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The bees are swarming; the bees are swarming
On Six Legs
By Tom Turpin

A cluster of bees hanging on the branch of a tree or the side of a building is a sure cause for unbridled human excitement. So much so that chances are good the local newspaper will even chronicle the event with a photo.

Honey bee swarming is part of the birth and renewal of nature associated with the spring season. Plants begin to grow and flower, birds build nests, mammals give birth and insects lay eggs.

But what does a honey bee swarm have to do with bird nests, mammal births, flowers and insect eggs? It’s all about reproduction.

A swarm is the way that honey bees start a new colony. Honey bees are social insects. And all social insects, such as some bees and wasps, and all ants and termites, exist only as a colony. So the reproduction of social insects depends on establishing new colonies.

In most social insects, it is a mated queen that gets a new colony going. So winged ants or termites are what scientists call reproductives - queens or males. But honey bees are different. These insects send a winged armada, a queen and a batch of workers from the old colony, in order to establish an additional colony. This is where the excitement-generating, photo-op swarm comes in.

The swarm on the post is the middle, and the most visible, of a three-stage process of honey bee colony establishment. First, the colony has to produce queens and the male drones. The key to producing a queen is to provide her with the right kind of food. The queen-to-be gets royal jelly throughout her larval development. And she gets a queen chamber in which to grow. You could say honey bees give the developing queen the royal treatment.

Stage 2 is life on the wild side. Once the new queen emerges, she leaves the hive and flies around in the wild blue yonder where, on the wing, she mates with drones strong enough to catch her. She goes on only one mating flight in her life but may mate with several different drones. The queen must stockpile enough sperm to last for the remainder of her life when she may lay up to 2,000 eggs per day.

It is now back to the home hive where a rather gruesome job awaits the new queen. She has the job of killing other pretenders to the throne. Any queens that remain in the cells are stung to death by the new queen. If another queen has emerged, the two engage in a battle to see who gets to take over the old hive. Winner gets all. The victorious queen becomes the ruler of the hive.

The old queen, the new queen’s mother, does her motherly duty and relinquishes her duties. She takes a cadre of field-seasoned workers and leaves. But first the workers fill their stomachs with honey, food to sustain them over the next three or four days. Then, following a flurry of frenzied activity, the buzzing crew departs the cozy confines of the old hive.

It is at this point that some people encounter the swarm of bees. The bees generally land on a post or limb a short distance away from the old hive location. The queen becomes the focal point for the swarming bees. They all land and form a bee mass or cluster over her body. Some of the bees then take up the job of finding a new home. They fly from the cluster and search for just the right place to live. Like human realtors, the searcher bees come back to the swarm to extol the virtues of the potential home they have discovered.

Soon, an acceptable location is discovered, and the bees begin the last leg of their journey to a new home. Some beekeepers collect such swarms and place them in a commercial hive. Otherwise, the bees will move into a hollow tree or other suitable cavity, like the walls of a house. There they get right down to work, building combs, collecting pollen, making honey and rearing new bees. Making a new house a home is not an easy task, even for industrious bees.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. This farm news was published in the July 5, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.