An account of what happens inside a hive during the swarming process

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Boston Bees

Oct 13, 2020
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West Yorkshire
I found this online, and haven't read it before, so thought I would share it here. I found it quite useful, in terms of visualising how the timings can work (especially the length of time between "day 16" and a virgin queen actually being ready to leave with a swarm, or go on her mating flight). Maybe it's not accurate, but here it is anyway:

From Francis Huber, New Observations on the Natural History of Bees, letter 9, 1791

"Every moment of the seventh, we expected the queen to leave the royal cell shut on the thirtieth of May. The seven days had elapsed. The waving of her cell was so deep, that what passed within was pretty perceptible; we could discern that the silk of the coccoon was cut circularly, a line and a half (3/24th in.=3.2 mm) from the extremity; but the bees being unwilling that she should yet quit her cell, they had soldered the covering to it with some particles of wax. What seemed most singular was, that this female emitted a very distinct sound, or clacking from her prison. It was still more audible in the evening, and even consisted of monotonous notes in rapid succession. The same sound proceeded from the royal cell on the eighth. Several bees kept guard round each royal cell.

The first cell opened on the ninth. The young queen was lively, slender, and of a brown color. Now, we understood why bees retain the female captive in their cells, after the period for transformation has elapsed, it is that they may be able to fly the instant they are hatched. The new queen occupied all our attention. When she approached the other royal cells, the bees on guard pulled, bit her, and chased her away, they seemed to be greatly irritated against her, and she enjoyed tranquility only when at a good distance from these cells. This procedure was frequently repeated through the day. She twice emitted the sound, in doing so she stood her thorax against a comb and her wings crossed on her back, they were in motion but without being unfolded or further opened. Whatever might be the cause of her assuming this attitude, the bees were affected by it; all hung down their heads, and remained motionless.

The hive presented the same appearances on the following day. Twenty-three royal cells yet remained, diligently guarded by a great many bees. When the queen approached, all the guards became agitated, surrounded her on all sides bit, and commonly drove her away; sometimes when in these circumstances, she emitted her sound, assuming the position just described, from that moment the bees became motionless.

“The queen confined in the second cell had not yet left it, and was heard to hunt several times. We accidentally discovered how the bees fed her. On attentive examination, a small aperture was perceptible in the end of the coccoon which she had cut to escape, and which her guard had again covered with wax, to confine her still longer. She thrust her trunk through the cleft, at first the bees did not observe it alternately thrust out and drawn in, but one at length perceiving it, came to apply its trunk to that of the captive queen, and then gave way to others that also approached her with honey. When satisfied, she retracted her trunk, and the bees again closed up the opening with wax.

The queen this day between twelve and one became extremely agitated. The royal cells had multiplied very much; she could go no where without meeting them and on approaching she was very roughly treated. Then she fled, but to obtain no better reception. At last, these things agitated the bees; they precipitately rushed through the outlet of the hive, and settled on a tree in the garden. It singularly happened that the queen was herself unable to follow or conduct the swarm. She had attempted to pass between two royal cells before they were abandoned by the bees guarding them, and she was so confined and maltreated as to be incapable of moving. We then removed her into a separate hive prepared for a particular experiment.

The bees, which had cluttered on a branch, soon discovered their queen was not present, and returned of their own accord to the hive. Such is an account of the second colony of this hive.

We were extremely solicitous to ascertain what would become of the other royal cells. Four of the close ones had attained complete maturity, and the queens would have left them had not the bees prevented it. They were not open either previous to the agitation of the swarms, or at the moment of swarming.

None of the queens were at liberty on the eleventh. The second should have transformed on the eighth ; thus she had been three days confined, a longer period than the first which formed the swarm. We could not discover what occasioned the difference in their captivity.

