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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Peter Borst: The Perfect Swarm

Updated: Added link to Peter's second talk.

Peter Borst was the guest speaker at my bee club's annual picnic today. Admittedly, I gush a bit about all of our lecturers, but Peter is truly special. At the risk of having an Anne of Green Gables moment, I would call him a kindred spirit. When he talks about our favorite little flying creatures, you can just hear admiration, respect, and wonder. Although he's been keeping bees since 1974 (Yikes! I was only 2 that year!) and has an accomplished resume as a NY state bee inspector, senior apiarist at the Dyce Lab at Cornell,  and regular contributor to The American Bee Journal, his way of speaking reveals a mind open to learning new things and a great sense of humor. You can also tell that he has a real passion for researching all things related to bees and beekeeping.

I'm going to do another two-parter because there was just way too much info to share in just one post. His first topic was "A Perfect Swarm." Notes on his second talk, "More than One Way to Split a Hive" will be in my next post (if I don't get distracted by other things.)

During his talk, he shared a lot of personal stories, which I won't repeat here -- not from a fear of gossiping (lol!), but because I don't want to spoil his future lectures in case you ever get the chance to hear him. However, I'll share a few of my favorite quotes/tips

The Perfect Swarm

I. Swarm Collecting

  • When living in San Diego, he used to catch 2-3 swarms a day. They'd often have to wait until the weekend until he could hive them. To tide them over for a few days, he'd store them in boxes in a dark place (garage) so they wouldn't overheat. He'd put a screen over the boxes with a can of syrup on top.
  • He called swarms a "Festival of Enjoyment." "It's the happiest day of a bees' life," he says. They get out of the hive, there's no work for a week. It's their holiday -- a week of vacation.
  • He won't drive more than 15 minutes for a swarm because they don't stick around long. If you have to drive 45 minutes, they might be gone by the time you get there.
  • Sometimes they swarm to a spot and don't move from it, especially in mild climates. He showed some amazing photos of swarms that build a nest right on the spot. They just put an extra layer of wax on the outside of the hive.
  • A hive with old combs is a swarm magnet. If you can give a hive with comb to a swarm, "they'll march right in."
  • For matters that go on inside the hive, so much communication happens using odors. Dancing conveys information about the outside world.
II. Why Do Bees Swarm?
  • Why bees swarm is not really something that anyone understands. We can recognize a lot of the cues that precede swarming, but the why is elusive. For example, seeing a lot of bees hanging out on the outside of a hive is a common symptom of a hive that is going to swarm, but it's not why they swarm. Also, bees who engage in this behavior may or may not swarm, so there isn't a 100% correlation between the behavior and swarming.
  • "The honey bee colony is not a machine." Each colony has a different personality and way of doing things. Bees are not variables in a mathematical equation.
  • Chemistry seems to be an important part of swarming.
  • In the 1950's, Colin Butler proposed that diminishing amounts of "queen substance" in the hive could cause superseding or swarming. He patented a substance to dump in hives that was supposed to prevent swarming. Unfortunately, he was wrong, and bees still swarmed. He concluded that other factors, perhaps even psychological reasons, were involved.
  • Researchers eventually discovered that there was not just one "queen substance," but a variety of chemicals in queen substance and even a variety of chemicals in the brood and in the hive.
  • People have tried making chemicals like "pseudo queens" and "fruit boost" (a chemical that was supposed to attract bees to flowers), but they don't work because they side-step the natural processes and procedures that bees already have. 
  • Bees have a process whereby their loyalty can be passed off from one queen to another. It's a procedure. If we want to understand swarming, we have to understand the natural hand-off.
  • Bees can have two possible responses to a queen. Either they view her as mom and protect at all costs, or they view her as "not mom" or "someone else's mom" and rip her to pieces. Pheromones control these possible responses.
  • In an orchestra, there are lots of instruments playing different parts. Sometimes, certain instruments play louder or softer. In the same way, the queen produces a range of chemicals and modulates them like the individual parts of the orchestra.
  • Peter thinks swarming is related to reproductive states of the queen and not necessarily age. For example, new packages with young, newly mated queens frequently supersede very quickly. On the other hand, an old queen (3-4 years old) may be barely fertile or only laying drones, but won't be superseded. Why? Perhaps, as long as she's producing the right pheromones, the bees keep her. Perhaps pheromones are independent of quality -- like a movie star who doesn't act all that well but can somehow convince us that she's got the right stuff.
