Apis mellifera on Senegalia mellifera. During the dry season a little swarm of African honey bees congregated into this neat packed conformation on a fallen acacia tree, pretendedly busy moving amongst themselves and buzzing away. So why the shared species name? well, “mellifera” translates to honey-bearing, in the honey bee of course referring to the yummy sugar-rich combs of golden goop, and in the acacia referring to the sweet odor of nectar when in blossom. Such a sweet name for a ball of stings on a matrix of recurved thorns! (just kidding, they are both wonderful and lovable organisms… as long as you don’t get stuck in them :P).
Swarming in honey bees is spectacular to see and is a crucial part of their reproductive cycle. In preparation for colony fission, the queen bee lays eggs into “queen cups,” which house the developing future queen larvae. Worker bees feed the larvae with large amounts of what is called “royal jelly”, a substance secreted from the pharyngeal glands of workers. Interestingly, caste-status of female eggs is not predetermined, and this protein-rich diet triggers the development of ovaries and queen morphology. Because queens in the reproductive state are physogastric (have a swollen abdomen full of eggs) and cannot fly well, workers starve her prior to swarming so egg production will cease. Workers begin to ‘harass’ and pester the queen until she disperses from the colony. By this time, scouts have already found a suitable temporary location for the queen and congregate nearby, thousands of workers piling around her for protection. This period of time is vulnerable for colony as they are exposed and their internal food reserves will only continue to deplete. More scouts will hurriedly search for just the right spot for colony foundation, and eventually the swarm will move onwards to their new home. In Kenya, I was also able to locate a handful of active hives, all concealed in crevices of large rocky outcrops along the escarpment.