The Wonder of Swarming
In swarming the Bee expresses the wildness at the heart of its being.
To witness the bees' swarming is to be transformed.
The queen is the organ of continuity of the hive. If the bees replace the queen, in time, every bee in the hive is replaced because she is the origin of all and, as old bees die, the new ones are created by the new queen. Conversely, a colony with no queen has no future.
"Let's allow our bees to swarm so that they can fulfil their natural inclinations and in doing so restore their species to health and vitality.
The hand of man has lain too long on our bees, with disastrous results.
Generations of #rewilding will give the bees the chance they need to ensure their future survival".
From the Editor of Natural Bee Husbandry Magazine, issue 2
The egg that produces a queen is laid in a special cell and hatches to become a larva which is then fed the supreme food, royal jelly. As a larva, the potential queen will grow, if all goes well, into that beautiful insect on whom the future of 50,000 rests. A mature queen impresses by an appearance that carries with it a certain elegance, and by the continued presence of her devoted entourage of nurse bees, who will often form an almost perfect circle around her as she strides gracefully across the combs of the nest.
Queen bees used to have a life expectancy of up to five years. Very few attain to that age today. The wide use of pesticides and lack of variety of unblemished pollen sources in modern landscapes have affected bees, notably queens, in unprecedented ways. In addition, beekeepers are encouraged to cull older queens and substitute them with artificially bred young queens after two years at the most.
At the root of such approaches lies the notion that the bees’ needs are essentially subservient to the dictates of the market place and the worldwide demand for honey and bee products. More information on this complex scenario can be found here.
It is good to keep in mind that any actions performed by the beekeeper which pertain to the “inner sanctum” of the hive, the brood nest, are invariably violations of the integrity of the being that is the bee colony. Seen in this light, conventional beekeeping training with its heavy emphasis on swarm prevention and concomitant measures of crude interference with queen bees leaves much to be desired. The misguided advocacy of swarm suppression relies not only on the importation of queen bees, but makes necessary the ”production” of queen bees on an industrial scale by artificial insemination.
The bee colony’s innate wisdom will ensure in the normal course of events that a queen who is too old, or for some other reason no longer capable of holding the colony together, is superseded. When this happens, the colony raises a new queen and either quietly disposes of the old one, usually unnoticed by the beekeeper, or the colony allows both queens to co-exist in the hive until the old one dies naturally.
No queen stays in residence in the same hive for her entire lifespan, owing to the bees’ natural form of reproduction known as swarming. When a colony prepares to swarm, it has reached a stage in its development where a division of one into two is possible, and a daughter colony can be established. Swarming is the bee colony's natural way of reproducing, and is a species-specific behaviour of the honeybee.
In a swarm - a wonderful and awe-inspiring sight to behold when the bees are in the air - the old queen and up to half of the colony’s inhabitants leave their home together and scout bees are dispatched to search for new quarters. The hive is left well-provisioned and ready for the emergence of a new virgin queen who, at the point of swarming, will still be developing inside her cell.
Swarming time is undoubtedly the highlight of the bee year. Watching the swarm adopt the new hive offered by the beekeeper gives us unequalled opportunities to experience the wholeness of the organism. In the very act of swarming we are given the possibility of learning, directly from the bees themselves, that a bee colony is an inviolable whole, a “one-ness”, as denoted in the German word Bien. Whoever is privileged to experience that wholeness, especially when demonstrated by the bees as dramatically as in the swarm situation, will find their beekeeping informed by it and take great care to respect that wholeness. Swarming is one of the remarkable ways in which the bees “reveal” themselves as one being, the Bee.
If all is well, a colony of bees will normally swarm every year or every other year.. Present day reality is far removed from that, however, as conventional beekeeping training strongly advocates the prevention of swarming. In fact, ever since man discovered how bees go about producing new virgin queens in their hives, beekeepers’ inventiveness and determination to control the manifold processes within the hive have known no bounds. Driven mostly by self-serving motivations, the effects on the vitality of the bees have been severe.
Queen bees have been raised and mated under controlled conditions for over 100 years now. Queens are dispatched in their millions across the world, and enormous scientific endeavour is directed at devising ever new ways of breeding the “perfect” bee. During the same period, and dramatically so in more recent times, bee health worldwide has plummeted so low that there are many voices now questioning the survival of the species.
As natural beekeepers, we aim to learn from the bees with the aim of caring for them in ways to keep colonies strong and healthy, guided by the bees’ innate life expressions and natural preferences. Swarming must be considered as essential to this. Bee-centred beekeepers will tend to their bees at swarming time like farmers to their sheep at lambing time.
Colonies that swarm are rejuvenated thereby. They also demonstrably cope far better with the varroa mite, for complex reasons that are not fully understood, but which include the fact that swarming interrupts the varroa mites' breeding cycles. There are many other indications that the “best” queens result from the swarming impulse. Altogether, a colony that is able to live and reproduce as nature intended will exhibit better resistance to a multitude of challenges, of which varroa - in the context of sustainable and holistic bee husbandry - is a minor one.
In the words of the late beekeeper monk Brother Adam, a colony which “prepares to swarm has reached an optimum in its organic development, as well as opulence in every direction. Indeed, swarming is the natural manifestation of a colony having reached the summit of affluence. In such circumstances ideal conditions prevail for raising the best of queens from the physical point of view”.
Unfortunately for the bees, Brother Adam then went on to initiate and “perfect”, to worldwide acclaim, a relentless bee breeding programme in pursuit of the perfect bee. Bee breeding and bee importation has had a serious impact on native strains of bee in, for example, the British Isles.
Rudolf Steiner gave his so-called “Bee Lectures” in 1923, a few years after the discovery of the reproductive processes within the hive. In these he warned, with some prescience, against the long-term consequences of artificial queen rearing:
“… we will see that what proves to be an extraordinarily favourable measure upon which something is based today may appear to be good, but that a century from now all breeding of bees would cease if only artificially produced bees were used. We want to be able to see how that which is so wonderfully favourable can change in such a way that it can, in time, gradually destroy whatever was positive in this procedure. And we want to see how, specifically, beekeeping can become of great interest in getting to know all the secrets of nature, particularly how something on the one hand proves to be very fruitful, but on the other hand simply leads to death and destruction. And so it is that beekeepers can indeed be very happy with all the progress that beekeeping has recently experienced in such a short time, but this happiness will barely continue for one hundred years.”
We are approaching the time Rudolf Steiner referred to. The lack of ethics in much of the beekeeping and honey production practised in the world today is certainly very far from engendering happiness. For bees to recover the vitality gained over millions of years, fundamental changes are needed which reflect the esteem that the Bee deserves for its phenomenal contribution to the household of nature and the life of man. Everyone who loves bees can make a difference to the bleak prospects we should face in a world without bees by supporting the endeavours of organic gardening and farming. Beekeepers wishing for a deeper and infinitely more fulfilling relationship with their bees will accomplish much by putting the bees first and allowing them to express their natural instincts to the fullest possible extent. Due consideration of the bees’ swarming impulse forms the core of bee-centred husbandry.