How a swarm decides: An NPR story on the democratic nature of honeybees

Thomas Seeley’s book, Honeybee Democracy, describes all sorts of fascinating behaviors of honeybees.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 10.46.03 AMNone of those behaviors is more interesting than how a swarm of bees chooses a place to live.

Here are the basics:

  • Scout bees — older, more experienced bees — leave the swarm to look for a good location.
  • The bees that find possible locations spend as much as 30 minutes or more investigating them. They take into consideration a number of factors such as size of the cavity, direction of the entrance, distance from the ground, condition of the wood, etc.
  • If a scout is convinced that this could be a good place for the swarm, she returns to the swarm and does a waggle dance. The enthusiasm of her dance indicates how she “rates” the site.
  • Other bees take off for the site to do an inspection.
  • If they agree with the original scout’s assessment, they will return and join the waggle dance, and other will go out and do the same thing.
  • Meanwhile, other scouts may be making the case for other sites.
  • Eventually, one site becomes the favorite of most of the bees, and the other bees — whose genetic make-up developed over eons of natural selection — fall in line. In other words, the bees form a consensus.
  • The site is selected, and the bees take off for it.
  • The queen has little or no say in any of this.

But there’s more.

Robert Krulwich, science reporter for National Public Radio, has developed an informative and amusing audio about this process. During the audio (about seven minutes long), he interviews Thomas Seeley. It’s well worth listening to.


Related articles

Casting swarms – it’s what bees do

A different view of swarms

Tew: the natural hive is not a ‘permanent’ home for bees


Key words: bees, honeybees, swarms, how bees select a new home, Thomas Seeley, Honeybee Democracy, Robert Krulwich, National Public Radio, queen bee, scout bees

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