By: Scott Souders
In all the places I have lived, it seems there is always one house somewhere nearby with way too many people living there. Neighbors probably thought the same about my house growing up with eight of us, and just as many cars, sometimes parked out front!
In my apiaries I have witnessed a similar imbalance at times. Some colonies grow larger with bees gained from neighboring colonies, while other colonies grow weaker as they lose their populations. Beekeepers attribute this to “drifting” and try to avoid creating conditions that cause it. Honeybee drift is common when hives are located close to each other but can also occur over greater distances.
Several factors can play into why a bee ends up at a different hive and is allowed entrance or permitted to stay. Sometimes it is accidental. Ever watched a slow motion video of foraging bees coming in for a landing full of nectar and pollen? It can be quite comical – bees bobbing around, looking drunk and unsteady, and running into each other while trying to land. Hard enough when they’re at the right door. Now add some prevailing winds to the mix and suddenly they’re on another porch!
Long lines of hives tends to encourage drifting.
Bees fulfilling a guard role are usually the first to greet drifters. Chemical signals on the drifting bee with a close match to the guard bees own hive, can pass the test and in they go. Available resources can also be a factor. Full resources in the hive can give some complacency to the guards, whereas an in inadequate supply of pollen and nectar availability in the forage area can lead to guards challenging more and aggressively defending what resources they already have. Foragers bringing much needed resources to a foreign hive are also apt to be admitted. Once inside a new hive, a drifting bee begins to take on the pheromones and chemical signals of the new hive thus being less likely to be challenged on subsequent foraging trips.
Sometimes bees will leave one colony behind and move to another on purpose. Pests and diseases may trigger a population of bees to abandon their colony and seek out another. Accepting these drifting bees into a healthy colony could then spread those same pests and diseases. This is a good reason to try and prevent drifting.
According to many studies, worker bees tend to drift more during their orientation flights and before foraging regularly. Drones seem to drift much more frequently than workers. When raising queens, drifting can be a big concern. Queens returning from mating flights risk entering colonies that already have a queen if unable to locate their own colony. This could lead to a potential loss of a queen should a fight ensue.
So how can you help prevent bees drifting into other colonies? One way is by controlling the placement of hives. Long straight lines can make it difficult for bees whose colonies are situated in the middle; distinguishing which one is theirs when the hives look the same. While placing hives in lines may be aesthetically pleasing to the eyes and can provide for simplified maintenance paths (both of which the author is guilty as charged for implementing,) foraging bees can over time drift towards the hives nearest to the ends as they are easier to identify. Steps can be taken to break up the pattern presented to foraging bees by painting neighboring hives with different and contrasting colors; breaking the line with gaps between groups of hives or using natural landmarks to break up the line. Anything to provide a reference point for the bees to locate their home.
A couple of years back I was experiencing a drifting issue with a run of five hives. Placing an upright section of a log cut from a downed tree in front of the middle hive made all the difference and remedied the issue. If mitigation efforts are exhausted and don’t seem to be working with drifting taking place consistently one-way, use the stronger colony to manually balance your apiary out by supplying weaker colonies with its resources. In other words, share frames of bees.
If you’re interested in seeing what drifting may look like in your own apiary here is a simple experiment to conduct in the spring. Take a queen marker pen and mark a few dozen drones. Over the following days and weeks you may see the drones show up in nearby colonies. Some may even show up in a nearby beekeepers colonies. Reach out to them and let them know to be on the lookout and give you some feedback if they see your drones. Numerous studies have been conducted on the topic of drifting. So many in fact that listing a few here would seem to be an injustice to the others. The experiments taking on pairs of hives vs. rows of hives, different hive formations, entrances that are offset or different colors and orientation - direction of drift as relative to the compass, propensity to spread diseases or parasites, drone vs. worker drift, and age of drifting bees are just a few examples. Charts, diagrams, percentages and lots of bedtime reading can to be found.
Like all things beekeeping - yep you guessed it - lots of differing results and opinions! That is not to say that there can’t be some truth in all of them. At the end of the day being a good steward to the little ladies in your charge by paying attention to what is going on both inside and outside your hives - understanding what you see and what that means for the near future of your colonies, then you can take steps to mitigate drifting in your yards.