It was the first swarm of the season at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
The bees swirled, darkening the sky, and then swarmed from one of bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey's hives around 2 p.m. It was a sight to "bee-hold." At the onset, the bees looked quite confused, as if not knowing what to do. (Well, after all, they'd never done this before!) Most joined the queen in a cluster on a nearby tree branch. A few stragglers touched down on leaves.
Still others headed buzzed over to the empty hive that Cobey had strategically placed below the swarm.
A few hours later, Cobey hived the swarm. Voila!
The entire scenario reminded us what biologist Thomas Seeley of Cornell University said when he addressed two separate UC Davis crowds on Jan. 19 and Jan. 20.
Seeley, a professor in Cornell's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior (he teaches courses on animal behavior and researches the functional organization of honey bee colonies), outlined what bees do when they swarm.
They do it, he said, through "swarm intelligence, the solving of a cognitive problem by two or more individuals who independently collect information and process it through social interactions."
"With the right organization, a group can overcome the cognitive limitations of its members and achieve a high collective IQ. To understand how to endow groups with swarm intelligence, it is useful to examine natural systems that have evolved this ability. An excellent example is a swarm of honey bees solving the life-or-death problem of finding a new home. A honey bee swarm accomplishes this through a process that includes collective fact-finding, open sharing of information, vigorous debating, and fair voting by the hundreds of bees in a swarm that function as nest-site scouts.”
In his informative book, The Honeybee Democracy, Seeley writes: "Beekeepers have long observed, and lamented, the tendency of their hives to swarm in the late spring and early summer. When this happens, the majority of a colony's members--a crowd of some 10,000 worker bees--flies off with the old queen to produce a daughter colony, while the rest stays at home and rears a new queen to perpetuate the parental colony. The migrating bees settle on a tree branch in a beardlike cluster and then hang there together for several hours or a few days. During this time, these homeless insects will do something truly amazing; they will hold a democratic debate to choose their new home."
What they do IS truly amazing. We watched the swirl of bees cluster on a tree branch where they paused, as if waiting for "directions." (Or a Google map?)
We didn't see what Seeley calls "the collective-decision making of the swarm" and "the democratic debate" but indeed that happened, as it's been happening for millions of years.
In the end, the Laidlaw bees all relocated to their new home.
Home, sweet home.
"How do I become a beekeeper?" he asked.
A very good question, and one that the UC Davis Department of Entomology answers a lot. Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen who's been with the department since 1976, is keen on helping.
"My advice to anyone who wishes to start keeping honey bees," Mussen says, "is to try to do the following, in order, if possible."
- Find and read some books on how-to-do-it beekeeping. They can be the less expensive paperbacks, like “Beekeeping for Dummies.”
- Try to find a beginning beekeeping course being taught this spring in your area. Many of the local clubs conduct such classes. (See this page)
- Try to become a member of a local beekeeping club. The members can help you get started and tell you what to watch out for in the neighborhood. If you cannot find a nearby club, see if you can find a nearby beekeeper to give you some tips. Some beekeepers list their services in the phone book Yellow Pages, under beekeeper or beekeeping.
But what about that reconditioned bee hive?
"It would be best to determine why the previous owner is no longer keeping bees," Mussen says. "If the colony died off due to American foulbrood (AFB) disease, the infectious spores will still be in the equipment. Putting new bees on the combs will simply result in loss of the new colony to disease. This is why I suggest that you become acquainted with an experienced beekeeper. He or she will be able to examine your used equipment to determine if it contains 'scales' of an old AFB infection. You can look up this information on the web or in textbooks, but until you have seen the scales, personally, it is hard to detect them."
How do you obtain bees for your hive? There are several ways.
"You can obtain bees by collecting swarms, extracting colonies from current hives, or by doing what most beginning beekeepers do, purchasing 'packages.' A package is a wire screen box containing either two or three pounds of bulk bees and a mated queen confined in her own separate cage. You take four frames out of your bee box, remove the lath holding the food can in the package, take out the queen cage and put it in your shirt pocket, dump and shake the bulk bees into the hive, spread the clump of bees out with your hive tool, and replace the four frames."
"Take the queen cage out of your pocket and, using a toothpick or wooden match stick, push a small hole through the queen candy at one end of the queen cage (you may need to remove a cork from the candy end, but I doubt it – DON’T IMPALE THE QUEEN!). Then, position the queen cage between two combs such that the screen is available to the bees at all times. Squeeze the two combs together to hold the queen cage in that appropriate position and close up the hive. Within three days, the bees should have chewed out the candy and liberated the queen. She will begin laying in another day or two. You can check for eggs a week after you installed the package."
"If all of this sound like gibberish and lingo to you, it is time to start a heavy dose of reading on bees and beekeeping," Mussen suggests.
Excellent advice! It's especially important when you're poking around with a matchstick not to "impale the queen!"
Bee swarms are absolutely fascinating.
Several years ago, when bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey was teaching a queen- rearing class at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, her students received an extra bonus: they witnessed a bee swarm.
Right in front of them, as if on cue, the bees left the entrance of a hive and clustered on a nearby tree branch. That was Lesson No. 1. Cobey and crew quickly captured them and moved the swarm to a vacant hive. That was Lesson No. 2.
