Nearly every time I read about honey bees I learn something new and today was no exception. I no sooner started reading Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley (Princeton University Press) when I came across the following little tidbit about swarm preparation.
We’ve all heard that the queen honey bee “slims down” prior to swarming so she is light enough to fly. We’ve also heard that the workers withhold food to facilitate this weight loss, and that her egg production declines and her abdomen shrinks. So far, so good.
But according to Seeley, in the days before swarming the workers start to treat their poor queen aggressively. They shake her, push her, and bite her—actions which force her to keep moving across the surface of the comb. All this walking, combined with the reduced availability of food, causes her to lose up to 25 percent of her body weight by the time the colony is ready to swarm.
Seeley describes the workers grabbing onto the queen with their forelegs and giving her a good 10 to 20 shakes. Apparently, after she is released she is soon taken up by another worker who does the same thing, and the process is repeated approximately every 10 seconds until she loses the requisite amount of weight.
Now I’ve heard of rigorous diet plans, but this beats all. I had no idea the darling daughters would torture the weight off dear old mom with such a vigorous and directed approach. I thought not feeding her was bad enough.
The ultimate irony, as described by Seeley, is that while the daughters are working her over, they are stuffing themselves with honey so the swarm will have an ample supply of energy to get them started in their new home. So while mom loses 25 percent of her body weight, the girls in the family increase theirs by 50 percent. Sounds like elder abuse to me!