Standing in the Swarm
by Danielle Lattuga
Broadcast 6.1 & 6.4.2021
On a warm June day, at our farm in the Mission Valley, I was watching my husband and son play in the yard, honeybees from our two colonies buzzing nearby. Suddenly, my attention was captured by a steady increase in the number of bees on the air, catching and refracting sunlight with their golden bodies.
Simultaneously, I heard my husband call to me, “Sweetie, something is going on with your bees.”
Before he finished speaking I was gleefully running into the yard and he and my son were fearfully running into the house.
“They’re swarming,” I called, transfixed.
The air was electric with the flight of bees. I watched, spellbound, as thousands of bees began to gather on a willow limb near the apiary. It was the first time I witnessed a swarm, as a beekeeper.
So, what exactly was going on?
Swarms are a fundamental sign of health in honeybees. While swarming may seem chaotic and random it is actually quite purposeful: a swarm indicates the birth of a new colony.
Each spring in Montana, the queen, who has spent the winter nestled within the cluster of worker bees, begins to lay eggs. Each worker bee in the colony shifts her energy from heating the hive to gathering food and rearing brood. Over spring and early summer, the confines of the hive fill—with more and more bees, and stores of pollen and honey.
Given the right conditions, a colony will outgrow its hive. When the colony senses this is about to happen, worker bees begin building a series of larger cup-like cells and the queen lays eggs in them. Within those cells new queens grow and the cohesive unity of the colony begins to loosen. Nearly half of the workers maintain their alliance to the reigning queen, while the other half will ally with the nearly hatched queen.
A few days before the new queen emerges, the reigning queen signals that it is time to go. All of her cohort (including a few drones) will fill up on honey for the journey ahead. Then the queen exits the hive with her cohort close behind.
They will fill the air as they did on that vibrant June day until the queen alights on a tree branch or other convenient place, the cohort gathered around her in a great mass.
While this sight can sometimes be disturbing to humans, honeybees in a swarm are actually at their most docile—because they have a single purpose: to find a new home swiftly. Scout bees fly out from the swarm and look for that new home.
When a scout bee identifies a potential new home, she will fly back to the swarm and discuss it with the other scouts. Honeybees communicate in two primary ways: through pheromones and movement. In the case of discussing a new locale, the scout bees use movement—what we humans describe as a dance. A scout bee dances her location of interest to other scout bees and the other scout bees dance their locale of interest to her. Then they go investigate what the other has discovered. When all the scouts dance the same dance or location, they’ve come to an agreement and the swarm takes off together to their new home.
This whole process could take 15 minutes or up to three days. If a swarm doesn’t find a new location from their original settling place, they may move and scout from another place. But they only have enough stores in their bodies for approximately three days. Not finding a new home could prove fatal to the swarm.
Meanwhile, back at the old hive, the new queen emerges to a dedicated population of worker bees, drones, stored honey and pollen, and various stages of brood. Her predecessor has set her up for success.
There was nothing more gratifying for me to witness my bees swarm for the first time. Gathering the swarm—well, that is a story for another day, but it had a happy ending!
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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