The Story Behind Bee Swarms
Queens Don’t Really Rule
With the name “Queen” it stands to reason that this focal member of a bee colony would call all the shots, however this is far from the truth. While we often assume bees function in a Monarchy based on the royal title of the reproductive individual in their colony, they actually function as a democracy. Each year around the beginning of summer, hives tend to experience an overwhelming population in their current colony. Their hive can no longer sustain the buzzing community so half of the worker bees, along with their queen, will take off in search of a new location to inhabit.
The Search Party
This search process is called swarming. The swarm typically gathers in tree branches or other areas that they can congregate that will accommodate roughly a basketball-sized jumble of the bees. This sight may be alarming if you ever happen upon it, but there’s no reason to fear as these bees are very focused on their task and completely non-aggressive unless you threaten them.
At this point, half of the group, consisting of the most senior and experienced hive members, will take off to scope out the vast surrounding area for potential new nesting sites. These scouts are incredibly meticulous, actually measuring the areas that they find and taking note of the conditions such as sun exposure, protection from the elements, geographical proximity to a water source, etc. When these scouts return with that information, they begin to do a “waggle dance.”
The term sounds ridiculous and fun, but the waggle dances are very serious for these bees. It is the way that are able to communicate all of the information they just observed about the new potential nesting site, and the vivacity of the waggle varies depending how “awesome” the bee determined the site to be. This even accounts for the duration of the dance, with some bees excitedly repeating their waggle over and over to ensure all their colony members see and feel how awesome the place they found is. The longer they dance, the more bees get the opportunity to see the dance and, as they do, they will head out to see the location for themselves.
Casting the Votes
When these bees return from checking out the different waggle sites, they will join in dancing the particular ‘waggle’ for whichever site they liked best. If they really like the site, they will dance just as long and vigorously as the initial bee did; this helps spread the word to the others that they agree – this spot is AWESOME. This repeats as another wave of scouts head out to see the location before returning to announce their opinions on the places as well. These votes continue to be cast while the scouting is ongoing but, after a few days, there will be a clear winner.
Scientists studied this amazing process over several years with multiple different colonies and found that, not only is this election impressive, it’s accurate. 99% of the time it was found that the colonies chose the highest quality potential nesting sites that were available in the area. This democratic practice is incredible and has allowed bees to thrive for hundreds of years. Since it is so successful… perhaps we should adopt their tactics in our upcoming elections and throw some interpretive dance into the mix…
Honeybees Can Teach Us About Democracy (2012) YouTube. SciShow. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abk-advcClw&list=PLB3FCEEAC84884760&index=51 (Accessed: May 2020).