Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Abandon the Old Nest

Honey bee colonies typically swarm once a year in the temperate regions. This method of reproduction on the colony-wide basis expands the number of colonies and moves bees into new areas. However, swarming is quite risky. Only about one in five swarms is successful in moving into a new cavity and establishing a colony that lives for several years. Why would a creature adopt a behavior unless it is beneficial in the long term? Perhaps swarming serves an important purpose other than colony increase and range expansion. Moving the colony to a new location, even if only occasionally successful, allows the bees to leave behind old nests. The old nests, built of beeswax honeycomb, are reservoirs of pesticides, chemicals, and toxins found in the environment. The old honeycombs may also hold the reproductive spores of a number of honey bee diseases, namely American foulbrood, Nosema, and chalkbrood. Another purpose is served by swarming and moving into a new cavity. Trees with cavities are often in decline and fall due to structural damage and decay.

When the honey bee colony divides itself and swarms, it takes along the old queen. A new queen, or more often a queen cell with a potential queen, is left behind with the remnant of the original colony. While this new queen may successfully mate and serve to provide reproduction in the original hive, this too is not always successful. Still, it appears that the swarming process serves as an effective reproductive strategy. Swarming is another behavior that the honey bee evolved to help ensure the survival of the colony. Other behaviors that the bees use to protect the colony include defending the hive with guard bees and removing dead bees from the hive. Unhealthy bees fly or crawl from the hive to die. At Peace Bee Farm, we regularly remove old honeycomb from our hives to reduce the build-up of environmental chemicals and eliminate spores of pathogens. Today’s photo: burning old brood nest honeycombs.

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