. Fortunately, consent is rarely refused; more usually it is a case of your neighbour, nowadays, urging you to remove "your bees" from "my land".
Even with consent, care is still needed. First, go onto your neighbour's land and see what equipment will be required and work out a plan of action. In particular, do you need to walk across flowerbeds? Or trim branches? Are there children around? Is damage likely? Warn that the collection may NOT go according to plan. That seemingly easy swarm may take flight and end up anywhere, including down the neighbour's chimney. Then discuss and agree and clear your plan with your neighbour. Once agreed, execute and complete the plan efficiently and leave the neighbour's land as you first agreed.
Oh yes, and don't forget honey! No beekeeper, in my view, should ever collect a swarm without offering a jar of honey in return. Works wonders for P.R. I regularly give jars of honey to my neighbours in anticipation of the swarms which may later land on their properties and get consent "up front". Bribery, if you like, but they love the honey! One of the great advantages of a swarm landing on private property, rather than in a public place (discussed later), is that on private property the swarm collection can usually be organised with the minimum of disturbance to the owner, certainly if the general public is safely out of the way.

(b) Swarms in Public Places.

By public places I mean places to which the general public has access or which he uses, for example public roads, streets and lanes, communal places and parks. The first rather obvious point is that if the general public can use these places, then so can we beekeepers. The problem is that whilst the general public may want to use, say, a road to get from A to B, we may, to get swarms, need perhaps to bring ladders, block pavements, restrict traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, which may cause serious interruption for as much as a full day.
Whilst the powers to do these things are enjoyed by, for example, the police, they are certainly not vested in us beekeepers. These shortcomings are not likely to be a serious setback in rural areas where the ways of the countryside are still embraced (for example tolerance to the regular escape of sheep or cattle from their fields). In my village I have occasionally had to block off a section of pavement and caused churchgoers to use a side entrance to our church, without the slightest complaint. In such cases, the boot is now on the other foot, one becomes "Mr Bee", on call to deal with any swarm, bee problem (usually bumble bees) and the like, and complaints come your way if you don't deal with swarms rather than if you do!
It is a different story in towns and cities, in urban environments where bees and beekeepers may not be understood and congestion of traffic and humanity may be extreme.
Swarms, as we all know, will land almost anywhere and are as likely to plump for the under-chassis of an omnibus in Oxford Street, London, W1 as a low-hanging branch in nearby Regent's Park. Extracting a swarm in these conditions is always going to be riskier in terms of obstruction and swarm recovery, leaving the beekeeper with perhaps only two options. You require either the police and/or maybe other statutory bodies, to provide a safe working environment, or, less satisfactorily, you withdraw. If the police do get involved, do not forget to point out to them that the "incident" may require up to a day to clear, or at least until nightfall, when you should be able to get the whole swarm housed in your collection box and taken away.

(c) Summary.
Our willingness to collect swarms makes us popular with the public and the authorities alike. The fact that we do not enjoy specific and sufficiently extensive rights to do this is, therefore, invariably immaterial and perhaps our only concern should be this - What are the risks?

Collecting swarms, like any other beekeeping activity, involves risks. What are they?

(i) Risks to others.
If you are a swarm collector, you owe a duty of care to those who foreseeably may be affected by your actions. The level of care is that of a competent swarm collector. If you fail to meet that standard then you will, in principle, be liable to anyone injured. As a practical matter, of course, the major risk is that bystanders may get stung with serious or perhaps fatal consequences. The Golden Rule is, therefore, to insist that the public are kept well away until the swarm has been caught and safely removed. Remember that whilst as beekeepers we want to save swarms (for the wider variety of genes they may carry in particular), unless you are confident you can complete the collection safely, leave well alone. The bees may, regrettably, have to be destroyed but that is better than your being sued for your efforts.
It is understood that the British Beekeepers' Association ("BBKA") currently maintains Public and Private Liability Insurance subject to a limit of indemnity of 10 million. The insured include members of the BBKA and area Associations. Like all insurance policies, the insurance is subject to conditions. It is not possible to state (and I do not state) whether or not any particular activity, or person, would (or would not) be covered by the policy. However, two points are worth stressing. First, if you fail to carry out a swarm collection (or any beekeeping activity) with the care and skill expected from a competent beekeeper, insurers may avoid any claim wholly or in part. Secondly, it can reasonably be expected that insurers, in the event of a poor claims record, may either increase the cost of insurance or alter the conditions of cover; further reasons to be very careful.

(ii) Risks to property.
When you collect swarms, you are responsible for any damage you cause (for example for a broken window, a damaged aerial, damage to roofs or gutters, blocked chimneys). Again, don't take on a swarm collection until you have assessed the risks and are wholly satisfied that you can do it; if not, do not even try. Again, it is understood that BBKA maintains cover - but see my earlier remarks.

(iii) Risks to yourself:
Whether you are kicking a football around the garden, walking the dog or collecting a swarm, you run the risk of injuring yourself. If you are injured you will not be able to seek compensation under the BBKA (or similar) policy. If you want or need your own insurance, you will need to take out separate cover extended, I suggest, for all your beekeeping activities including swarms.

* Reproduced here by the kind permission of Andrew Beer

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