When a Swarm is Not a Swarm

I have had a wonderful swarming season this year with my bees, but am once again struck by how many cast swarms fail to thrive.  I could put this down to all sorts of factors, even attaching ‘blame’ to some of them.  For example, ubiquitous noxious agrochemicals are quite likely to affect the ability of virgin queens to mate and come into lay.  On the other hand, I could look at the swallows and swifts that flock the air, and think that some of them have had a good meal of a queen bee attached to a drone, tumbling downwards from on high as they lock in their mating ritual.  The former thought brings feelings of anger at the maltreatment of our earth by humans consumed with their own hubris, while the latter makes me smile; nature being nature.  I could turn also to the pages of Tom Seeley and read that the vast majority of swarms do not survive their first winter.

But it seems to me that there is more going on. When I say I am struck by the number of cast swarms that fail to thrive, what I really mean is that I am struck by the number of casts that seem not to want to survive.  I’ll first give an example of a cast  that clearly desired to survive and did so despite encountering obstacles.  When I hived this cast I saw the queen.  When I checked a week or ten days later there was plenty of comb, honey and pollen but no brood or eggs.  The bees were quiet and purposeful, but I was concerned that all was not well.  I wondered if maybe honey was coming into the little hive faster than the bees could build comb, resulting in all the available space being used for honey and pollen, with none left for eggs. I could test this by adding an empty comb; if only I had one to hand!

At the same time as checking the little hive, I had cause to check a large hive in the apiary.  To my delight, I quickly came across a part built new comb that contained brood but,  importantly, empty cells.  This was not a gift to refuse, so I carefully checked that the queen was not on this comb and gently transferred it, with its nurse bees, to the little colony.

I checked the little colony after ten days.  There, along the bottom of the transferred comb were about a dozen, beautiful, sealed queen cells.  They looked exquisite, hanging vertically in the air at the bottom of the comb.  What particularly struck me was that the bees had removed all the remaining brood from this comb. They had concentrated their efforts solely on the queen cells.  Moreover, these were not emergency queen cells drawn on the face of the comb, they were normal queen cells, right at the bottom edge of the comb. I had noticed a few eggs and very young larvae on the comb when I first introduced it to the hive, but these were at the top. While it is possible that I missed eggs on the bottom of the comb, the extreme bottom was only partly drawn with very short cells, tapering to nothing at the bottom edge.   So it seemed equally possible that the bees had modelled queen cells there and then transferred eggs or young larvae to them, as we know they do on occasions.  This showed a colony intent on having a queen!

As I write, that little colony has a laying queen and is growing steadily.  It has built a substantial wall of propolis across the hive entrance and is untroubled by robbing from either wasps or other bees.

Now to a cast that did not wish to have a queen.  I saw the queen when the cast was hived (earlier in the season than the swarm above) but it too appeared queenless when subsequently checked.  When it did not respond to the addition of a comb containing eggs, young brood and empty cells, I wondered if it was maybe queenright after all, but that the queen was biding her time.  Unsure, I twice gave it a sealed queen cell.  Afterwards, those queen cells showed all the signs of a normally  emerged queen, but there was still no sign of eggs or brood.  The bees continued to build comb and collect honey, but only a small amount of pollen was stored.

Then came the end of the main honey flow and I was watching all hives for signs of robbing.  The entrance of this little colony (if I can call it that in its queenless state) showed no untoward signs, but when yesterday I checked inside, I found an empty hive; no bees, no sign of fighting and spotless empty combs.  In other words, the classic end result of so-called silent robbing, where both hives co-operate and the bees from the ‘robbed’ hive eventually join the ‘robbing’ hive. Were this sequence of events an isolated incident I would not remark on it, but I have seem it more than once before and in several other hives this year.

It thus makes me wonder if such swarms have the ‘intention’ from the outset of being an external larder to the hive that produces them.  Maybe the queen that accompanies the swarm and the queens that emerge from the donated queen cells are just ignored, in the same way that no attempt is made to raise queen cells from donated eggs?  Surely, if the queens were not ignored, one would eventually mate and come into lay.

If the intention is as I surmise, perhaps the original hive and the swarm hive stay in touch through the exchange of bees.  That way each would know the location of the other when the time comes to ‘repatriate’ the honey.  Bees that have no brood to raise live longer and are able to devote all their energy to foraging, so this might be a useful strategy that allows the main hive to store more honey (albeit remotely) and also relieves congestion.

After the stores are removed from the swarm hive, the pristine condition of the combs would render them less attractive to wax moth, so there is every possibility that these combs will still be there next spring to receive a prime swarm.  Although the combs would be available to any swarm, a swarm from the original hive might find them particularly attractive as they would smell just like home!

The more I observe bees, the more I realize how little we know of their true nature.

Gareth, Cotswolds, August 2013