honey bee behavior swarming

Shaking the queen into shape

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!



  • Jess,

    It’s funny that you found that picture. I thought of the same thing when I was writing. Apparently, those machines used to be very popular.

  • I think it may be a leap to say that the reason they are chasing the queen around and pestering her mercilessly is for weight loss. In fact, I have a hard time believing that. The fact that they stop feeding her I believe will accomplish all the necessary weight loss. My theory would be that the bees know that they will have a difficult time persuading the queen to want to leave her cozy home so they drive her nuts until she can’t wait to run away from home. Just a different take. For every 5 beekeepers you should receive at least 10 different opinions.

  • Jim,

    Actually, your theory makes a lot of sense to me. You should contact Mr. Seeley and see what he thinks of it. It is one thing to observe behavior, but another thing to ascribe motivations. Still, your idea is plausible and could easily explain the behavior. Thanks for sharing.

  • Well like you said, you never stop hearing something new. That bit of info was fascinating. I do agree that the abuse is actually just to make her want to leave. I have been keeping bees a year and a half, I just wish I could see my queens! Lol let alone notice she’s lost weight! Ha! I have only seen my first hive queen once when they were planning a swarm. Now I have two hives.


    • Robbin,

      It takes a while before you can find one insect among thousands, but like anything else, you get getter with practice. I’m still surprised every time I see a queen. It’s like a little gift.

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