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Calling All Bees!

Once in a while, some of the bees in a hive need a little directional guidance from their sisters.  Individual bees can get lost or confused as to where the entrance of the hive is or where they should be.  No problem, that’s when some of the more alert bees take charge and put out the call to round up the hive and bring the group back together again.

When we humans want to round up friends from a distance we typically use sight or sound (or more frequently phone calls or text messages.)  When bees call each other from a distance, they use none of these.  The bees’ method of communication is a method that we would never think to use; they release a pheromone that signals the other bees to come together via the bees’ powerful sense of smell.

This pheromone is called the Nasonov pheromone.  Bees produce this from the tip of their abdomens.  When they wish to release the pheromone, they raise their abdomens and fan their wings vigorously, broadcasting the scent as far as they can.  It is not uncommon for a beekeeper working with a beehive to see some bees around the edge of the hive releasing this pheromone.

Often, the very act of the beekeeper opening the colony can disorient some of the bees, especially the foragers who are returning with nectar and pollen.  Fortunately, the Nasonov pheromone is a powerful call that brings the bees back home.

Beekeepers will also notice this activity when watching a swarm that has decided to settle in a particular spot.  At the edge of most swarms, a few bees can always be seen frantically calling their sisters to the chosen spot, and gathering the hive together once again.

Bees Hanging Out During Summer

When summer kicks into high gear and both the days and nights become unpleasantly hot, bees begin to feel the heat too.  One of the signs that summer has arrived is the sight of bees hanging out in front of their hive entrances, especially at nightfall.

Bees implement a sophisticated system of climate control inside the hive.  They maintain their brood nest roughly between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with about 93 degrees being the ideal.  They also generally maintain at least 50% relative humidity within the beehive.  Any lengthy fluctuation outside of these temperature and humidity zones is dangerous for the health of the brood and the overall well-being of the hive.

During summer, the challenge of the bees is to keep the hive from overheating.  At this time of year they have two powerful factors working against them.  First, obviously, is the relentless and potent summer sun that bears down and heats everything up.  Bees overcome hot days by fanning water inside their hive, thus using water as sort of a swamp cooler.   (This is why it is critical to maintain a reliable water source for bees near the hive.)

The second, and less obvious factor that can overheat a hive is that beehives’ populations are often at their peak during June, July and August, with upwards of 40,000 bees in a single hive!  The sheer numbers of bees living so closely together can create heat of its own, further raising the temperature near the brood nest.

During the daytime, overcrowding is less of a factor because many of the forager bees and drones are outside of the colony.  At nightfall, however, when all the bees have returned, the hive can become populous again, and overcrowding and overheating becomes possible.

The bees’ answer to this overcrowding is a good one.  Why not sleep outside?  In the summer months, most healthy hives have a good percentage of bees hanging out in front of their hive’s entrance, especially in the evening.  These bees will spend most of the night outside, keeping themselves cool with a peaceful night’s rest under the soft moonlight.  More importantly, this also keeps the brood nest from overheating by limiting the number of bees inside the colony.  If the nighttime temperature chills, then the bees can head back inside to warm up.  If not, then they spend the entire night outside, just hanging out and being cool.

Swarm Control

All creatures possess a deep-seated instinct to reproduce and expand, and bees are no exception.  At the height of spring, when nearly every flower is in bloom, when the days are noticeably warmer and longer, beehives can’t help but to grow rapidly.  During the peak of spring, hive activity bustles and pollen and nectar flow into the hive in abundance.  With the wealth of favorable conditions, populations explode.  Before long, bees become increasingly prone to swarm.  They can’t help themselves; as all of the stimuli they are receiving – the lengthening days, the abundance of food, and especially the overcrowding – rouse every instinct within them to swarm.

As much as the bees are motivated to swarm, a beekeeper is equally motivated to keep the bees at home!  When half the population of the hive simply flies away – for good – and with a thirty-dollar queen no less, it is not an especially happy day for the beekeeper.  Losing a hive to swarming means less bees, less honey, and less overall production.  Swarms can also lead to problems with neighbors.  From the beekeeper’s perspective, none of this is welcome.

As a result, a conscientious beekeeper needs to take precautions to prevent swarming.  This is known as “swarm control.”  Swarm control needs to take place well before the bees begin to think about swarming.  Once a hive has begun to fill in every cell of comb with eggs, larvae and food, and is about to swarm, it is far too late for the beekeeper to intervene.  Swarm control, like many aspects of best practices in beekeeping, needs to take place in advance.

Simply the best way to control swarming is to try to prevent it from happening in the first place.  During the peak of spring, the colony needs to have plenty of surplus space and room to expand. Beekeepers need to stay ahead of their bees and provide ample extra space for the colony to grow into.  An extra box of empty comb, along with a few frames of empty foundation to work will keep the bees occupied and less apt to swarm.  Younger queens are also less prone to swarming, so frequent requeening can prevent swarming to some extent.

Once a colony has made up its mind to swarm, however, as evidenced by it developing queen swarm cells, the beekeeper needs to take more serious action.  About the only thing a beekeeper can do at this point is to simulate an artificial swarm, and split the colony into two, or sometimes three, colonies on his own.  This managed splitting of the colony forces the bees to reset into small-sized colonies, which are not overpopulated and less apt to swarm on their own.

