A swarm in May is worth a load of hay

What’s the meaning of the phrase ‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay’?

The later it is in the year, the less time available for bees to collect pollen from flowers in blossom

What’s the origin of the phrase ‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay’?

The phrase ‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay’ is actually the first line of a 3-line old English nursery rhyme.

The full version is:

“A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.”

This beekeeping folk rhyme originates from the mid 17th century, and continues to be used to this day. It’s well-known in beekeeping circles across the globe.

When the phrase originated, bees were kept in skeps, which are straw coiled baskets, turned upside down with a small aperture located in the side for bees to fly in and out. Honey and wax would have been harvested at the end of summer by killing or removing the bees.

Spelled out, this means that in May bees have a good chance of surviving for a respectable period, and that the swarm of bees in question have a fair to good chance of producing enough honey and wax to make a profit.

If a beekeeper still has a sizable swarm going into June, they would stand to make more money. While by July, it doesn’t matter how big a swarm of bees you have, you’ll have fewer flowers in bloom to enable the swarm to collect sufficient pollen to produce honey and wax.

One of the earliest known recordings of the rhyme’s usage dates back to 1557 in Thomas Tusser’s agricultural text “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry”.

It also appears in “The Practical Beekeeper” by William Harvie, published in 1650, and John Brand’s “Observations on Popular Antiquities”, published 1777.

Cari Mayhew - Author at Phrase Finder

Cari Mayhew

Lifelong learner, phrase fanatic, and lover of literature across multiple genres. Cari Mayhew has a passion for expression, and a keen curiosity for how phrases begin and how their use transforms over time. She is often found looking for the ideal idiom to convey her thoughts and musings.