Scout Bees – Why They are Important

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Honey Bee Scouts

Inside a honey bee hive, each bee has a job to do. Every bee task is important but none more than those selected to be scout bees. These worker honey bees are responsible for finding new home locations for future swarms and searching out food sources. Just another amazing fact about bees who work together for the good of the hive.

Worker honey bee scout image.

The adult members of the honey bee colony who collect things needed for the hive are called foragers. They are responsible for collecting food for the colony.

To aid in the goal of having a productive system of nectar collection, a percentage of colony members are responsible for looking for new food sources.

These industrious bees who have the job of seeking out new places to get food are the bee scouts.

Are Scout Bees Male or Female?

Scout bees are female. They are physically the same as any other worker bees in the colony.

These bees “scout around” for rich nectar or pollen sources. When a abundant food source is found, the scouting bees return to the hive.

Inside the hive, scout bees dance to direct other foragers to the new nectar source.

honey bees in flight - bee on yellow flower - scout bees

These dances are not much different than other dances that honey bees use to communicate.

Scout bees dancing movements are performed inside the colony on the surface of the comb. They show foragers the general direction and distance to food.

This efficient system of locating food promotes colony productivity and helps bees produce a lot of honey. But, locating food is not the only role of honey bee scouts.

Bee Behavior Before Swarming

Honey bee colonies have a remarkable method of making more bee families. This is reproduction at the colony level. It is called honey bee swarming.

Swarm of bees led by scout bees to new home image.

In this somewhat risky proceedure, roughly half of the hive population leaves to form a new colony in a new location.

The remainder of the bee family remains in the mother hive to carry on hive activities. This includes rebuilding the work force, producing a new queen bee, and raising baby bees to rebuild the population.

Scout bees play a critical role in swarming. The new colony needs to have an appropriate nest site to build their new home. It is the job of bee scouts to look for possible sites.

A lot of work must be done at the new location before Winter arrives. Failure to find adequate shelter and food quickly can mean trouble for the new hive.

Swarming is risky business and not something a colony does on a whim. A beehive makes careful preparations in the weeks before casting a swarm.

Beekeeping Class online - Carolina Honeybees

How Bees Evaluate a New Nest Site

The honey bee colony actually invests a lot of energy in checking out new homes before moving in.

It is not uncommon to see scouting behavior performed by many bees at a bait hive before a swarm arrives.

What do Scout Bees Look Like?

Scout bees look the same as any other worker bee. It is their behavior that is different.

You might see a bee flying around a tree trunk investigating any knot holes or openings.  She seems to be searching for something – not like normal foraging behavior.

Honey bee scouts investigating new bait hive image.
This is one of my bait hives. A scout bee is checking out the space. Maybe a honey bee swarm will soon move in!

Any hollow of an appropriate size is a candidate for the new colony.  And bees choose spaces of all sizes! Though a volume of 40-50 litres (size of one deep brood box) is a common choice. 

Most beekeepers like to use that size of bee box for bait hives when they hope to catch a swarm of bees.  They also add swarm lure to entice visiting bees to take a closer look.

While bee scouts may be on the lookout for possible nesting sites at any time, the search for a new home becomes more serious right before the swarm emerges.

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.

How Many Scout Bees are 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. Each bee dances and promotes the site she thinks is best. The majority of dancing bees must agree before the swarm takes flight.

Sometimes bees “get stuck”, if a decision can not be made, the swarm remains in the transition spot longer.

Scout bees communicate through dances even 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.

Guiding the Swarm to a New Location

Researchers do not understand exactly how the bees reach an agreement. But eventually, most of the scouts will be dancing for the same site. It is time to lead the mass of bees to the new home.

How Scout Bees Get the Swarm Moving

The dancing scout bees stop dancing. They work their way to the inside of the mass of bees. Using their flight muscles, they 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” using their nasonov glands.

Honey bees entering hive image.

This encourages their sisters to move inside. A large honey bee swarm can enter the new location in a brief amount of time.

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.

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 honey bee 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.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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