A Behaviour of Honey Bees
I first noticed this behaviour, not by observing it first hand, but by finding polished depressions in parts of frames of drawn comb and wondering why. What I noticed were depressions shaped rather like the bowl of a desert spoon and it was obvious that at some point the area of cells had been normal comb as the traces of cell bottoms and cell walls were still present although somewhat smeared out and more and more flattened towards the centre of the depression.
It was a couple of years after noticing the depressions that I first saw balling actually occurring and because I pushed the balling mass with my finger I found out they were doing this in a depression like I had seen before, because of this I used the term 'queen balling arena' to describe the depressions, however such references were only mental ones as I did not write up my findings.
Since then I have seen queen balling many times, but not always taking place in the arenas or depressions. I believe it is a behaviour that is more commonplace than people recognise and my reasoning is due to the existence of the depressions and their polished appearance, which I put down to repeated use by the bees and the fact that when balling is actually occurring the action is a feverish writhing that would cause much rubbing of bees against the comb and maintain the shine.
There seems to be several different reasons for queen balling and reading what little literature there is on the subject is of little help as the writers have seen little and made interpretations of what they think they have seen, I have to admit that much of what I am saying is also conjecture rather than scientific knowledge gained by experiment, but it would seem that I have seen more of the activity than others describe, as some claim to have seen it only twice in a lifetime, yet I have seen it around a couple of dozen times. Most people think it abnormal, but however frequently it occurs, it must have a cause or reason.
Wedmore, in a Manual of Beekeeping says...
Balling of Queen
56. In certain circumstances worker bees crowd round and enclose the queen. This is believed to be a panicky attempt to protect her. It is liable to occur if the queen is frightened. It is most likely to occur during or following manipulation in the spring in poor weather when stores are short, in small lots, and during robbing; in other words, in time of stress and at times when the queen could not be replaced by the bees. Old bees, long queenless, are liable to ball a new queen on introduction, or a virgin queen on her return to the hive. 57. When balling, the bees form a ball with the queen at the centre. Balling is accompanied by a distinctive hissing sound in the note of the colony. The ball will become tighter if the operator endeavours to break it by hand or by the application of smoke, and the queen will probably be damaged or even suffocated. If balling is seen, close the hive at once, if practicable, and await more favourable circumstances. The ball can be broken up by dipping in water, but the queen should then be caged for a time, and the condition of the stock seen to. 58. To avoid balling make the minimum of disturbance in the spring, making any necessary full examination when honey is coming in or after feeding, and stop if, signs of balling, occur. The more excitable dark races are the most likely to ball their queen.
Brother Adam pointed out that balling is an 'everyday occurrence' with the Tellian bee A. m. intermissa and since many of our mongrel bees have been derived from this source or contain it's genes, it seems that the observation made by Wedmore about the dark bees could be correct. However I noticed this behaviour more in my own bees when I started my beekeeping, at which time I was in favour of Italian hybrid bees... Later as my ideas progressed and I refined my selection along A. m. mellifera lines, I noticed it far less although my observation skills were not diminished.
As far as disturbing a balling cluster goes I have had roughly equal occasions when the bees have dispersed easily and others where they have balled in a more determined fashion. I am less inclined to attribute the behaviour to spring than Wedmore and I cannot link the behaviour to the hissing noise mentioned, but that could easily be poor observation on my part, as I was not actually looking for it.
Introduction of new queens has been cited as being a possible cause, balling is associated with new queens, especially in the settling down period after introduction, but the behaviour that I have seen where workers crowd a queen cage, it not the same as that of balling, it seems aggressive and is accompanied by much biting of wire mesh cage screens, but the milling about is not present and the clustering is not as tight.
Balling is mostly considered as some sort of attack on the queen, but it could also be considered as shielding the queen from some possible attacker(s). In fact it is possible that both alternatives could be true under different circumstances. Some texts consider the death of the balled queen is a certainty, but I have seen queens that have been balled on serial occasions, they were noted as being practically hairless, black and shiny, whether that was as a result of balling I do not know because it could equally have been a defect in the queen that caused the shiny hairless appearance and the defect itself may have been the reason for balling.
Balling of hornets... The Eastern honeybee, Apis cerana has evolved in regions where hornets are common and according to Steve Martin (lecture to the CABK) the bees have developed a severe balling behaviour as a defence against hornets. This activity raises the temperature of the hornet beyond which it can survive. Whether this mechanism translates to A. mellifera is a matter for conjecture.
At the end of a page like this it would be normal to draw conclusions from what has been written, however this topic is so little known, so little understood and practically unstudied in the past, that I am reluctant to make any such conclusions, perhaps more study is required, but as research institutes dwindle in number and become progressively more poorly funded, I fear no such work will be undertaken, unless by loosely knit individuals like the Santa Group.
Since writing this page, some or all of it has been reproduced in BBKA news and I received the following mail from a young lady named Elaine and is reproduced here with her permission.
Date: 1 Aug 2008 11:53
Subject: balling of hornet
Dear Mr Dave
Very interested in your article in BBKA news related to queen balling.
Two years ago in early spring I found a cluster of bees about the size of a bantam egg rolling about in the grass directly behind one of my hives. Tickling with grass and a little smoke revealed a queen hornet, not dead, but very much the worse for wear which I dispatched. The bees were very calm with me and having satisfied themselves that the threat was passed by crawling over the corpse, when about their normal lives.
My conjecture was that the queen hornet (built like a ten ton truck !) had been exploring the space between the reversed floor and the varroa mesh presumably with nest site in mind.
I was amazed that the bees had responded so vigorously especially as this was a very docile yellow strain (NZ originally) which often lets bumble bees in for a free lunch !
I have never seen balling of queens although I have suspected it when introductions of yellow queens into my dark strain hives have failed. The darker bees do tend to crowd the queen cage very aggressively. The reverse introduction dark queen to yellow colony is never a problem. I do find, however that liberally smearing the outside of the queen cage with honey does improve results. Presumably as the workers lap it up they may be induced to feed the queen at the same time so starting the acceptance process.
Best regards Elaine
As an observant beekeeper of over 50 years experience, with a fairly large number of colonies, I have very rarely seen "balling" and then only when I tried to introduce a queen directly. I don't think I have missed it. I'm wondering if the handling of the colony or queen induces it. R.P.