Northants Bee Keepers Association

Northamptonshire Beekeepers' Association (NBKA) Registered Charity No. 295593


Northants Bee Keepers Association

Copyright © NBKA 2007-2018

Northants Bee Keepers Association

A member organisation representing beekeepers in the County of Northamptonshire

Bee-Lines (A selection from our quarterly magazine)

May 2013


The Ownership of a Swarm.


In his recent talk to the association on Bees and the Law, Andrew Beer referred to the ownership of a swarm. He made a distinction between bees in a swarm and bees that leave a hive to forage. The latter has the instinct to return to the colony and, therefore, remain the property of the beekeeper, whilst away from the hive. In contrast, a queenright swarm has abandoned the hive and has no intention of returning.


Mr Beer stated that the ownership of a swarm is lost when the swarm emerges; the bees have reverted to a wild state over which the beekeeper, or anyone else, has no control. This was elaborated in the handout he provided:

“I saw the swarm emerge from my hive, I followed it to where it landed so it must be mine.” Wrong. Ownership ends once a swarm emerges from a hive and the swarm is ownerless until it has landed and someone has brought it under control.


This is contrary to my understanding of the Common Law of England (and Wales - Scottish law is somewhat different). The ownership of a swarm follows Roman Law. The Roman Law provided that bees remain the property of the beekeeper as long as they were kept in sight. In Mr Beer’s notes he cited several Case Histories, but did not include the case of Kearry v Pattinson (1939. 1 Kings Bench 471) in which the following passage from the Institutes of Justinian (Bk II I 471) was quoted:


Bees are naturally wild. Hence if a swarm settles on your tree, it is no more yours until you have hived it, than the birds which build their nests there. Consequently, if it is hived by someone else it becomes his property. A swarm which has flown from your hive is considered to remain yours so long as it is in your sight and easy of pursuit; otherwise it belongs to the first person who catches it. (My emphasis)


It is noteworthy that over 1700 years have passed since the time of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century A.D. and it still summarizes English law today.


If your swarm settles on your neighbour’s land and you wish to retrieve it, you must first seek permission (although trespass in itself is not a crime – in order to proceed against intruders it has to be proved that damage has been done). If permission is refused then the matter is at an end. The Court will not compel the landowner to grant access – assuming a swarm is sufficiently patient to await due process of the law! This was decided in Kearry v Pattinson.


In practice, collecting swarms is an important public service & there are not usually any problems – removing a swarm is welcomed! However, as with all beekeeping activities, problems can occur and have to be resolved in costly court hearings (a good reason for having BBKA insurance cover).


I do not have a copy of Beekeeping and the Law: Swarms and Neighbours by David Frimston & David Smith, which would provide more information – I don’t think there is a copy in the library.


Brian P. Dennis.