  • Peter compared the life cycle of the honey bee queen/colony to the development of bumblebee colonies. As a solitary bee, the bumblebee queen overwinters all alone in a state of torpor. Honeybees live in a colony, but the queen doesn't do much during winter. In spring, the bumblebee queen lays a few eggs so she can have some help with the nest and foraging. These first bumbles are on the small side, though, since they don't receive much food when developing. As nectar becomes more abundant, baby bumblebees get more nectar and grow bigger and bigger as a result. (This is unlike honeybees whose size is not food-dependent.) Then she makes males, which mate with the largest females (the ones produced when the nectar is most available). The old queen dies, and the young fertilized females hibernate and start the cycle over again. There are a number of parallels between solitary bees and honey bees whose behavior is all about providing for the next generation. Understanding solitary bees may provide further insight into honey bees.
  • However, the question remains does the queen control bee behavior? Or do the bees control the queen.
  • Peter does not agree with the old expression that "the queen is an egg-laying machine," particularly since pheromones don't seem to be tied to whether she lays or not. (Although we judge queens on whether they lay wall-to-wall eggs, that doesn't seem to be the bees' criteria.)
  • There is a definite interaction between brood and queen pheromone. Wasps, he noted, often have multiple queens in a colony. However, one queen will emerge on top by physically exerting her dominance by holding the others down and shaking them. By contrast, this isn't possible in a colony of 50K-80K bees. Pheromones seem to provide a more subtle form of control/suppression. In a hive that has gone hopelessly queenless (6-8 weeks without a queen), the workers will begin to lay. 
  • Early in the 20th century, William Wheeler, who studied ants (in the order Hymenoptera like bees), suggested that worker bees are stunted physically and psychologically in order to be slaves. This is seen in bumblebees who are given little food. These bees grow up only to wrok and having no sense they can do anything else. 
  • It's unclear why bees have certain tasks in the hive. One thought is that the colony was a self organizing system An alternative hypothesis says that queen pheromone is controlling the assignment of tasks. 
  • According to Seeley, only 25% of swarms survive. So like the bumblebee queen, the honey bee queen really is provisioning for her young and going off to die. 
  • Yves Le Conte suggests that in a way, all of the bees in the colony are an extension of the queen, and the pheromones they make are all expressions of Her. All the bees are making hormones in order to regulate the colony and to provide for its future.
III. How can beekeepers control swarming behavior?
  • "We don't keep bees to populate the woods or our neighbors' yards." 
  • "Once bees swarm, they are in the public domain, and we don't own them."
  • On tanging -- People bang pots and pans to make bees stop swarming, but bees are deaf. "Making all this noise is really just letting the neighborhood know that you are  claiming ownership of the swarm." 
  • When people kept skeps, they'd divide them into three groups every fall -- Light, Heavy, Really Heavy. Light ones would get killed because they weren't that productive. Really heavy ones would usually get killed because there was just too much honey in them to pass up. The medium ones were allowed to survive and swarm the falling year. Using this practice, people were deliberately culling hives by 50% or more and repopulating empty hives with swarms.
  • Some ways to control swarming are to create shook swarms, dividing the colony, or making splits.
  • Shook Swarms. Create a swarm by shaking bees and putting the queen into a brand-new  hive with all foundation. The brood is moved into another hive.
    (Btw, this method is also supposed to provide the best quality comb.)
  • Divide the colony. Sorry, my notes are skimpy on this. There were lots of pictures, and it was all about Langs, so my attention wandered for a minute. There was something about a bunch of boxes and excluders. Also, he mentioned the Desmarais (spelling?) method
  • Splits. The next post will provide Peter's comments on splits. However, he said, "If you steal brood judiciously, you can take more than they can produce." "It's like giving blood. You can't give it all up at once, but you can give it all away a little at a time." Your body will make more blood and replace what it lost. Bees will do the same.
I found this article by Peter on swarming, which you may find interesting. However, before I close, I have to leave you with my favorite quote of the morning:
"The only thing you can get two beekeepers to agree on is that the other guy is wrong."

1 comment:

  1. Once again, I'm impressed with your note taking skills. Thanks for sharing this and I look forward to part 2 and thanks for sharing the article as well.

    Love the final quote!

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