It’s swarm season for honeybees!
The size of a honeybee colony fluctuates throughout the year: contracting in the winter and expanding towards mid summer to reach a critical mass able to reproduce through swarming. At the time of the swarm, a colony splits in two and the majority of bees leave with the queen on a flight into the unknown whilst the remaining bees stay to tend a newly emerged virgin queen. There are so many interesting collective agreements made by the bees leading up to their decision to swarm but here I want to celebrate the democratic process that decides where the swarm ends up once it’s out of the hive.
A quick note about swarms in the beekeeping world … Many beekeepers see swarms as a disaster because they lose the colony power for honey production and it is common practice to cut the wings of a queen in an attempt to control swarms. For me, a swarm is a magical and theatrical event that is incredibly important for the long term health of the colony. Swarming enables them to reduce the amount of varroa mite in the colony and ensures a healthy genetic diversity of colonies in a local area.
When the swarm has taken flight, they choose to descend somewhere nearby to form a cluster. The cluster forms a temporary home and sort of public forum for honeybee debate. Constructed solely of bees with the queen [their egg laying key to survival] safely protected at its heart, it is where the wonderful, wild democracy unravels to seek the answer to an important question … where are we going to live now?
From the cluster, hundreds of the oldest bees take on the role of scouts to survey the landscape in different directions searching for possible new home sites. Scouts return to report their findings by performing a dance on the surface of the cluster to indicate where the site is to her scout sisters. In this process, all potential sites are immediately made public so they can be investigated and each scouts has their say on which site they feel is best. Each scouts check out each site and returns to share their thoughts and findings with the others with her waggle dance. This public bee debate can last days and sometimes a week or more until a collective agreement on a new home is made.
“Scout bees method of inspecting a potential home is indicated by tracings of what a single scout did on 4 out of the 25 journeys inside that she made during her initial inspection. Solid lines denote where the bee was walking and broken lines denote where she was flying.” Thomas Seeley, Honeybee Democracy, 2010 … a book all beelovers should read.
Throughout the scouting debate, the bees have a shared incentive to survive and to make collective decisions without the control of a dominating leader. No single bee in the hive enforces the rules and the elders of the community guide the decision making process towards a consensus. They operate with an innate democratic wisdom sculpted over millions of years.
This year we set up our homemade hives as swarm lures to offer swarming honeybees a home. We were lucky and at some point during the debate of a clustered colony nearby, a scout bee found our lure. For five days, we witnessed 5 to 25+ scout bees at a time checking out the hive by flying in and around it again and again. They also took a scouting interest in us as we sat watching them. It’s lovely to know that they had an opportunity to meet us, as well as their future hive and future forage ground before moving in. On 21st May, the wild and democratic decision-making process played out in our favour and a colony arrived. It feels very important to me that although we set up the home, the decision to move in was ultimately theirs.
The arrival of our honeybees in this way so soon after the UK’s recent National Election results where only 39% of the population voted for the current government seems significant. The bees played out an authentic, wild democracy for me to witness and it clarified concerns I have about our present understanding of democracy. We perceive the decisions we face as far more complex than that of the small honeybee but there is much we can learn from them when it comes to making collective decisions.
It is an honour that these bees made the collective choice to allow us as their future guardians and after years of anticipation, I am so happy and ready to welcome them into my life. So here’s to the next steps of my bee-loving journey with the beautiful small ones … I know it is not going to be easy. Honeybees and wild bees are struggling and there will big challenges ahead in deciding how best to support their wellbeing and resilience.