Scout Bees – Scouting Behavior in Honey Bee Swarms
Swarming is a natural occurrence in a honey bee colony. 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. A honey bee colony begins swarm preparations weeks before moving day. But how do the bees know where to go? Scout bees are the answer.
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These are some of my favorite swarm lures.
What Are Scout Bees?
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 forages to the new nectar source. This is done by dancing on the comb inside the colony.
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.
What Do Scout Bees Look For?
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. A volume of 40-50 litres (size of one deep brood box) is a common choice.
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. Then, in time a scout bee will arrive to investigate the nest site. Perhaps, a swarm will move into this empty space and create a new home for themselves.
How Many Scout Bees Are Searching?
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.
Choosing A New Colony Home
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.
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.
Head’em UP and Move’em OUT
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 for the colony.