In the spring, walking along the forest edge of a honey bee hive yard, it is not uncommon to see hundreds of bees all clumping together on a low branch. While it may be a familiar behavior to beekeepers, until last spring I had never seen anything like it.
From a distance, the mass looks like hot, melted wax, dripping slowly off the tree’s branch. As you get closer, however, you see the individual bees, climbing over each other, each holding onto the backs of her sisters to form a single pulsating lobe called a “swarm.” The bees are relatively docile during such an event, making them easier to observe. They regard you, if at all, as a small nuisance, in the way of their very important work. They are on a mission. The colony has swelled beyond capacity of their current hive, so a portion of worker bees have split off to find a new home. They leave behind a new queen to sustain the colony left behind and take their mother (the old queen) with them, to build up a new workforce of sisters. The queen is incredibly valuable, as the success of the new colony depends on her reproductive abilities, so she doesn’t tire herself out flying very far to seek out a new home. Instead, she lands on a nearby surface, often a tree branch or fence.
Most of the workers huddle around the queen, forming layers and layers of protection with their tiny bodies. While these bees mind the queen, scout bees fly off to seek out a new home. When a scout finds something, maybe a nice tree hollow, or empty hive box, she flies back to convince the others to join her. To rally the others to her cause she harnesses the power of dance. The more emphatically she dances, the more convinced the others become. Other scouts check out the proposed nest and join her campaign. Once she persuades a majority of the colony that her location is the best, they all fly off to make their new home.
Winston, Mark L. The Biology of the Honey Bee, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.