Container Gardening
Image by Tim Kennelty

Learn about container gardening on Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley

Episode 22: Container Gardening

Container Gardening is more than just using thrillers, fillers and spillers. Learn all about it from Master Gardener Volunteer, Linda Levitt, to create beautiful containers for your home garden. Then, join Teresa Golden as she talks about brassicas (The Veggie Patch).And they hear about honey bee swarms with Linda Aydlett (The Hum of the Hive). There’s something for everyone in this episode.

Hosts: Tim Kennelty and Jean Thomas

Guest: Linda Levitt

Photo by: Tim Kennelty

Production Support: Linda Aydlett and Teresa Golden


Container Gardening: Microsoft Word - Fscntr.doc ( ; Container Gardens - 7.238 - Extension (

Brassicas (The Veggie Patch with Teresa Golden): Cabbage | Cooperative Extension | University of Delaware ( ;

Broccoli | Cooperative Extension | University of Delaware ( ; Brussel Sprouts | Cooperative Extension | University of Delaware ( ; Cauliflower | Cooperative Extension | University of Delaware ( ; Explore Cornell - Home Gardening - Vegetable Growing Guides

Hum of the Hive (with Linda Aydlett):Seeley, Thomas (2010). Honeybee Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press. ISBN: 978-0691147215.; Seeley, Thomas (2010). Honeybee Democracy – recorded lecture; Seeley, Thomas (2009). The wisdom of the hive: the social physiology of honey bee colonies. Harvard University Press. ISBN: 978-0674953765.


Welcome to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Our team's goal is to present science based information about gardening and all things nature in New York's Hudson Valley. Hosts Jean and Tim, along with team members, Teresa: and Linda, are Master Gardener Volunteers for New York's Columbia and Greene counties. So if you're interested in gardening or nature or nuggets of information about what's happening outside your door, settle in, enjoy the conversation. Whatever the season, we have something to say.

Musical segue

Tim: Hi, I'm Tim Kennelty.


And I'm Jean Thomas,

Tim: And welcome to another episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Today our guest is Master Gardener Volunteer, Linda Levitt. Linda, who also contributes with a regular segment called Flower Power is here to talk to us today about container gardening.

Jean: I'm fortunate enough to be friends with Linda and she's given me some great tips about container gardening. Because it's not just throwing some dirt and plants in a pot, there's a lot to consider.

Tim: I do just throw dirt in a pot sometimes. But there are things that you need to consider. And Linda talks about the size of the pot, the location, what type of soil to use, all those things.

Jean: And she goes on beyond the old classic of a spike, a geranium, and a vinca major, like you see it all the restaurants and roadside places, back to 1950.

Tim: Yeah, I've had containers like that. And when you're choosing plants, you really want to consider things like light requirements, height and leaf color, flower color. And she talks a lot about texture to it's something really good to think about different textures in your container.

Jean: And it's interesting how when you consider all these things, you don't have to water as often if you thought it out ahead of time.

Tim: Hmmm, it's always good to think ahead of time. And kind of along the same lines Teresa's back with The Veggie Patch.

Jean: Teresa's always at the perfect time today we're talking about brassicas, which just about anybody can grow. So they're a great starter crop.

Tim: You know, we used to call these vegetables green stinkies at my house, but I love brassicas even though we call them things like broccoli and cabbage and cauliflower and brussels sprouts all really, really healthy and good for you.

Jean: And I have a note here that you can eat most of them. You can eat the whole darn plant.

Tim: I like that that's very economical, right?

Jean: Yeah, you don't have anything throw away.

Tim: And they have different cultural requirements, but they're really easy to grow. So I can't wait to hear about that.

Jean: That's going to be exciting, because to me, they look like a bunch of different versions of cabbage.

Tim: Green stinkies.

Jean: And Linda's back

Tim: With Hum of the Hive. It's our favorite, right? Yeah. Which is talking about swarm. Yeah, it's got Bradford Dillman from one of those horror movies, right? But no, they're actually really good. It's not a horror movie swarms happen to be good. Linda tells us

Jean: I had to have them show up in my yard, at different times. And I sold them both into servitude.

Tim: Yeah, I didn't. You know, I didn't know that honeybees, when they're swarming are actually less aggressive because they're actually looking to form a new hive.

Jean: And they're all full before they even takeoff.

Tim: She's also going to talk about things called the superorganism and a honeybee democracy. I think we all need a little honeybee democracy, right?

Jean: I don't know how they do it because people certainly can't.

