Natural Living – Bee Business
by Ruth Lawrence
Witnessing a natural marvel in her very own back garden, Ruth Lawrence takes a close look at the truly amazing world of bee swarms on the move.
About to pick a crop of apples from the laden tree in our garden, I found the ultimate gift to mark the end of summer; a swarm of bees has set up a temporary home on one of the gnarled branches.
Bees form a new colony when their present hive is full, nearly every cell holding nectar and honey, pollen or bee larvae. A signal goes out to the colony that it’s time to reproduce itself and the older bees leave their established location for the younger bees to inherit. The older bees, including the old Queen, swarm together to find a new place to inhabit. A week before swarming, nursery bees prepare vertical combs to hold eggs that will develop into new queens, only one of whom will become the reproductive force for the colony. When these eggs are halfway developed, the bees realise it’s time to swarm. A signal tells each bee to take a drop of honey and they pour from the hive by the thousand.
Their only intention is to protect the Queen during flight as she flies in their midst; early this summer I walked through a swarm in flight on the Downs and the air was filled with deep humming as they passed. The Queen’s fertility is apparently restored by this flight when she at last leaves the darkness and flies in sunlight – this happens throughout her natural life.
The swarm settles on a branch or other suitable resting place. This is where they will stay for a few hours or days while scout bees go out looking for a more permanent location for the colony. When the scouts return, they communicate the direction and distance of the potential location to other bees by a special dance that may convince other scouts to go and check it out for themselves. The scout conveys her enthusiasm for the new location in her dance and gradually a selection process occurs. Eventually when 80% of the scouts have agreed on the most suitable nest site, the swarm departs once more. They may fly a kilometre to a new nest site, which must be just right. It must be large enough to accommodate the swarm, be well protected from the elements and receive a certain amount of warmth from the sun.
I have been able to view the swarm at close quarters. The bees are gentle and avoid me even when I’ve been taking photographs nearby. I’ve seen the scouts dancing to convey the potential new nest site; they turn and waggle their bodies while the others ‘listen’. In a day or so they’ll have flown on so I’m keeping a close eye on them, hoping to witness their flight together to a more permanent home.