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Colony Decisions

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"Whether beasts think or not, it is positive that they conduct themselves in thousands of occasions as if they did think; the illusion in this matter, if it be an illusion, was well arranged for us. But without intending to touch upon this great question, and whatever be the cause let us for a moment surrender ourselves to appearances and use every day language."--Jean Jacques d'Ortous de Mairan, 18th century naturalist, quoted by Francis Huber in New Observations on Bees

I've been thinking about this for some time, but a presentation by Tom Seeley on swarms finding a home at a KHPA meeting and two days (and late into the night) of talking to Walt Wright has crystallized some of those thoughts.

In my observation, one of the things that slows things down with bees is when the colony needs to make a decision. This could be as simple as which way the winter cluster wants to go to find some stores or whether to start drawing on some plastic foundation or move through an excluder or move into comb honey sections. In many situations opposite strategies on the part of the beekeeper can have the same results because the proper decision was clear, where something more moderate can have poor results because of indecision.

Take something that most people have seen, like trying to get bees through an excluder. If the bees have room in the bottom they don't seem to want to cross it. But if you crowd them they have no real choice. Once they make up their mind, the cross it without any thought.

I saw Dr. Thomas Seeley do a presentation on how bees decide where to go when they swarm. It's pretty much a matter of coming to a consensus and that takes time.

Another example is deeps, Dadant deeps and mediums. With mediums they never seem to hesitate to move up or down a box if they need the room. With deeps they often get stuck in one box and don't want to move up or down. With Dadant deeps they have enough room they don't need to move up or down. I find I have better results with either the Dadant deep, where they don't need to decide, or the medium where the decision is pretty much required.

I think this is the cause of the enthusiasm (and speed) with which they draw their own comb compared to drawing foundation of any type and especially plastic. They know what they want to build but they have to come to terms with making a decision as to what to do with this sheet of foundation.

I think this is often why people doing opposite things have similar results. Once the bees have made up their mind they do things quickly. If they have to come to a consensus, it takes time. A cluster in a long medium hive has only one way to go, sideways. A cluster in an eight frame vertical hive has only one way to go if they are at the bottom, up. If they are at the top, down.

I think we beekeepers often give the bees too many decisions to make. How many have seen a cluster in the midst of stores with a gap all around them that didn't move to stores? I think they just couldn't decide.

Indecision requires a lot of energy and wasted time for the bees. Sometimes this just sets them back and sometimes it even gets them killed. As beekeepers we need to be aware of this and use it to our advantage and avoid it working to the bees' disadvantage.

Michael Bush

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Copyright 2006 by Michael Bush

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