Tim: Looking forward to that one.

Jean: Yeah, we're gonna have to sit ourselves down and listen in.

Musical segue

Jean: Welcome back to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. We're your host, Jean Thomas.

Teresa: And Teresa Golden.

Jean: Today we'll be talking with Linda Levitt about container gardening. Welcome, Linda.

Linda Levitt: Thank you, Jane and Teresa. Now, Linda, you're our container expert among the Master Gardeners.

Jean: Could you explain how you acquire that title?

Linda Levitt: Well, it's interesting because our yard is full of animals, deer, rabbits, wood chucks and I decided that I needed to do something to combat that because I couldn't have any flowers in the garden because they were eat everything. So I started using containers up against the house. Believe it or not, last year, they started coming up on the deck and eating those two so I guess I didn't win in that. But also the other thing too, is I like to change every year. I like to change color schemes, I like to introduce new plants to experiment. And with containers, you can do that. You don't plan it in the garden, you're able to change it from year to year. So that's really how I got started on it.

Teresa: So let's start with the basics. I suspect that a container garden is a bit more complicated than simply tossing some dirt into a pot and stuffing in a few plants that look pretty together. So let's start with how do you select the perfect container?

Linda Levitt: Well, what you have to do is you have to start with what is your spacing? Is it up against the house? Is it out in the garden, and where is it and then what happens is what is my light? If it's in the driveway, obviously, you don't want it a metal container, because it's going to absorb the heat, and you're going to need the water like all the time. So what you need to do is you have to figure out that first of all, the container has to hold the soil securely. So whatever you're going to use, make sure that the soil is able to stay in the container securely, and it must be watertight. But you have to have proper drainage. If you have wood containers especially, make sure it can resist rot and corrosion. So you have to be careful with that. In fact, a wood container, you might want to line with a plastic liner so that way, but still put drainage holes in it or drainage, however you want to use it. You also want to look at your space requirements. As I mentioned, you don't want a container that's too large, and it's very small space. And what were the temperature changes be? This is what I was talking about, are you leaving it out for the winter, are you putting it in the driveway. Now one of the things that works very well, if you're, if you don't want to move the containers, you're going to want to have a composite or some kind of plastic container that can withstand the winter weather. If you put in terracotta or a glazed pot of any sort, what's going to happen is if you leave it out in the wintertime, it's going to crack with the frost back and forth. So you have to be really careful. The other thing too is the weight, you obviously don't want a cement container if you're going to try and move it. And that's really, really important. So you have to be careful with that. But if it's too light. is it going to get blown over with the wind? So that is something to consider too. If it's too dark, as I mentioned, you know, and it's in your driveway, it's going to be a problem for watering and things like that. So you have to be careful with the color and of course the material. And so those are really how you choose it. Glazed pottery will crack in the winter, as I mentioned. And so you have to be real careful when you do that. Terracotta is probably my least favorite only because you have to water it all the time and it will absorb the water away from the plant. So you have to be careful with that. So basically, that's how you would select your container.

Jean: Okay, so now you've selected your container, how do you get it ready for actually planting.

Linda Levitt: So what happens is if obviously, if it's a brand new container, it's pretty clean. But if you do want to clean it and make sure it's absolutely disease or insect free, you will clean a container with five parts of water and one part of bleach. You must get the container ready by putting in if it's a composite like a plastic container, you might want to drill holes in the bottom for drainage. And if you're unable to do that, what I've done in the past is I've used either stone in the bottom or I've used a cracked terracotta pot. And for those you know, you can take a terracotta pot, break it in two and just put it and use it at the bottom for drainage. The other thing I've done is if the pots are really, really large, I've taken a really inexpensive plastic pot, turned it upside down to take up space. But make sure that I have holes in the turnover pot to make sure that you get your drainage. But that will take up space because people ask me a lot how do you take up space in a large container and that's one of the ways I do that.

Jean: I know that when they call it dummying up. There's a reason I know that one.

Linda Levitt: The mistake I made one years I put logs in the bottom and of course I guess the good thing was it rotted and it was natural mulch. However it rotted so everything started to sink so that that really wasn't good. What you're going to do is you're going to cover the drainage, whether it's just holes or the stone or whatever you're using, you're going to want to cover it with a piece of landscape cloth, a screen or some burlap to keep the soil from going out the bottom and losing your soil during the season. If you're unable to empty the pot from the previous year, and I use my pots over and over year to year, I at least take out 1/3 of the soil and I put brand new soil in because you want the nutrients from the new soil to you know to nourish the plants. So what I do is I just take out that soil and I use it in the compost bin or I use it in a new container. I'll put that at the bottom and then put new soil on top. So that's how you're gonna get your containers ready for planting.

