Liv Fruitful with Livi Lou! She is currently breeding strawberries, developing a garden product, trialing plants and researching the history of heirloom fruit varieties. She writes about unique perennials and fruit plants, so that you can grow an ornamental fruit garden.


Honey Bees: The Queen Signal
by Livi Lou - posted 05/28/17

A swarm of honey bees surrounded a low hanging tree branch in our yard. Swarming occurs when a hive has grown too large and the queen bee bequeaths half the hive to her daughter.  With the new queen, they search for a location for the new hive. 


Unfortunately, this new hive can be built in homes, which can cause severe property damage. A homeowner’s instinct is to get rid of the swarm, which usually means killing it.  Please be aware that there is an alternative; please contact your local bee inspector or a local bee keepers association, which will happily take the swarm. 



I took this opportunity to learn more about bees.  Bees communicate primarily through pheromones and vibrations, especially inside the darkness of the hive.  When a swarm is searching for a new location to build a hive, they communicate through a "waggle dance" which communicates enthusiasm for and the direction and distance of a new spot. 


For animals and insects to build complex societies, they must communicate. The queen bee is essential to the function of the entire hive. She is the main regulating factor, producing a complex chemical blend called the “queen signal.” 


When a queen dies, the hive must nurture a new queen from the brood within 12-24 hours.  Without a queen, the hive falls into dysfunction and becomes susceptible to disease and predators. The queen has reproductive supremacy. Without her, the population rapidly declines.  


Interestingly, worker bees—the ones who clean the hive, guard the entrances and collect the pollen—are female.  Drones are adult males and serve only to reproduce. Without the queen, the workers start laying unfertilized eggs, which results in drones and the cycle of dysfunction continues.


When the bees swarm, the queen is at the center and the “queen signal” keeps the swarm together.  During swarming, the bees practice a different form of communication called a “waggle dance.”  Here is an excellent video about the "waggle dance" research by Dr. Seeley of Cornell University.  The video shows how the bees communicate with the “waggle dance.”


The study in the video places two ‘new hives’ the same distance from the swarm.  The yellow hive had more room inside and a smaller opening, which means better protection from predators.  The blue hive had less room inside and a larger opening.  Obviously, the yellow hive is the best. 


The researchers marked the bee scouts with either a yellow or blue dot, according to whether the scout found the yellow or blue location. When the scouts return to the swarm, they point their heads toward their discovered locations, waggle their bodies and move forward. The quickness of the waggle indicates the enthusiasm for the new location, and the distance the scout moves forward indicates the distance. 


It seems like a democratic process as the scouts try to gather support for their discovered spots.  But other recruits will not waggle for one of the new locations until they’ve seen it themselves. Eventually, the best location is chosen by the swarm.  Other researchers are studying how this decision-making process might mirror how neurons interact within the human brain. Fascinating! There is always something to learn from nature.




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