Why Scout Bees are Important
Swarming is one of the most fascinating activities of honey bee colonies. Thousands of bees leave a hive to build a new home in a different location. But how do the bees decide where to go? That is the job of the Scout Bee.
The honey bee colony has devised an exciting method of colony level reproduction called swarming. However, swarming is a risky proceedure for the mother colony.
Roughly half of the original hive population will remain to carry on hive activities. This includes rebuilding the work force, producing a new queen bee, etc.
Most of the time this works out well and the old colony grows into a healthy bee family once again. However, failure to produce a new mated queen spells disaster.
The same can be said for the bee swarm leaving to make a new colony. They have a lot of work to do at the new location. Failure to find adequate shelter and food can mean trouble for the new hive.
Yes, swarming is risky business and not something a colony does on a whim. The bee colony will make careful preparations before casting a swarm.
That includes having some new nest sites in mind before leaving. This is the job of Scout Bees.
Each honey bee in the hive has a role to play. And, those roles change as the bees age and according to the needs of the colony.
A percentage of foraging age bees will perform a special task for the colony. These worker bees will serve as “scout bees”. They play a critical role in finding a new home for swarms.
Swarming is a natural occurrence in a honey bee colony. The honey bee colony begins swarm preparations weeks before moving day. But how do the bees know where to go? Scout bees are the answer.
Swarms usually occur during the growing part of the season. Warm temperatures and plentiful nectar and pollen are available.
Then, one afternoon 30%-70% of the bees will leave the colony to go to a new home.
It may seem to the beekeeper that a swarm issues from the colony with no planning. Nothing could be further from the truth.
By the time a beekeeper sees signs of swarm prep, the bees have already “booked their traveling tickets”.
One exciting task for beekeepers is to catch swarms. Various types of swarm lures and traps are used for this purpose. Sometimes they work!
These are some of my favorite swarm lures.
Special Tasks of Bee Scouts
Scout bees are female workers with a special task. The primary role of scout bees is to “scout around” for new food sources.
They find flowers producing a lot of delicious nectar. Then, they will direct other foragers to the new nectar source.
This is done by dancing on the comb inside the colony. Scout bees dance to tell other foragers when to go.
This efficient system of locating new food sources promotes colony productivity and honey production.
But, when swarm season is imminent, scout bees take on a new task.
They begin to canvas the nearby area looking for potential nest sites. This most often takes place a week or so before swarm emergence.
Finding a New Hive Location
You might see a bee flying around a tree trunk investigating any knot holes or openings. Any hollow of an appropriate size is a candidate for the new colony. And bees choose spaces of all sizes!
A volume of 40-50 litres (size of one deep brood box) is a common choice. Most beekeepers like to use that size for bait hives.
Scout bees are attracted to the smell of old honeycomb. This results in a good nest site being used over and over again as the years go by.
If a colony dies, wax moths and other pests will devour the old comb and honey. This is actually a good thing as it helps removed diseased comb.
Then, in time a scout bee will arrive to investigate the nest site. The old colony smells are attractive.
And bees have a great sense of smell! Perhaps, a swarm will move into this empty space and create a new home for themselves.
How Many Scouts in a Swarm?
A typical swarm of about 10,000 honey bees will usually contain 400-500 scout bees. The swarm leaves the parent hive and hangs in a cluster nearby.
During this transition time, scout bees work to finalize a home choice.
Directing the Bee Swarm to a New Location
Scout bees dance on the surface of the ball of hanging bees. (It is fascinating to watch if you ever have the opportunity to observe a swarm up close.) Small groups of bees are recruited to visit the best new locations.
If they like the new site, they will return to the swarm cluster and dance in favor of choosing it. Over time, more and more scout bees dances will match. The swarm comes to an agreement on where to go.
This scouting behavior of the honey bee swarm can continue for hours. Bees fly back and forth between the hanging cluster and the top site choices.
Researchers do not understand exactly how the bees reach an agreement. But eventually, most of the scouts will be dancing for the same site.
Scout bees have an important job to do.
Bees dance on the surface of thousands of hanging bees. This does not create the same vibrations as dances on honeycomb.
The majority of bees on the inside of the cluster may have no idea of what is being decided by the scout bees.
How can the scouts get the swarm on the move and in the right direction?
The dancing scout bees stop dancing and work their way inside the mass of bees. Using their flight muscles to produce a high-pitched beep at their sisters.
All this activity causes the temperature of the cluster to raise. Suddenly, the whole swarm will break apart into the air.
Scout bees and their recruits will fly slowly around and through the flying mass of bees. This directs flight towards the chosen new home site. The whole swarm flies off at the speed of about 7-8 mph.
Swarm Is Directed Inside New Home by Scout Bees
Upon arriving at the new home location, scout bees will surround the opening and “scent”. This encourages their sisters to move inside. A large honey bee swarm can enter the new location in a brief amount of time.
The bees will get down to business quickly and begin building new honeycomb so the queen can lay eggs.
Occasionally, the swarm will reject the site chosen by the scout bees. When this happens, the swarm leaves the location and goes to another secondary site.
Honey Bee Colony Life Returns to Normal
The new honey bee colony has a lot of work to do. Our scout bees will return to the job of looking for good forage sources.
The queen will begin to lay eggs. The urge to swarm will be forgotten for a while.
This colony must grow and prepare for Winter. Let’s hope our scout bees made a good decision and chose a good location for the colony.