I’m a Keeper

My top bar beehive!

I spent some time this winter making an art project to put in the garden this spring. It’s a top bar beehive that will house a new colony of honeybees that I’m getting later this month. I’m so excited to become a beekeeper!

In preparation for the bees, I’ve been studying about them and how they work together to build and manage their hive. While doing my bee research, I read Thomas D. Seeley’s book Honeybee Democracy. Seeley is a professor at Cornell University who has devoted his life to studying honeybees, more specifically, he’s studied the way a swarm of bees democratically decides where to locate their hives. It’s just fascinating. 

When a bee colony gets too big for the size of their hive, they begin to rear a new queen bee. (Each colony only has one queen.) When there is a new queen, then about a third of the bees in the hive “swarms,” and leaves the hive with the old queen. That swarm gathers in a cluster in a tree, then sends out scout bees to look for a place to locate their new hive.

Thomas D. Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy

The scouts look for specific things when they are looking for an available cavity to build the hive. They consider the size of the entrance, the direction the entrance faces (south is preferred), the size of the cavity, and a whole bunch of other specifications. The scouts spend about 35 to 40 minutes examining each possible space.

When a scout has found a suitable space, they fly back to the swarm and do a little dance to tell all the other scouts where they have found a possible location for the hive. The other scouts then fly off to check out each of the available spaces. They spend their 35 minutes checking out the other spaces, then fly back to the swarm and do the dance for the location they prefer. Over the course of about a week, the scouts come to a decision about which vacant cavity is the best place to locate the new hive, when most of them are doing the same little dance!

The part that is fascinating to me is that none of the scouts will start dancing for a location without examining it for themselves first. That’s right. They don’t take another scout’s word for it, and aren’t influenced by the other bees! They look for themselves, and determine for themselves if it’s a suitable place to locate the hive. Then, they reach agreement about which is the best place.

Of course there’s a lot more to it than than, and Dr. Seeley does a great job explaining all of the science involved. I highly recommend everyone read Honeybee Democracy, whether you are interested in beekeeping or not.

Humans could learn a lot from the bees, couldn’t we?