Teresa: As gardeners we all know the importance of soil. So how do you select the right kind of soil for your container?

Linda Levitt: Well, the best thing to do is you're not going to want to use garden soil. You're not going to go into your vegetable garden and dig out some soil because it's going Need to compact really easily. And the other thing too is does it have enough nutrients. The one thing about us planting our containers probably, you know now coming up in the spring and lasting through through the summer is that we we really want nutrients in there. And if you have compacted soil that comes from the garden, it's probably not going to have the nutrients. So the best thing you want to do is probably go to your garden center and get some really nice sterile potting soil. And there's so many out there to choose from. And so you could just make sure that you want to do that. That's that's got a mixture of not only soil, but different perlite and different things that's going to keep your moisture in and also your nutrients. T the soil is going to be sterile, also in the bag. And that's really very important. You don't want to introduce any kind of insects or bugs or any kind of plant disease so that you want to start with sterile soil. And it also offers really good air and drainage. So the, your best bet is to just go to the to the market and get yourself some bagged soil.

Jean: Okay, so I've got my bagged soil and my container, and everything's lined like it's supposed to be. Now what?

Linda Levitt: So before you plant, this is the steps that I usually take. First of all the plants that you're going to put into the container, you're going to want to water them thoroughly before you put them in the pot, you're going to fill the container about 80% with the soil. And the potting mix that you're going to use that we just talked about should be moist, but not wet. You don't want it to be super dry. So if your bag of soil is very dry, you're going to want to pour some water and mix it around and make sure that it has a dampness to it. But not like mud, you certainly don't want to use it if it's muddy. You're going to remove the plants from the pots. Now be careful with this because you're going to want to push them out of the out of the pot. Rather than pulling Do not pull the plants out, they're going to break the root systems and things like that. However, when you do take them out of the pot, you're going to want to loosen the roots with your fingers, a fork or a slice with a you know you're going to slice it with a sharp knife or a sterile gardening tool. So you're going to want to start you're going to want to stimulate the roots and make sure that they're ready to go. So just don't take it out of the pot, kind of mix them around. And the best tool in your bag is your hands.

Jean: Amen.

Teresa: So let's back up a bit. How do you pick your plants?

Linda Levitt: Well, the first thing you have to do is you're going to figure out where am I putting this pot. You're going to have to make sure that you are going to have sunny, if it's a sunny location, you're going to want sunny sunny plants. If you have a shade location, you're going to definitely want to make sure that all plants tolerate shade. When you go to the garden center, you're going to find that they have a little tag that says you know this needs sun it needs water it needs so it's going to tell you all the different characteristics of that particular plant's needs. So be careful with that. So you go to the garden center, you pick your plants based on a couple of different things. One is height, you're going to want to put a plant that has some height to it, you're going to plant a plant that's going to fill in in the middle and you're going to want to plant that's going to spill over the sides. We call that spiller, filler and thriller. So your thriller is going to be your focal point it's going to be a tall plant. It's going to be a bold plant, it's going to be something that's going to really catch your eye. The thing about the filler is you're going to want to have a gradual descent from the top plant to the bottom plant. As opposed to I've done this before, I've had a really tall plant and a really short plant and there's nothing in between and it doesn't look as well. So you're gonna want to have a gradual, gradual descent down from the top to the bottom. So what I've done in the past is I've either matched color, or I've either matched leaf texture. And what I find is the best colors together in a pot are burgundy, lime green, and orange. They look absolutely terrific together. And a lot of times I will match the color of the leaf with the color of the flower. Where sometimes I'll match the color of the flower to another coordinating color. So there's a lot of different things, be creative. Use your use your you know imagination and figure out what works well together. You'd be surprised at the number of plants that do very well together that you wouldn't think. So what you're going to want to do is make sure not only are you are you coordinating color, but you're also doing you're also working with texture. Texture is very, very important in that you are roughly leaf leaf that's very smooth. It's really quite interesting. And what a lot of times I've done is I've actually put vegetable plants within my containers. I've also used annuals,perennials, and if you use perennials in your container, what you're going to find is at the end of the season, you just plop it in your garden and you've not wasted the money by buying, because perennials tend to be a little bit more expensive. So that's, you know, it's really just use your imagination and you'd be surprised. But again, I think that burgundy works extremely well with the color orange. The other thing too, is you want to use grasses. If you can incorporate some kind of grass into your container, what happens is the grass has a lot of movement. So in the wind, it kind of it kind of moves with the wind and it looks really nice. So a lot of times I will use grasses. The other thing too by using a grass is come the fall, the grass is still alive. It's probably at its peak at that point. And then what I do is remove the summer plants, put in Fall plantings, and now I've got half of my container done because I've got the grass and the fall plants in the same thing and it works really well.

