A turkey

How are Bees like Turkeys?!

Now that the days are getting longer bees in healthy colonies will have swarming on their minds, except that they don’t have minds, but you know what I mean. Obviously they have to build up to it, so it isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but the preparations will be underway. Honey bees reproduce by swarming so it makes sense that it is a big deal for them. After all, isn’t sex a big deal for humans? The first queen cells in my hives are normally found in May, around the time that oak trees and other hardwoods come into flower, but to be ready to swarm in May the bees will have been busy getting ready for it many months beforehand.

A swarm of honey bees
A swarm of honey bees

It is very easy for us to ascribe human emotions or intelligence (anthropomorphise) to honey bees, and in many cases this is probably a mistake. It is also easy, having carefully observed some form of bee behaviour, to infer the reasons for this behaviour. Humans are programmed to seek out patterns and make sense of them – it is a survival trait which has been very successful. As somebody with a science degree – BSc. (Honours) Chemistry with Economics, University of Sussex 1985 – I try to keep an open mind but also an objective one, and I probably mostly fail. By the way, it’s a miracle that I got my degree as most of my time was spent in bars, so I’m not for one moment pretending to be a scientist. I’m also, in terms of Myers Briggs personality types, an “INTJ” which perhaps explains things better than my ill spent youth at university.

I have been reading River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life by Richard Dawkins because it interests me and also because it was on a list of “must read” books suggested by Ray Dalio, who is somebody I admire from the investment world (another of my hobbies). Just because Dawkins has a different view on God to me doesn’t mean I can’t learn from his books, which I find easy to read and thought provoking. In this particular book, in Chapter 3, he writes about how many animal behaviours are like computer programs being run. For example, an Austrian zoologist named Wolfgang Schleidt discovered the mechanism by which a turkey mother defends her young. The rule is: “attack anything that moves near your nest unless it sounds like a baby turkey.” Schleidt once had a mother turkey that savagely killed all her own babies. It turned out she was deaf!

Bees use their antennae to “smell” their surroundings and their behaviour is very much driven by this. They spend a lot of time in the dark, inside their hives, so they are highly receptive to the presence of pheromones and are sensitive to vibrations, such as those set off by the waggle dancing of honey bees. One chemical, oleic acid, is given off by decaying bee corpses, and it triggers their “undertaker behaviour” – the removal of dead bees from the hive. If an experimenter paints a drop of oleic acid onto a live bee it will be dragged from the hive, struggling and very much alive, to be thrown out with the dead. The undertaker behaviour of the bees is not driven by a mind like intelligence; it is a simple programmed response to a stimulus.

The French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre experimented on digger wasps (well, someone’s got to). The female digger wasp returns to her burrow in the ground carrying her stung and paralysed prey. She leaves it outside then enters the burrow to check that all is well inside, then she reappears to drag in the prey. While she is in the burrow the experimenter moves the prey a few inches away from where she left it. Upon resurfacing the wasp notices that her prey has moved and she finds it and drags it back to its original position. She must then go back into the burrow to check on things again, even though only seconds have passed, and if the prey is moved again the routine will continue, again and again, ad nauseam. The wasp is behaving like a washing machine that has been set back to an earlier stage in its program.

A digger wasp by its burrow
A digger wasp by its burrow

Anyway, back to swarming. I’m not a fan, but bees seem keen on it. However, after thinking about it and reviewing my beekeeping records over the last 5 years (yes, I keep a spreadsheet for this) I’m becoming convinced that my attempts to stop half of my bees flying away in a swarm are not doing me or my bees any good. I got most of my honey from the colonies that didn’t swarm, which makes sense, but next best were the colonies that did swarm, normally in May, and the worst performers for me were the results of my bungling efforts at swarm prevention where I split colonies using one method or another. As it is Winter, and time for reading and reflection, I’m going to be delving deeper into ways that I can change my behaviour to hopefully prevent swarms by means other than splitting colonies, because that isn’t working very well for me, or figure out how to do it properly. Naturally “what to do about swarming” is one of the burning questions I have for the interviewees for my forthcoming “Interviews with Beekeepers” book, and I shall report on this as we move towards Springtime.

My experience of splitting colonies using “artificial swarming” techniques has not been great. It probably says far more about my beekeeping skills than the techniques applied, but I am always trying to improve. Sure, I stop the swarming (mostly) but I just end up with lots of small colonies and not much honey. Then the small colonies get hammered by wasps later on. So, now is the time to reflect, read, talk to the experts and formulate my new plans for the forthcoming season. As I have said before part of the solution is having good stock, which is why I re-queened in August using some queens from excellent breeders here in the UK. Other factors such as the weather cannot be helped, but I’m looking forward to working on the things that I can control.

When I went to my first ever beginners beekeeping lesson I was told by the teacher, Graham Royle, who is a bit of a legend in these parts, that two things are certain in beekeeping: (a) you will get stung and (b) you will lose swarms. He’s not wrong!


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