If I were asked to create a "Top Ten" list of truly amazing things that insects do, I would have to include the swarming behavior of honey bees on that list. To be sure, as a beekeeper I must admit that I am a bit biased in my attitude toward honeybees. A person who studies honey bee biology or learns firsthand by owning a colony or two of the little creatures cannot help but view these insects with admiration.
There are several aspects of honeybee biology that might qualify for my "Top Ten" list. One is that the industrious bees process nectar into honey that is stored as a food resource for winter months. Humans steal a lot of "the fruit of the hive" from bees for our use. Honeybees are also pollinators, an ecological partnership with plants that results in seed set and fruit production. Then there is the honeybee dance. Bees use this dance, sometimes called a waggle dance, to communicate the direction and distance of flowers to other bees.
The product of honey, plant pollination services, and the communication technique of dancing each would merit inclusion on my list of amazing things that insects do. But there is another aspect of honeybee biology that I consider equally amazing --the process of producing a new colony from an established colony. When this happens, people who witness the process are amazed, a bit wary or scared to death.
Honeybees swarm in order to establish a new colony. Such swarming should not be confused with the use of the term to describe a large, dense group of ants, bees or mosquitoes in flight. To be sure honeybee swarming sometimes involves a lot of bees flying around with the accompanying buzzing sound. No other social insects start a new colony in this way.
Most social insects including bumblebees, wasps, termites and ants depend on mated queens to start a new colony. To get this done, an established colony will produce females and males that go on mating flights. A newly mated queen will then seek a suitable location and attempt to start a colony. The new queen produces a few eggs and feeds the newly-hatched larvae herself. When the first workers emerge they take over the job of rearing their siblings.
So how does honey bee swarming work anyway? First, the colony will begin the process by producing new queens. Bee larvae destined to become queens get a queen cell in the comb and are fed a special diet. The queens-to-be eat only the appropriately named food called royal jelly. Royal jelly is produced in the mandibular glands of worker bees.
Once a new queen emerges in a honeybee colony, she has a macabre task in front of her. The pretender to the throne will have to seek out and kill other developing queens before they emerge from their cells. Once the new queen has reduced the competition for a change of leadership of the colony, she has to go on a nuptial flight. It's out of the hive on the wing to seek out what are called drone zones, locations where the male honey bee drones congregate for the opportunity to mate with a queen. Following a successful mating flight, the queen returns to her hive.
A newly mated queen back in the hive is the signal for the resident worker bees to begin preparations for swarming. First they reduce feeding the old queen so that she looses weight and will be able to fly when it is time for her to do so. Some of the worker bees that have been collecting nectar or pollen begin flying from the hive to seek possible locations for a new home. When the weather is suitable for bees to fly and the new queen has assumed her duties of egg laying, the older bees in the hive rather unceremoniously force the old queen to join them in a swarming flight.
The bees signal this flight by buzzing around in the vicinity of the hive until the old queen emerges and is escorted to the location of the new hive. If a location has not been established prior to leaving the old hive, the swarm lands and forms a cluster of bees with the queen at the center.
Bees in such a cluster do not sting and do not pose a hazard to anyone in the vicinity. But a group of 10,000 or so honeybees in a cluster does attract attention. Most people assume that those bees will sting even if they are just hanging around looking for a place to call home.