Honeybee Swarm Decision Making

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 waggle 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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