Be guided by the impulses of the bee colony

A colony can amount to 40,000 bees. Together they form a higher-order organism. Swarming, natural comb building and queen rearing strengthen the vitality and immunity of bees. This insight from Rudolf Steiner is now more relevant than ever.

Bee colonies have always been perceived as unities, as a whole. Until two centuries ago, what took place in the hive and how it looked inside were still hidden, and therefore mysterious. It was impossible to take a look inside the hive for one simple reason: the bees built themselves stable homes – that is to say, they made fast their combs to the inside of hollow logs or to the walls of hives. To collect honey or wax, it was necessary to destroy the bees’ home.

We owe most of our knowledge of bees to the invention of the removeable-frame hive.

A glimpse inside the hive

This changed in the 19th century with the advent of removable beehives. In this type of construction, timber frames are suspended in the hives in which the colonies build their combs. The combs can be removed and replaced at any time without being destroyed. It is this invention that we have to thank for most of our knowledge about the life and biology of bees. It enabled us to identify the different stages of development and the life cycle of the bees, both drones and queens. On the combs that had been removed, it was possible to tag the drones after hatching and follow the strictly regulated phases of their lives. At the outset, they are assigned duties within the hive – cleaning, warming food and brood – then secreting wax and building combs, then monitoring the entrance to the hive. At the end of their lives, they become foragers, collecting nectar, pollen and water. On removable frames the ‘waggle dance’ has been observed and decoded, that is to say we have analysed the code by which foragers inform their colleagues of the locations and quality of sources of nectar and pollen. The extreme precision of the temperature control in the hive, especially around the brood cells, and the construction of combs have also been observed and described thanks to these hives with removable frames.

Although major advances in research on bees have greatly expanded our knowledge, the higher organism that governs the life of the colony has not yet revealed all its secrets. While we understand many specific processes and how they are related, in many ways their significance in the overall system still remains quite obscure.

The knowledge derived from this research has contributed to the rationalisation and perfecting of beekeeping. Today more than ever, human beings control and exploit the various aspects of the living being that is a bee colony.

The rediscovery of unity

It is the love of bees that unites all beekeepers. Regardless of their methods, they are all fascinated by the mysterious processes that take place in the colony. In 1923, Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures in which he spoke of bees and their relationship to human beings. As a complete, unified organism, the colony should be allowed to multiply by swarming to build its own combs naturally and without partitions, and to select its queen from within its own population. Natural beekeeping is respectful of nature and works with these three basic impulses, as do Demeter beekeepers. Beekeeping that respects nature is characterised by its taking the bees’ needs and possibilities into account. Current research confirms that bee colonies are strengthened if these elementary impulses are taken into consideration. 

Swarming is healthy. A swarm of bees in central Switzerland.

Swarming, a fountain of youth

Swarming can be understood as the death of the former colony, which abandons hive, combs, brood and all provisions, in just the same way as the human soul leaves the body. At the same time, it is also a preparation for the birth of a new colony, which takes place at the exact moment when the swarm finds a hollow place in nature, or is relocated by a beekeeper in a new hive. The bees that left with the old queen to found a new colony complete their life cycle after thirty days. The colony is completely renewed. The old queen, who continues to live in the young colony – carefully depositing her eggs in the cells of the comb – can reach 5 years of age.

While preparing to swarm, the physiology of the colony changes. The old queen receives protein-poor food and stops laying eggs. The workers fill their stomachs with honey and activate their wax glands. After entering the new hive, without hesitation the workers build combs as white as snow. Young colonies love to build! Anyone who has observed this process understands that the comb is the colony’s skeleton. It is formed like the bones in mammals, individually and out of its own substance.

Amidst the bees that remained in the old hive, the young queen matures for a few days after hatching before undertaking her nuptial flight. High in the air, facing the sun, she is fertilized by a dozen drones. The drones then die. Only after the nuptial flight does the queen begin to lay eggs. For the rest of her life, she has enough supplies of sperm to fertilize her eggs.

The advantages of natural swarm reproduction

We now know that swarming is a hygienic and therefore healing event. Both the ‘abandoned’ colony and the young colony that has found a new home pass through an initial period without laying. In the colony left behind, the young queen can only lay eggs after her nuptial flight. In the young colony, combs have first to be constructed before the queen can lay her eggs. Because many diseases can develop in the brood, this period is critical to the health and hygiene of the colonies.

Natural comb building

The construction of combs by the bees themselves is used by beekeepers to sanitise colonies affected by European or American foulbrood. Secreting wax and building combs make for healthy colonies.

Queens from the within a colony

The formation of new colonies with their own queens, fertilized by natural and local nuptial flight, rather than artificial selection, beneficially influences colony health. Firstly by significantly contributing to the maintenance of genetic diversity. But in the longer term, over several generations, by helping colonies to adapt to the specific environmental conditions of their habitat. As with all other living beings, so here too, variation and adaptation are the prerequisites and guarantors of successful evolution. Queens born of their own colony are therefore the best suited. They do not dominate, but adapt harmoniously to the needs, laws and intentions of their colony.

Beekeeping is the key

Today, the goal of all farmers, consumers and authorities, is to breed domestic animals in ways that are as respectful of their species as possible. The breeding of cows, chickens and pigs is already very close to this goal. For the well-being and sustainable health of bees, we must make similar progress. Of course, not all the bees’ problems will be solved by nature-friendly farming – lack of floral diversity, pesticides, monocultures, etc., will continue to harm colonies. However, if out of deep empathy we improve the well-being of bees, if colonies are allowed to maintain their basic innate behaviours, such as swarming, comb building and the natural selection of queens, this will do much for the sustainable improvement of their health and that of their progeny.

Dr. Johannes Wirz, biologist

Donate Online
  • 100,000 km
    One pound of honey requires 50,000 bee-flights. If the bee-meadow is 1km away, this represents 100,000 km for one pot of honey.

  • 50 mg
    Each bee-flight transports 50 mg of nectar. This gives 10 mg of honey.

  • 125,000
    For every 100 g of wax, 125,000 wax flakes must be secreted from the glands of bees.

  • 1.5 million km
    A colony’s comb building needs about 1200 g of wax. To do this, it takes about 7.5 kg of honey, 1.5 million km of bee-flight.

  • 30
    Summer bees live for about 30 days, winter bees about 7 months.

  • 200,000
    During an entire season, a healthy colony gives birth to 200,000 bees.

  • 2,000
    The queen lays from 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day, the equivalent of her own weight.