honey bee behavior

3 simple ways to recognize a honey bee scout

You can't tell a scout bee by looks but by their behavior. Pixabay image.

No matter what a scout bee is looking for, she shows particular behaviors that set her apart from the rest of the foragers.


Honey bee scouts and their recruits

Two groups make up the foraging workforce of a honey bee colony: the scouts and the recruits. Scout bees are the individuals that go out into the world and search for things the colony needs. Once they discover what they’re searching for, they go back to the colony and report the location and quality of what they found.

Most often scouts look for rich sources of nectar and pollen, but they may also search for water, plant resins, or even alternative places to live. During nectar dearths, scouts may even report the location of hives to pilfer.

Scouts use honey bee dance language to describe the direction, distance, and quality of their finds to the recruits. The better the find, the more exuberant the dance. The recruits watch intently, interpret the dance, then go off to collect the most highly recommended supplies.

How do scouts and recruits differ?

Exceptional fliers that are especially familiar with the local area make the best scouts. These are usually older, highly experienced foragers that can efficiently scour the landscape. According to the article, “Search Behavior of Individual Foragers Involves Neurotransmitter Systems Characteristic for Social Scouting,” anywhere from five to twenty-five percent of the foragers can be scouts at once, depending on the time of year.

The scouts search for new resources every day while the recruits keep returning to the supply source as long as that source is still productive. When the source is nearly spent, the recruits may circle it, looking for more resources in the same general area. At other times, they may go back to the hive for new instructions.

Most recruits do not have to reorient to new foraging grounds very often because they don’t live long. Since foraging is dangerous work and most foragers are already nearing the end of life, many bees forage in only one area before they die.

Scouting for new homes

In the days before a swarm leaves the parent colony, scouts go out looking for a new place to live. These sites may be a mile or more from the parent colony, although they may be closer if they find an especially attractive site. The bees search tree hollows, buildings, vacant hives, or any type of real estate that meets honey bee requirements for interior volume, opening size, and safety.

The various scouts go back to the colony and report their findings. By the strength of their dance, they try to get other scouts to look at their find. If a scout likes the new site better than the one she found, she may switch allegiance and dance for the new site. This looking and switching behavior continues until the bees come to a consensus on their new home.

As swarming time gets closer, the dancing and negotiating increase in intensity. Once the bees swarm and find a temporary resting place, the scouts dance on the outside of the cluster instead of in the hive.

The sign of the scout

You can recognize a scout not by her looks but by her behavior.

  1. Scouts often act like they’re lost. Those looking for patches of flowers may fly back and forth over the ground without ever landing. Those who do land stay only briefly, perhaps taking a short sip of nectar. Scouts don’t load their honey crops or their corbiculae, but simply sample the goods and take a taste back home.

  2. Scouts looking for new homes poke around cracks, knotholes, mailboxes, owl boxes, birdhouses, or anything else that looks interesting. They often spend long periods on the inside of a cavity, such as a bait hive, where they analyze the volume of the cavity and the size of the opening. These bees are never in a hurry, but examine every detail of the cavity. If they like it, they will go back home, report, and return with some nest mates for a second opinion.

  3. Bees that find a hive to rob were probably out looking for flowers when they stumbled upon a yummy-smelling structure. They act like most robbers, sniffing the junctions between boxes, the space around the lid, the area beneath an elevated hive, cracks in the wood, or any other place where the hive smell may leak out. Like bees searching for a new home, they take their time. Before they leave, they may circle the target hive, orienting to its exact location.

Look for thinkers and careful shoppers

It’s easy to spot scouts, mostly because they are not in a hurry to collect anything. They dawdle, examine, and think. Some look lost or confused. Others appear almost lazy.

When you see bees behaving like they have all day, watch carefully and try to figure out what they’re doing. It’s great fun to see a bee at your bait hive, then two or three, and later fifty or sixty. It can still go either way, but the excitement of knowing a swarm may be on the way can be super fun.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

4 Comments

  • I recognize that scout. It is Mildred. Oh, did she sting you? Oh, my, I was mistaken–that is not Mildred; it is somebody else’s bee.

  • Hi, Rusty. Greetings from Boise. I have a question: I had always understood that the swarming bees staged temporarily so that scouts could find a new hive location. If the colony reaches consensus on a new hive location prior to swarming, why don’t the swarming bees go directly to the new hive location, rather than staging in an exposed location for up to 48 hours? Thanks. Alan Herzfeld.

    • Alan,

      I used to have the same question. The answer has to do with timing. The colony knows in advance it is going to swarm. The workers prepare by raising new queens, slimming the old queen, and looking for a new place to live. As you know, consensus can take a long time to reach, so the timing of that aspect is uncertain.

      When the new virgin queens are capped and the swarm is ready to leave, the decision on where to live next may or may not have been reached. If it hasn’t been decided, the consensus-building process will continue at the temporary landing site.

      That is one reason some swarms simply touch down at their temporary site and others stay for days. If they’ve already decided where to go, they may regroup for just a few minutes (perhaps a half hour) whereas the undecided colonies have a lot more work to do and may stay for a week or more. It makes sense when you think about it.

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