What's the Buzz with ATTTA #105

Thursday, 30 June 2022

A study that began at the University of Munich and inspired research at Cornell University and many others looks at how a swarm of bees chooses their new homestead in their natural setting. This decision-making process was observed in 1946 by Karl von Frisch and was further researched by Thomas D. Seeley. This important research helps us understand honeybees’ behavior and what is essential in a suitable hive location. They discovered that honeybees chose their new home via a unanimous vote by a selected party, almost like a democracy. In this blog, we will discuss how honeybees and their swarms find the best-suited home, read more to understand this decision-making process.

Honeybee Swarm Decision Making

In the summer, when a hive has become overcrowded, the existing queen and about 10,000 workers leave the hive to find a new home in an act called swarming. These venturing bees will leave the hive before knowing where their next home will be. They collectively fly away from the hive where they usually set up camp on a branch, forming heavy clusters of bees.

Among this swarm is some of the colonies’ oldest, most experienced bees that are deemed the scout bees and are given the task of spreading out and finding viable caverns, ideally in trees, to make their new hive.

What are these scouts looking for? Many factors need to be considered when a hive is choosing a new home; location and size of entrance, ample space, and stability are all critical. The ideal entrance is south-facing, small, and high above the ground, making it easy to protect and hard for predators, like bears, to approach. The space in the hive needs to be able to hold enough honey for them to survive the winter, as well as brood and the bees themselves, making the ideal size of their hive around 10 gallons ( 40L). Honeybees also prefer to nest in live trees compared to dead ones. The tree must be able to hold the added weight of the hive, and dead trees are more likely to fall down than live ones are.

How do the bees scout the hive? When a scout bee finds an acceptable opening, she will take many trips in and out of the space. She will spend time flying and tracking the inside of the hole and deciding if this space fulfills all the colony's requirements. If she decides it is acceptable, she will return to the swarm and report her findings in a wiggle dance, similar to how they communicate where florals are for foraging.

This dance will indicate the direction, in relation to the sun, and distance of the scouted hive. Other scout bees will observe this dance and evaluate this sight themselves. Initially, multiple scout bees will all be indicating different locations. After some time, each scout will have a chance to look at many of these sights and will decide for themselves which home will be best. In the end, all scout bees will be performing the same dance indicating the best location. Once all scouts have agreed, they take off to the chosen location altogether. If two areas are similar, the decision may take longer, but ultimately the swarm will choose the best one collectively. In the rare case that two areas are exactly equal in quality, this may lead to a tug-of-war. This can be very confusing for the other swarm bees and lead to the swarm splitting, loss of worker bees, loss of the queen, and possibly the whole swarm perishing. This whole decision-making process may take days to finalize.

It is important to remember this is a life-or-death decision for a swarm. If the home chosen fails to meet the requirements, it may lead to the demise of the new colony. Therefore, it is crucial to make the right choice. The multiple opinions of the scout bees help collectively select the optimal option for survival. Honeybees work together for survival and succession. Thomas D. Seeley has done extensive research on this topic and has written three publications about his work, among them a book called Honeybee Democracy, where he details how this decision-making process works and how it has been researched over the years.

Written by Rebecca Campbell, ATTTA Summer Research Assistant rcampbell@perennia.ca



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What's the Buzz with ATTTA #104

Thursday, 23 June 2022

It is always lovely to see your garden admired by honeybees in the summer, buzzing around collecting the pollen and nectar. It is even nicer to see honeybees pollinating our orchards and field crops. Beyond the garden, managed honey bees are an agricultural necessity here in Atlantic Canada, pollinating everything from blueberry fields to apple orchards. However, many crops that are bee-pollinated only blossom for short periods and cannot sustain honey bees year-round. In this blog, we explore how beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike can support local honey bee populations by providing floral forage throughout the season.

Planting for the Bees

Nutritionally it is essential for bees to collect pollen and nectar from a variety of plants. It can be challenging for beekeepers to find suitable areas for hives that will fulfill both the type and quantity of blooming flowers that the bees need to stay healthy. Creating a garden design that will be in bloom from spring to fall is beneficial for foraging honey bees. The plants you choose to incorporate can be of any flowering variety, but consider native plants to provide a dependable and healthy ecosystem. There are many native trees and bushes such as maples, red-osier dogwood, ash trees, cherry, or oak. There are also many flowering plants, such as butterfly weed, common milkweed, bee borage, canola, lupine, fireweed, and so many more. For more ideas, visit the Atlantic Rhododendron and Horticultural Society website. This website includes a descriptive Excel table which lists over a hundred plants and when they bloom on the Atlantic coast. In addition to growing a variety of flowering plants, planting in clusters instead of spread-out patterns can make foraging more efficient for the bees. These flowering gardens will attract more than just honeybees. Also, consider adding old logs or rock piles as nesting features to support wild pollinators!

While it is valuable to plant new gardens for honey bee foraging, it is also good to consider the management of the wild flowers that are already present. Managed and wild growth is often controlled by mowing, which eliminates blooms, nesting resources, and pollinators' natural habitats. Depending on the time of mowing, the blades can also eliminate individual pollinators that may be present. Managing where and when you mow is an excellent course to ensure that foragers aren’t eliminated and get optimum use out of the plants which are present. Leaving patches unmowed and trimming as close to the roadside as possible can help. Leaving areas unmowed for as long as possible while plants are in bloom allows foragers to use up resources and then move onto new habitat.

Sustaining the health of our honeybees is growing more challenging as natural habitats are lost. Planting pollination gardens and managing native plants can help. The more flowers planted, the more food it provides, and the better the bees eat. When the bees are healthier, they are more equipped to fight off harmful pests and diseases, such as Varroa mites. This is why it is so important to consider planting for the bees. 

Written by Rebecca Campbell, ATTTA Summer Research Assistant rcampbell@perennia.ca

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If you’d like to connect with ATTTA specialists or learn more about our program, you can: