Honeybees, in a sense, reproduce on two levels. There is the actual reproduction of single bees; the mating of the queen, egg laying and rearing of young. This is one kind of reproduction. But there is also the reproduction of the hive itself. Without swarming, the first beehive in the history of time would still be growing larger and larger. I can picture in my mind a hive the size of a sky scraper!
In reality, more than likely, without swarming, something would have attacked that first hive, disease, parasites or something larger like a human or bear, and that would have been the end of bees all at once. Or that huge hive wouldn’t have had enough food in the area to sustain an ever growing colony.
Thank goodness for swarming!
Swarming ensures that the colony doesn’t outgrow itself. It also is the splitting and distribution process that spreads honeybees around the world. The presence of hives throughout the planet ensures the pollination of plants and is responsible for the continuance of many life systems.
But in the mind of the bee, how do they know when it’s time to swarm? I doubt it’s a conscientious decision, driven by humanitarian efforts to spread the service of pollination to every corner of the world.
Instead, it starts with one bee.
Of the thousands and thousands of bees that make up a hive, I find it incredible that one single bee has so much bearing on the activity of each member. The queen of course is the hub of the ongoing goal of colony continuance.
She organizes and encourages her workers to build comb, make honey and protect the hive with the use of pheromones. These pheromones act much like a broadcast system or a loudspeaker. She casts out her orders and the bees pick up on these clues and act accordingly. This is the centralized communication of the hive. Each bee relies on this communication to know its place within the hive.
A successful hive will eventually become so large that some areas of the hive will no longer “hear” the loudspeaker of queen pheromones. The bees assume that if they can’t hear the queen, she must be gone. So they begin the process of creating a new queen.
A hive can only function properly with one queen. The bees rely on a single source of direction. With two queens, there would be conflicting orders coming from two sources, and like a company with poor upper management, nothing would get done.
The old queen will detect that a new queen is being reared and learn that the hive is planning on replacing her. With this, she packs up about half the bees and heads out to find a new home. Sort of a bum deal when you think about it. Throughout her life she works with her hive to store up loads of honey comb and brood and then must leave it behind for a new queen to benefit from, and start over in her older days.
Once she leaves the hive, she finds a temporary resting spot and sets up camp. Scouting bees head out to find a suitable, permanent hive location. When they find a good place, they return to the swarm to communicate its location and the hive heads out to its new home.