On the twelfth, the queen was at last liberated, as we found her in the hive, She had been treated exactly as her predecessor, the bees allowed her to rest in quiet, when distant from the royal cells, but tormented her cruelly when she approached them. We watched this queen a long time, but not aware that she would lead out a colony, we left the hive for a few hours. Returning at mid-day, we were greatly surprised to find it almost totally deserted. During our absence, it had thrown a prodigious swarm, which still clustered on the branch of a neighboring tree. We also saw with astonishment the third cell open, and its top connected to it as by a hinge. In all probability, the captive queen, profiting by the confusion that preceded the swarming, escaped. Thus, there was no doubt of both queens being in the swarm. We found it so and removed them, that the bees might return to the hive, which they did very soon.

While we were occupied in this operation, the fourth captive queen left her prison, and the bees found her on returning. At first they were very much agitated, but calmed towards the evening, and resumed their wonted labors. They formed a strict guard around the royal cells, and took great care to remove the queen whenever she attempted to approach. Eighteen royal cells now remained to be guarded.

The fifth queen left her cell at ten at night; therefore two queens were now in the hive. They immediately began fighting, but came to disengage themselves from each other. However they fought several times during the night without anything decisive. Next day, the thirteenth, we witnessed the death of one, which fell by the wounds of her enemy. This duel was quite similar to what is said of the combats of queens.

The victorious queen now presented a very singular spectacle. She approached a royal cell, and took this moment to utter the sound, and assume that posture, which strikes the bees motionless. For some minutes, we conceived that taking advantage of the dread exhibited by the workers on guard, she would open it, and destroy the young female; also she prepared to mount the cell, but in doing so she ceased the sound, and quitted that attitude which paralyses the bees. The guardians of the cell instantly took courage; and, by means of tormenting and biting the queen, drove her away.

On the fourteenth, the fifth young queen appeared, and the hive threw a swarm, with all the concomitant disorder before described. The agitation was so considerable, that a sufficient number of bees did not remain to guard the royal cells, and several of the imprisoned queens were thus enabled to make their escape. Three were in the cluster formed by the swarm, and other three remained in the hive. We removed those that had left the colony, to force the bees to return. They entered in hive, resumed their post around the royal cells, and maltreated the queen when a duel took place in the night of the fifteenth, in which one queen fell. We found her dead next morning before the hive; but three still remained, as one had been hatched during night. Next morning we saw a duel. Both combatants were extremely agitated, either with the desire of fighting, or the treatment of the bees, when they came near the royal cells. Their agitation quickly communicated to the rest of the bees, and at mid-day they departed impetuously with the two females. This the fifth swarm that had left the hive the thirtieth of May and fifteenth of June. On the fifteenth, a fifth swarm cast, which I shall give you no account of, as it showed nothing new.

Unfortunately, we lost this, which was a very strong swarm, the bees flew out of sight, and could never be found. The hive was now very, thinly inhabited. Only the few bees that had not participated in the general agitation remained, and those that returned from the fields after the swarm had departed. The cells were, therefore, slenderly guarded. The queens escaped from them, and engaged in several combats, until the throne remained with the most successful.

Notwithstanding the victories of this queen, she was treated with great indifference from the fifteenth to the nineteenth, that is, the three days that she preserved her virginity. At length, having gone to seek the males, she returned with all the external signs of fecundation, and was henceforth received with every mark of respect; she laid her first eggs forty-six hours after fecundation. Behold, Sir, a simple and faithful account of my observations on the formation of swarms. That the narrative might be the more connected, I have avoided interrupting it by the detail of several particular experiments which I made at the same time for elucidating various obscure points of their history. There shall be the subject of future letters. For, although I have said so much, I hope still to interest you.”

New Observations on the Natural History of Bees by François Huber 1806 edition (

I always doubted the existence of 'queenless swarms', beekeepers being very prone to the invention of theories which might explain what is otherwise inexplicable, but if Huber observed one that is good enough for me. 'Queenless Swarms' now filed under 'Verified Possibilities'.

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