Actually, bee swarms aren't that rare on the UC Davis campus. They're just difficult to see because we're usually looking down instead of up.
This week UC Davis employee Suzan Carson alerted us to a bee swarm in the North Hall/Dutton Hall complex. She pointed to a tree branch, about 30 feet off the ground, where, in the deepening shadows, a cluster hung like grapes. "Good eye!" we said.
Today, toting my telephoto lens, I returned to capture an image of the cluster. They were still there, but probably won't be for long. The pending rainstorm may drive them from their temporary home, observed Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, explains the ins and outs of swarms in his newly published book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees.
"The act of swarming is perhaps the most dramatic event in the lives of honey bees," Gary writes. "Here's how it happens: Egg production increases dramatically in response to warming spring weather as well as an abundance of pollen and nectar from spring flowers. Within a few weeks, the colony population essentially doubles. Multiple queen cells--usually at least six--are constructed in the brood nest. A few days prior to the emergence of a virgin queen, the old queen's ovaries begin to shrink. Egg-laying essentially stops, and she loses enough weight to permit flight for the first time since her mating flight."
So basically there's "no room in the inn" for the burgeoning population. The colony divides. The swarm usually heads for a nearby tree to cluster on a branch while the scouts search for a new--and appropriate--home.
Meanwhile, back at the old hive, new queens are emerging and what happens next isn't pretty. "Rival queens engage in fierce stinging attacks until only one virgin queen remains," Gary writes.
About a week later, the victorious queen will depart on her mating flight to a drone congregation area, mate with 12 to 25 or so drones, and then return to the hive to lay eggs--as many as 2000 a day during the peak season.
The queen will never leave the hive again...
Unless, on a warm spring day...
The story was not about a red light district or "Ladies of the Night" or even linked to humans.
It was about honey bee queens. "Ladies of the Day," if you will.
The story that raised a few eyebrows involved research titled "Characterization of the Active Microbiotas Associated with Honey Bees Reveals Healthier and Broader Communities when Colonies are Genetically Diverse," published March 12 in the PLOs One Journal.
A team headed by researchers at Wellesley (Mass.) College found that "Colonies with genetically diverse populations of workers, a result of the highly promiscuous mating behavior of queens, benefited from greater microbial diversity, reduced pathogen loads, and increased abundance of putatively helpful bacteria, particularly species from the potentially probiotic genus Bifidobacterium."
Scientists and beekeepers know that a virgin queen, on her maiden flight, will mate with 12 to 25 or more drones gathered in the drone congregration area. It's not immoral; it's just what happens.
The drones mate and then they die. All of them. Or as Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology tells bee associations: "They die happy, with a smile on their face."
The queen returns to her hive and begins laying eggs, up to 2000 a day in peak season. She'll have enough sperm for the rest of her life, which is usually around two to three years.
This scientific research in the PLoS One Journal is important in that it has led to increased interest in microbial communities and hope for the declining bee population.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of UC Davis and Washington State University has advocated genetic bee diversity for years.
"The primary perceived problem for beekeepers is a diminished quality of queens, and recent survey results from beekeeping operations in the U.S confirm this view," she and her colleagues write in a chapter of the newly published Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions.
Beekeepers have long complained of "poor queens."
Cobey and co-chapter authors Walter "Steve" Sheppard of WSU and Dave Tarpy of North Carolina State University write: "The poor queens category encompasses many different problems but most of these reports document premature supersedure (queen replacement), inconsistent brood patterns, early drone laying (indicative of sperm depletion), and failed requeening as indicative of low queen quality."
So the next time you see a headline screaming "immoral" honey bee queens, it was probably written by someone who has no clue about honey bee reproduction.
Or someone trying to be funny...
Cobey is the lead author of a chapter in the newly published Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions, a 21-chapter book edited by research entomologist Diana Sammataro of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center, Tucson, Ariz., and professor Jay Yoder of Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio.
Just as stock improvement has served the poultry, dairy and swine industries well, the beekeeping industry needs access “to stocks of origin or standardized evaluation and stock improvement programs,” said Cobey, who has a dual appointment at the University of California, Davis and Washington State University (WSU).
“The many problems that currently face the U.S. honey bee population have underscored the need for sufficient genetic diversity at the colony, breeding, and population levels,” wrote Cobey and colleagues Walter “Steve” Sheppard, professor and chair, WSU Department of Entomology, and David Tarpy, associate professor and Extension apiculturist North Carolina State University.
“Genetic diversity has been reduced by three distinct bottleneck events, namely the limited historical importation of a small subset sampling of a few honey bee subspecies, the selection pressure of parasites and pathogens (particularly parasitic mites) and the consolidated commercial queen-production practices that use a small number of queen mothers in the breeding population,” Cobey pointed out.
The honey bee, Apis mellifera, originated in the Old World where it diverged into more than two dozen recognized subspecies, they related. However, only nine of the more than two dozen Old World subspecies ever made it to the United States and only two of these are recognizable today.
What with colony collapse disorder (CCD) and the declining bee population, there's definitely a crying need for genetic diversity in honey bees. Read more about what Susan Cobey has to say, and what this important book is all about, on the UC Davis Department of Entomology website.