What Attracts Honeybees To Flowers?

 

When flying about, honeybees’ two most powerful senses are their eyesight and sense of smell.  When at full bloom, flowers’ most attractive features are their beauty to the eyes, as well as their fragrance to the nose.  Is this a coincidence?  No.  Honeybees are designed to find flowers, and flowers are designed to find honeybees.

Did you ever wonder why flowers are almost never the same color as the plant itself?  The flower on any plant needs to stand out, and be as beautiful and fragrant as it can be to attract the bees that it needs for the next generation of plants to survive.

As humans we also appreciate the beauty and fragrance of a perfect flower.  But compared to what a bee experiences, our visual perception of a flower is downright drab.  It is as though we are looking at an old scratched computer screen while the bees are watching a 3D movie in IMAX!  Not only is a bee’s sense of smell keenly more acute than ours, a bee’s eyesight is perfectly optimized for identifying flowers.

You may not know this, but flowers display a richness that largely escapes our range of vision.  Bees see in a different range of frequencies, or spectrum, than humans.  Whereas a human’s eyesight ranges from red to violet on the color spectrum (the colors of the rainbow), the bees’ vision ranges from orange to ultraviolet.  Bees cannot see red, but they can see well into the ultraviolet spectrum.  In the ultraviolet spectrum, many flowers have an iridescent quality, in which they appear to change color or flicker from one color to another.  While we humans fail to see this beauty, the bees identify it immediately.

A bees eye view of the same photo

If humans could see into the ultraviolet spectrum, we would see iridescent colors in a flower, along with patterns on the petals of flowers that seem to almost point the way to the nectar source.  A dandelion, when seen in the UV spectrum, is not completely yellow but has a rich and darker looking center that immediately draws attention.  That center, not coincidentally, is where the nectar lies.

Bees’ vision is also vastly faster than ours, which means that they can identify changes in colors while on the move. In fact, honeybees can actually identify individual flowers while traveling at high speed!  Is it any wonder why scout bees never fail to “stop and smell the flowers” along the way?

Late Summer Robbing: Bees Behaving Badly

There comes a day, usually in mid or late summer, when the flowers dry up and stop producing nectar.  This is a terrible state of affairs for honeybees, because late summer is usually when the average beehive is at its strongest.  The foragers at this time of year have probably never known any conditions in their lifetime other than excellent conditions.  Nothing has prepared them in their short lives to experience so much failure on their foraging flights; coming back empty time and again.  They are miserable and discouraged.  All of sudden, the honey that is stored and tucked away in the colony next door begins to look attractive.

Occasionally, the bees get the notion to forage for honey that is stored inside other colonies.  They fight their way past the guard bees, steal some honey, return to their colony, and signal their success to their fellow workers.  This is called “robbing.”  When robbing starts, things can turn ugly quickly.  The strongest colonies pick on the weakest ones, which can become quickly overrun by the pillaging bees.  The robbers steal all the honey and leave the weak colony to perish.  During the course of all of this, the bees turn frenzied and aggressive – both towards each other as well as to any nearby people.  Stinging increases.

The worst part about robbing, besides the loss of colonies and overall bad behavior, is that disease can spread amidst the pandemonium.  Often there is a reason why a colony may be weak and subject to being robbed:  it is sick.  Having healthy bees fighting with sick bees is a sure way to spread diseases and mites across an entire apiary.  All beekeepers agree:  although beekeepers may not be able to stop robbing completely, they should do everything in their power to keep it from getting started.

Bee Training Flights

If you have been keeping bees for any length of time, you will almost undoubtedly notice certain days, and especially certain times of days, where a whirlwind of activity bursts forth around the colony’s entrance.  Especially on sunny, windless afternoons, you often will find scores of young fuzzy bees, pitter-pattering around the entrance, seemingly flying in aimless circles, back and forth. This excited flight lasts around an hour then dies down and completely stops! What is going on?

You have just paid a visit to baby bee flight training school.

Up until around three weeks of age, young honeybees mainly stay inside the hive, tending to their in-hive tasks, such as cleaning, nursing larva, attending to the queen, etc.  Around three weeks of age, however, young honeybees begin their transition to new roles as foragers.  This transition is not immediate.  First the young bees must learn how to fly and orient themselves so they do not get lost once they leave the hive.  Three week old bees leave the hives in groups, flying in ever expanding arcs back and forth around the front of the hive, learning the look and location of it so they can find their way home at a later time.  These first flights are for orientation only, and not for foraging.

Inexperienced beekeepers sometimes confuse orientation flights with robbing.  The two types of activity look somewhat similar to a novice, but there are key differences.  Robbing bees fly aggressively and are often seen around the lid of the colony, rather than only around the entrance.  Fighting often accompanies robbing.  Orienting bees, on the other hand, have a lightness and playfulness about their flight that is anything but aggressive.  Also, robbing bees are older adults, whereas orienting bees are young, often lighter and fuzzy.

Scientists are unclear why these training flights appear to take place simultaneously, rather than throughout the day.  Why do so many bees decide to practice flying at exactly the same time?  Is it because of the quality of the weather conditions, the time of day, or are these flights somehow coordinated by the hive?  Are there instructors or guides to this process?  This uncertainty only adds to the mysteriousness and beauty of the magical, frenzied training flights.