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Beekeeper’s Notes June 2016: To Propagate Is The Order Of The Day

Published on: 1 Jun, 2016
Updated on: 6 Jun, 2016

Hugh Coakley keeps bees in Worplesdon. We know about the birds and the bees but do we know how bees increase and propagate? He continues his monthly notes below…

The weather is picking up, nice and warm, mainly dry. There has been blizzards of blossom everywhere and the bees have been taking advantage of the abundance by bringing in pollen and nectar back to the hive.

Coming into land on pear blossom (May 16) H Coakley

Coming into land on pear blossom in my garden. She looks already well loaded up with pollen on her back legs but she is still coming in for more. Click on the image to enlarge it.

There are lots of different coloured pollens again. The dark orangey red pollen of the horse chestnut trees which are now in flower is very noticeable on the bees bearing it into the hive and even on the frames inside.

But it is also perfect weather for swarms.

Honey bee queens mate with drones (see Beekeeper’s Notes September ’15) and then return to the hive for a life of egg laying. This act of procreation allows a single hive to maintain itself and continue.

The single colony should raise enough workers to bring in what they need to eat and to nurture their young.

But how do bees propagate? How do they increase from one colony to two, then four and so on?

The answer is that bees swarm.

The old queen leaves the hive with about half of the colony and sets up a new home. Before she goes, the workers feed a small number of eggs in queen cells with excess royal jelly. This triggers the development of queen larvae who, once hatched and mated, will be able to take over from the old, no longer resident, queen.

Queen cells, long, peanut shaped cylinders in which honey bee queens are being developed. Courtesy of The Scientific Beekeeper.

Queen cells, long, peanut shaped cylinders in which honey bee queens are being developed. (Courtesy of Scientific Beekeeping.com).

So when you see a swarm, you are seeing one colony splitting into two. The bees are increasing the numbers of colonies, giving themselves the chance to spread and reducing the risks of dying out.

The first swarm from a colony is a ‘prime swarm’. If the colony is large enough, the swarming continues with succeeding swarms, known as casts, each getting smaller and smaller.

The worker bees decide when to stop swarming. Once the decision is made, they tear down the walls of any remaining queen cells and kill the queen inside. Grisly but a spare queen in a hive is as useful as a spare bride at a wedding – not useful or welcome.

The photo below is of a queen cell in my apiary from which a queen has emerged.

Queen cell after the queen has emerged.

Queen cell after the queen has emerged. Click on the photo to enlarge it in a new window. You can see the trap door hanging beneath the cell where the new queen has crawled out. Next to it is another queen cell where the workers have torn down the sides of the cell. They have decided that swarming is now off their agenda.

Darwin had trouble fitting bee behaviour into his evolution theory. Why would sterile worker bees slave away for the colony and even die in its defence if they couldn’t pass on their genes?

It makes a bit more sense if we see the colony as a single entity, not as individuals bees working separately. The swarm is an example of this. They are passing on their genes through their mother, the queen.

It’s not about individuals but the survival and growth of the colony that counts.

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