I’m in awe of the scout honeybees. They are the main players in one of the most remarkable happenings in the life of a honeybee colony—swarming. Honeybee colonies are highly organized and social. A honeybee cannot exist on her own. She needs her queen, sisters and brothers. Each has a job to do in order for the colony to thrive. A thriving colony means lots of honeybees. However, the trouble with too many honeybees in a single hive is that it upsets their organized structure. It gets too crowded. I totally get that because space is precious. I needs lots of my own elbowroom. So do honeybees. Plus, it’s their way of reproducing beyond the hive.
When the worker bees sense that space is getting tight, they’ll trigger the construction of queen cell cups along the bottom edges of the hive frames. These are also known as swarm cells. Once the cells are constructed, the colony’s monarch will lay eggs within the queen cell cups. Her worker bees will feed her less food and she’ll slow down her egg laying in the remainder of the hive. She’ll need to lose weight in order to fly away with half of the honeybees in her colony. By leaving, they’ll be making space for the remaining honeybees to continue to thrive with a newly hatched monarch. They’ll also be making a new home someplace else where the old queen is able to continue spreading her genetics in the world. If she was strong enough to grow a colony that needed to swarm, it’s a good bet she has good genes.
In preparation for swarming, the honeybees that would normally be foraging for pollen and nectar fill their bellies with honey from the hive. They’ll need lots of food for their great escape and adventure finding a new home. Once the new queen cell cups are capped and the weather is right, the old monarch and half of her colony fly out of the hive. Seeing and hearing thousands of honeybees swarming is awesome. You hear them before you see them. All those beating wings sound like a freight train. A frenzy of black specks flitting through the sunshine in search of a place to rest.
Scouts will land on a tree branch or structure nearby, and give off a lemony scented pheromone that attracts honeybees. The honeybees and their queen will form a cluster and wait while the scouts head out in different directions in search of a new home. They’ll be looking for a cavity that’s the right size, location, weather proof and easily defended. Once the scouts have identified possible homes, they’ll return to the cluster and perform dances to communicate what they’ve found. These dances convey things like distance, size and direction. Researchers believe that the clustered honeybees come to a consensus on which new home to choose based on how vigorous is the dancing of scouts for a particular place.
What’s not to love about a scout honeybee? She’s an adventurous and clever creature who dances what she has to say.
p.s If you haven’t checked out my latest novel, 2 Degrees, please consider giving it a read. It’s a story about love, hope and redemption. Honeybees make a cameo appearance; and my protagonist, Sharon, is an adventurer like the scout honeybee.