2023 Cliffe Castle Bee Blog 11
Surprisingly hot at 10am today, when Lee and I arrived to complete the weekly inspection. Our new red queen has been laying well, stimulated by the steady flow of nectar being brought
home by the foraging bees. There are eggs, larvae, and sealed brood across four frames this week.
We took the opportunity to replace one of the grubby frames of comb containing stores with a fresh frame of foundation. The comb of stores will be put aside as winter food for this colony. The frame of foundation is against the glass on one side of the hive, so if you watch carefully you may see bees busy drawing wax cells out from the wax foundation template.
Museum staff member Sally Buck told us that the queen had been on the outer frames of the hive at the weekend, no doubt waving at the visitors! Sally has kindly shared the video clip she filmed, so that you can see her too.
It’s warm and there’s a swarm!
Some of you may have heard about a swarm this season, or even seen one. It truly is a wonder of the natural world but can be pretty scary if you don’t know what it is and what’s happening.
Back in Bee Blog 9 I wrote about honey bee reproduction at the individual level (between a new queen and several, unrelated, drones). Swarming is reproduction at the colony level and involves the splitting of a large colony, as the queen and at least half of the bees leave the original nest to set up a new home elsewhere.
Swarming is a completely natural feature of the honey bee colony’s life cycle. There are a number of trigger causes:
Over crowding in the original nest space – so that the queen has no room to continue laying eggs
Over crowding in the original nest space – so that the special scents (pheromones) of the queen, that reassure the colony that all is well, are not able to reach all of the bees
So, if a colony is becoming cramped and edgy and providing:
the weather is warm
there is plenty of nectar available in the environment
there are drones (male bees) about
the colony will begin to prepare to divide and swarm!
Preparations begin several weeks before the bees gush out of their hive/nest in a swarm. Some of the older foragers will stop collecting food and begin to scout for potential new nest sites instead. Not any old crevice will do. They have a number of preferences when they are home hunting, including the size of the available space; the aspect; the height above ground etc.
Back in the nest, the house bees feed the queen especially well, so that she will lay lots of eggs. When she has left in the swarm, they need to have a number of fertilised (female) eggs, from which to raise a replacement queen.
When she has laid enough eggs to ensure a successor, the house bees put the queen through a boot camp regime. Such a heavy queen could never fly out of the original nest with the swarm. So, they starve her and jostle her and nip her and don’t give her a moment’s rest, until she has slimmed down into an aerodynamic shadow of her former self!
The rest of the colony prepares for swarming too. Foragers will increasingly stay at home. House bees begin to fill up their stomachs with three times the amount of honey they usually contain – this is a honey bee “packed lunch”, to make sure the swarm has provisions to survive and to begin to create a new nest after leaving their old home. The colony slows down and becomes quiet as the bees wait for the signal to swarm.
With all of these preparations completed, and 8 days after the first egg chosen to be raised as a replacement queen has been laid, the queen cell is capped. Provided the weather is warm and still, this will trigger the swarm, usually in the middle of the day/early afternoon.
Some of the scout bees raise the signal to leave and run between the combs, to jostle the bees into action. Suddenly, a great rush of bees pours out of the nest entrance, with the queen caught up in the flow.
Read about what happens next in Cliffe Castle Bee Blog 12