"The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Posts tagged ‘colony’

The Psychology of the Swarm

Understanding the reason that bees swarm requires understanding a bit about bee biology. Bees are what is called eusocial meaning that they do not see themselves as individuals but as the very colony in which they live. An example of this can be seen in how they distribute food throughout the colony. If there is a food shortage, rather than take sides or split into groups to fight over it, they distribute it evenly. If the colony is going to die due to lack of food, then they are going to die together. Honey bees are the very definition of synergy.

Swarms generally occur in the late spring and early summer months. The conditions within the hive will likely be crowded. Cells are filled with capped honey and pollen stores as well as eggs and larvae in various stages of development. As the warm weather hits and flowers begin to blossom, any empty cells are filled with the nectar that will become honey. With as many as 15,000 new bees emerging in a week it doesn’t take long for the bees to run out of room.

working on a queen cellThe life cycle of the honey bee is about six weeks meaning that if there is no place for the queen to lay new eggs, after six weeks the colony will die. The bees know that the survival of the colony depends being able to reproduce the colony as a whole. When they sense that they cannot expand the colony under present conditions they prepare for the move to a new home.

Stored honey is cleaned from the cells with each bee collecting as much food as they can carry. Then, to lighten the load on the egg-heavy queen enabling her to fly, they chase her around the hive encouraging her to lay eggs in the now empty cells. Worker bees create specially constructed queen cells where the current queen will lay eggs that will be tended by the remaining bees, hopefully raising a new queen and a new colony.

Queen CellsThe queen, surrounded by as few as 2,000 or as many as 30,000 to 40,000 workers takes flight, usually to land in a nearby tree not far from the hive. The workers swarm around her, linking arms to form what appears to be an undulating ball hanging from the tree. Scout bees take off looking for a new place to call home. When they return, they communicate their findings (size, distance, location, angle to the sun) to the rest of the swarm through what is called a waggle dance. The more information communicated through the excited dance, the more the colony takes notice and will move en masse to the new home.

If the new home is a hollowed out tree, the bees have a lot work to do drawing new honeycomb to hold precious food, eggs and larvae before they can settle in. Since only the youngest bees can produce the wax needed for comb and it takes three weeks for a egg to mature into an emerging bee, this can take some time and the survival of the colony hangs in a precarious balance.

Busy BeesThe savvy beekeeper can capture the swarm by placing an empty wooden hive on the ground below the cluster. It’s a bonus for the bees if the frames within the hive already contain drawn honeycomb as the colony can get right to work filling the cells, expanding the hive and producing sweet and delicious honey.

I would have preferred the placing the hive under the swarm method to my actual experience of climbing a ladder to capture a swarm by hand. In the early summer of 1981 my father, a beekeeper, had broken his ankle and was unable to do much on crutches. So, under his direction, I was elected to don the bee suit, haul the ladder, place it against the tree, climb up as close as I could get to the branch holding the swarm and then using a hand saw, cut the branch holding the swarm from the tree.

I was terrified. The bees, however, were not the swarming mass of darting, stinging anger I had expected. Instead, they were heavy and slow and almost fluid in how they moved together. As the last few strokes of the saw freed the branch from the tree, I held the full weight of the swarm in one hand. Seeing and hearing the bees was one thing but with the branch held tightly in my hand I could now feel the buzzing fluidity resonating through my arm and into my body.

I carried the swarm to the empty hive my father had prepared and gently shook the bees onto the tops of the frames. Feeling confident that the queen bee was within the mass that fell from the branch I covered the hive and placed the branch, still covered with a significant amount of bees on the ground near the hive opening. I had done it.

Ground SwarmWhat had seemed terrifying in my mind was actually quite a pleasant experience. To do it, I had to get over my fears, one by one, and just keeping following my fathers direction in taking the next step. Before I knew it, the job was finished and I had survived without so much as even one sting.


Recovering from Colony Collapse Disorder

In the world of honey bees and beekeeping there is condition being called Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. Considering that bees of all kinds are responsible for pollinating the very food we eat and that without them, our food supplies are negatively affected, CCD has worldwide attention.

The disorder leaves little evidence, such as a pile of dead bees to study. Hives are simply empty. Entire colonies of honey bees seem to have left for work in the morning and then never found their way back home. Without foraging bees returning with the pollen and nectar that nourishes the hive, the colony collapses and just … disappears.

There are many studies happening all at once to determine the source of honey bee die offs. Conclusions range from cell phone towers to insecticides applied to crops and in the case of genetically altered seeds, to the very plants themselves.

It occured to me that this colony collapse disorder in beekeeping is, for whatever reason, not unlike what has been experienced in our little 3D world – the collapse of community. Artists and 3D enthusiasts that once found a home in the various 3D communities just seem to … disappear.

So, how do we recover from CCD? What can we possibly do to make a difference when we don’t even really know for certain what the true cause of the collapse is? And what if there are many overlapping causes or perhaps the perfect storm of events that is creating this CCD? What do we do? How can we turn it around?

Jeff sweeping beesMy husband Jeff and I are beekeepers. In our experience so far we have not successfully over-wintered even one hive. One year they didn’t have enough food, another was hive beetles and wax moths. Then two years of hurricanes with Irene flooding over two dozen hives and drowning thousands of bees, and most recently, Super-Storm Sandy hitting just a few days after we were forced to move our hives in response to discovering someone trying to steal them.

Our apiary is within a small meadow surrounded by forest. Outside of the forest, our community is dotted with residential areas surrounded by farms growing various food crops. We’ve considered that perhaps our bees are encountering something on their foraging expeditions that is causing them to either die on the spot or forget how to get home.

Our response to this challenge is to provide natural, organic food sources within the apiary. We feel that if we nourish our bees well at home perhaps we can increase their chances of returning and/or surviving when they do choose to venture outside of their own back yard. We’ve started creating what we are calling honeybee sanctuaries; food plots for honey bees.

These bee-browsing areas consist of a spectrum of native flowering plants that provide a natural abundance of the pollen and nectar required for honey bees to produce thriving colonies, as well as the sweet rewards of their efforts – sweet, golden, delicious honey.

This is the first year in the last six years that we do not have honey bees in our hives. In the fall we will be ordering a few ‘nuc’ (short for nucleus) packages that will be delivered early next spring. These nuc’s are small, starter hives that consist of five frames, a queen with nurse bees and a large handful of worker bees in various stages of growth and development. Within the nuc, the workers do their best to support the queen so she will lay eggs and expand the colony.

nuc boxesThis expansion requires sharing of the load across the worker bees. Honey bees have different roles throughout their lives. Young, newly emerged bees are the only ones who can produce wax so they stay at home and build comb. When they get a bit older their roles begin to shift. Some attend the queen, some forage for food, some clean and fan the hive to keep the temperature even and some do a little bit of everything. Considering the life span of a honey bee is six weeks on average there’s also the task of rearing of new bees to ensure the hive keeps going.

It seems to me that a thriving bee colony is not unlike a thriving community. Everyone has a certain unique thing they do that is seemingly effortless for them – a thing that is their gift and is essential to the nourishment of the hive as a whole. When these small, unique gifts are combined, each supporting and collaborating with the other, the possibilities for a thriving colony and an abundance of sweet, delicious honey become endless.

Flight DeckRight now, the Hive over at HiveWire 3D can be likened to the nuc, with all who contribute here being the nurse bees, worker bees and drones who are each an individual part of a collective movement from the energy of starving artist to thriving artist. We are grateful for all who are contributing to the buzz.

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