Jean: Okay, now I've got the basics and I know what plants and your back to the idiot five year old that's me, who yanks the plant out of the pot and stuffs in the thingy. So now I know not to do that. How do I actually plant the containers now that I've got all my decisions made like a grown up.

Linda Levitt: Okay, first of all, despite the fact that the garden centers might be open, what you want to do is make sure that you plant your containers after the danger of frost is gone. You have to be careful because a lot of these annual plants cannot handle a frost. Pansies, yes, we can. So right now I've got pansies in my pot. But what you need to know is that you most animals cannot handle frost. So you're going to make sure you wait I usually typically wait until Memorial Day weekend in order to plant my pots. The root ball of the plant should sit about one to three inches below the rim of the pot, you're going to want to make sure that you have this well around the edge of the pot to make sure that your water doesn't pour off to the side. So you're going to want to make sure you do that, you planted a little bit below the rim of the pot. The other thing too is you're going to if you have a pot that's going to be viewed from all different sides, you know, you're going to look at it from all different directions, you're going to want to start planting in the center and work your way out. And then if you're going to have the pot up against a wall, you're going to start from the back and work towards the front. So you're going to probably put your largest plants in first filling in with the smaller plants and obviously putting your spiller plants that are going to cascade down the side, you're going to want to put them in last. And so that's how you would how you would start doing it. You're going to then pour in the soil, tamping it down gently. You don't want to press it down really hard. I saw somebody tamping down with their foot and that was not me. That's not a good idea. So you're going to want to just make sure that you're filling in the spaces leaving no air, but don't overdo it. So as I mentioned, you're going to leave one to two inches of the top of the pot for water reservoir, you don't want it spilling over on the side. And the first this is really important. The first watering should be a fine spray, rather than a pour until your water seeps through the bottom. So what's going to happen is you're going to find that when you're using a fine spray, it's going to take a while before it gets to the bottom of the pot, but you want to make sure that the first watering is very fine because your root systems are not stable at this point. And you're going to want to make sure that it goes out the bottom so that you can get a thorough watering.

Teresa: All right, so let's think about some problems unique to containers. And I'm thinking the maintenance associated with containers has to be a little bit more complicated than perhaps when you have plants in the ground.

Linda Levitt: Well certainly when you have containers you realize that you're going to have to water more especially in during the summer months when it's hot, hot and really dry. The general rule is as far as watering is concerned as you've got to water and when they're dry down to a couple of inches. So what's going to happen is you know, stick your finger in the top and see if it's still dry like down a couple of inches. And if it is you're going to have to water it I find that a lot of times during the summer I'm watering the pots like every day especially really really late July and August and all of a sudden you'll see the plants just wilting and I said okay, I've got to get out in water. If possible, use water with less salt content. I have found that the water that we have in the house is got some salt content to it and the way you can tell that is there's a deposit on the top of the soil and have like a white composite sitting on top so you have to be careful so if you can I take bowls and I put them out when it's raining and I fill them up with a water and I try to use those for my containers the fertilizer. You may not need to fertilize during the summer time only because the season is short. The potting soil usually has a lot of nutrients in it and I really never fertilize my my containers for those plants that have flower heads on them that are dying. What you're going to want to do is you're going to want to remove the dead flowers and the dead leaves if necessary to encourage more blooming. One of the plants that works really well that you don't have to really fuss with are the super bells. There are the really tiny what you'd call like the small, very small petunias. And when I was at the garden center the other day, there's a new variety called Million Bells, and they're even smaller than the super bells. So I find that I never have to deadhead them, and they're really easy and they're a great speller in a container and come in many different colors. Just a thought.

Jean: Okay, I've got a lot of thoughts going on. Now one more question. I see some containers used year after year. You said you reuse a lot what if you want to reuse a container or what if you want to winter something over like if you've got a little evergreen tree or something. Temperatures the issue, no?

