Formation of new colonies

Colony reproduction: swarming and supersedure

A swarm about to land

All colonies are totally dependent on their queen, who is the only egg-layer. However, even the best queens live only a few years and one or two years longevity is the norm. She can choose whether or not to fertilize an egg as she lays it; if she does so, it develops into a female worker bee; if she lays an unfertilized egg it becomes a male drone.

She decides which type of egg to lay depending on the size of the open brood cell she encounters on the comb. In a small worker cell, she lays a fertilized egg; if she finds a larger drone cell, she lays an unfertilized drone egg.

All the time that the queen is fertile and laying eggs she produces a variety of pheromones, which control the behavior of the bees in the hive.

These are commonly called queen substance, but there are various pheromones with different functions. As the queen ages, she begins to run out of stored sperm, and her pheromones begin to fail.

Inevitably, the queen begins to falter, and the bees decide to replace her by creating a new queen from one of her worker eggs.

They may do this because she has been damaged (lost a leg or an antenna), because she has run out of sperm and cannot lay fertilized eggs (has become a “drone laying queen”), or because her pheromones have dwindled to where they cannot control all the bees in the hive.

At this juncture, the bees produce one or more queen cells by modifying existing worker cells that contain a normal female egg. They then pursue one of two ways to replace the queen: supersedure, replacing or superseding the queen without swarming, or swarm cell production, dividing the hive into two colonies through swarming.

Supersedure is highly valued as a behavioral trait by beekeepers. A hive that supersedes its old queen does not lose any stock. Instead it creates a new queen and the old one fades away or is killed when the new queen emerges. In these hives, the bees produce just one or two queen cells, characteristically in the center of the face of a broodcomb.

Swarm cell production involves creating many queen cells, typically a dozen or more. These are located around the edges of a broodcomb, often at the sides and the bottom.

New wax combs between basement joists

Once either process has begun, the old queen leaves the hive with the hatching of the first queen cells. She leaves accompanied by a large number of bees, predominantly young bees (wax-secretors), who form the basis of the new hive.

Scouts are sent out from the swarm to find suitable hollow trees or rock crevices. As soon as one is found, the entire swarm moves in. Within a matter of hours, they build new wax brood combs, using honey stores that the young bees have filled themselves with before leaving the old hive.

Only young bees can secrete wax from special abdominal segments, and this is why swarms tend to contain more young bees. Often a number of virgin queens accompany the first swarm (the “prime swarm”), and the old queen is replaced as soon as a daughter queen mates and begins laying. Otherwise, she is quickly superseded in the new home.

Different sub-species of Apis mellifera exhibit differing swarming characteristics. In general the more northerly black races are said to swarm less and supersede more, whereas the more southerly yellow and grey varieties are said to swarm more frequently. The truth is complicated because of the prevalence of cross-breeding and hybridization of the sub species.

Factors that trigger swarming

Some beekeepers may monitor their colonies carefully in spring and watch for the appearance of queen cells, which are a dramatic signal that the colony is determined to swarm.

A swarm attached to a branch

This swarm looks for shelter. A beekeeper may capture it and introduce it into a new hive, helping meet this need. Otherwise, it returns to a feral state, in which case it finds shelter in a hollow tree, excavation, abandoned chimney, or even behind shutters.

A small after-swarm has less chance of survival and may threaten the original hive’s survival if the number of individuals left is unsustainable.

When a hive swarms despite the beekeeper’s preventative efforts, a good management practice is to give the reduced hive a couple frames of open brood with eggs. This helps replenish the hive more quickly and gives a second opportunity to raise a queen if there is a mating failure.

Each race or sub-species of honey bee has its own swarming characteristics. Italian bees are very prolific and inclined to swarm; Northern European black bees have a strong tendency to supersede their old queen without swarming. These differences are the result of differing evolutionary pressures in the regions where each sub-species evolved.

Artificial swarming

Beekeepers use the ability of the bees to produce new queens to increase their colonies in a procedure called splitting a colony. To do this, they remove several brood combs from a healthy hive, taking care to leave the old queen behind.

These combs must contain eggs or larvae less than three days old and be covered by young nurse bees, which care for the brood and keep it warm. These brood combs and attendant nurse bees are then placed into a small “nucleus hive” with other combs containing honey and pollen.

As soon as the nurse bees find themselves in this new hive and realize they have no queen, they set about constructing emergency queen cells using the eggs or larvae they have in the combs with them.When a colony accidentally loses its queen, it is said to be “queenless”.

The workers realize that the queen is absent after as little as an hour, as her pheromones fade in the hive. Instinctively, the workers select cells containing eggs aged less than three days and enlarge these cells dramatically to form “emergency queen cells”. These appear similar to large peanut-like structures about an inch long that hang from the center or side of the brood combs.

The developing larva in a queen cell is fed differently from an ordinary worker-bee; in addition to the normal honey and pollen, she receives a great deal of royal jelly, a special food secreted by young “nurse bees” from the hypopharyngeal gland.

This special food dramatically alters the growth and development of the larva so that, after metamorphosis and pupation, it emerges from the cell as a queen bee.

The queen is the only bee in a colony which has fully developed ovaries, and she secretes a pheromone which suppresses the normal development of ovaries in all her workers.

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