Linda Levitt: Yes, I have very successfully overwintered a plant called a false by Ria. I think this is like the sixth the year that I've had it and I it stays out all winter long. The pot is a composite pot so that it can take the the thawing and freezing, and I have used regular potting soil. And believe it or not, I've only fertilized it once or twice, and it still does really well. But here's the thing, the pot has to be at least two feet wide and three feet tall. And if that is the case, you prevent from falling and freezing in the root system. But if you want to really protect it, you take your fallen leaves, put them in a big garbage bag and insulate the pot by putting the the fallen leaves in the bags around the pot and surround it so that it will protect it somewhat. But I will say that I've also had roses in pots. And unfortunately this year I lost it. But it was at least three years that I had the roses in the pots and I covered them with burlap. I also put a layer of mulch on top. So I really put like three or four inches of mulch on the top of the thing. And I also cover the root system with the mulch to make sure it just insulates it a little bit more.

Jean: So for rose, it can be worth it.

Linda Levitt: It can.

Jean: Yeah, as long as you know that the rose was worth it.

Linda Levitt: The rose was worth it. And to get three years. I mean, when you look at the price of the plant, it was probably about $30 And so you figure three years $10 You got your money's worth, I think.

Jean: The work was worth it.

Linda Levitt: It was.

Jean: Okay, that sounds perfect. Well, I think you've covered everything that we can screw up. I don't know I've got kind of a talent for that. But I appreciate your coming and giving us the time and we will be asking you back because you know I'm going to screw something else up.

Linda Levitt: Well thank you. I'll be more than happy to come back and help.

Jean: Thank you.

You're listening to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley.

Stay tuned for The Veggie Patch

Teresa: It's time again for The Veggie Patch. I'm Teresa Golden and today's topic is brassicas. When you were a child, I suspect you were reminded to eat your vegetables. And I suspect one of the vegetables on your plate was either broccoli or cauliflower. They are both members of a group of plants called brassica, which also includes things like cabbage and mustard plants. You might associate brassica with cool weather and root cellars. But this family of easy to prepare veggies has something to offer year round. Brassicas are among the most cultivated foods in the world, and some of the most nutritious ones you can eat. The genus is native to western Europe, the Mediterranean and temperate regions of Asia. The flowers, seeds, stalks and tender leaves of most species of brassica can be eaten raw or cooked. Many parts of some species have been developed for food, including the turnip route, the kohlrabi stems, cabbage and kale leaves, cauliflower and broccoli flowers and Brussel sprouts buds. A dislike for cabbage or broccoli results from a compound in these plants, which can be perceived as either bitter or tasteless to people depending on their taste buds. That said brassica vegetables contain a range of health benefits, like Vitamin C, Vitamin K, beta carotene, manganese insoluble fiber. So let's dive deeper into some of the more common varieties.

Teresa: Broccoli is an edible bright green or purple plant we The flowery head, sturdy stock and nutrient dense leaves. Broccoli can be eaten in its entirety and prepared in a myriad of ways. Raw, roasted, steamed, sautéed and even battered and fried. Enjoy a chapter up in a salad. Steamed for a quick snack, pureed into a pasta sauce are roasted and served over lentils, rice, quinoa or other greens with a drizzle of olive oil. Sound yummy? Broccoli prefers to be grown in full sun and well-drained soil rich and organic matter, but it thrives in cool weather. In warm weather, it is more tolerant of shade. Five to seven week transplants can be set out four weeks prior to the last frost date. To deter insects, you can cover seedlings with a floating row cover and mulch them with compost when plants are about six inches tall. The plants are shallow rooted and thus dry out quickly. So keep them well watered throughout the season. Gather broccoli when the heads are five to 10 inches across while the buds are still green and tight, before they turn yellow or open into flowers. Cut them 46 inches below the flower heads. Note that some varieties will grow smaller heads on their side shoots, extending your harvest until a hard frost. After harvesting, you can soak broccoli heads in cold water until you use them. This will force out any insects and keep the flavor fresh. From a pest perspective, look out for cutworms which are fat green and about an inch and a half long. They chew on the areas of the top of the grass leaves roots and leaves. Placing a collar such as a tuna fish can with both ends removed, placing them around the seedlings can help deter cutworms the color can be removed once the plants are established. Know that fall planted broccoli often produces higher yields than spring plantings in this region.

Teresa: Another member of the brassica family is a Brussel sprout. These are typically grown to be harvested in the fall because cool weather helps to develop their flavor. Seeds should be sown in early to mid-summer. The plant stand two to three feet tall and can withstand a light frost. Harvest them when the sprouts or buds at the base of the plants are firm and about an inch and a half in diameter. The lower leaves can be removed to hasten sprout development, but don't strip all the leaves as they are needed for growth. You can pinch out the growing point at the top of the stem to get larger sprouts. These crunchy seasonal staples that resemble mini cabbages are delicious when their outer leaves are roasted to a salty crisp, leaving the insides tender. Brussel sprouts are best served steamed, roasted or sautéed. But you can also thinly slice them raw for an unbeatable winter salad.

Teresa: Cabbage is a brassica vegetable that can be leafy green, red or white. It is known for its densely formed heads. Star seeds indoors for early spring transplants or in beds or flats for full transplants. Plants can sustain temperatures as low as 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. But it's best not to plant cabbage or any brassica family crop in the same spot year after year. Since diseases and insect pests will build up, so make sure to rotate them with a new garden. Plant spacing will affect head size, so make sure to space them at least 12 inches apart or more. Harvest a cabbage head when it is firm and before it splits. Mature heads can be left on the plant in the garden for about two weeks in the summer and up to three to four weeks in the fall. Remove the loose outer leaves. If you leave the cut stem in the ground, small heads may develop that can be used. Cabbage prefers rich soil and lots of water. Cabbage can be transformed into a refreshing slaw, sauerkraut or braised side dish.

Teresa: Cauliflower, another brassica is best known for its edible white head, which can be seared in thick cut steaks carmelized in the oven or pureed into a savory soup, but its core stems and leaves can be cooked over high heat to dry out its flavor. You can send out five to seven week old transplants three to four weeks. So before your first free date, when their heads are about two to three inches in diameter, take the outer leaves and fold them up in over the head. Tie them with a string to keep the head from turning yellow, and one to three weeks ahead to be six to seven inches wide and ready to harvest approximately 50 to 80 days from transplanting. Cauliflower should be ready to pick when its head is firm and heavy. But before the curve begins to separate or become racy. It is over mature when soft, or when leaves turn yellow. Leave some leaves surrounding the head when harvested to prolong its quality until it's used.

Teresa: As you've heard, there are many different varieties of brassica vegetables. So have fun growing them all in your veggie patch. Until next time, Nature Calls.

You're listening to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley.

Stay tuned for Hum of the Hive.

Linda: Welcome back to the Hum of the Hive, a recurring segment of nature calls that follows the honeybee through the four seasons. I'm your host, Linda Aydlett, a Master Gardener Volunteer with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties, and a Cornell University Master Beekeeper. An essential need of any living organism is to collect food and resources to ensure its survival. Another essential need is to reproduce itself. And honeybees have a fascinating way of doing just that, both on an individual bee level as well as the colony as a whole level. In previous segments, we've explored how individually, bees reproduce themselves as queens, workers, and drones to maintain the division of labor needed to keep the colony humming along. Today though, we'll be looking at how the colony reproduces itself. That is, how the colony reproduces another colony needed to maintain the species we call Apis mellifera. When we think of a colony of honeybees, we're actually looking at what's called a superorganism. The term used to describe a society, be it an animal or insect, in this case honeybees, with a highly developed division of labor where individuals within that society can't survive by themselves for extended periods of time without perishing. Neither a queen nor the male drones are able to forage for food and workers. The female population can't successfully reproduce themselves. They all need each other to survive both individually and collectively as a whole, that is as a colony or superorganism, that collects stores and circulates resources, regulates water controls temperature sensors, both the internal and external environment and reproduces itself.

Linda: And its reproduction at the colony level. that's incredibly fascinating, and we'll be exploring in this segment. Since early spring, if the weather is good and available resources bountiful. The Queen has been laying thousands of eggs each day and forgers have been collecting food to support both hungry brood and adults alike. The colony has been rapidly expanding which works out well as long as the space they inhabit allows for expansion. But what happens is all the available cells would become back-filled with food stores or brood and a colony runs out of room for the queen to continue laying eggs. Well, this is the point in a colonies lifecycle where it reproduces itself as another colony. And to do that it's simply swarms. swarming is a reproductive process called fission, where a single entity literally separated into two new and distinct entities similar to say an amoeba.

Linda: But before a colony actually swarms certain things must first be put in order to help ensure survival of both the portion of population taking off in flight and the population of bees being left behind. For instance, up to now, the queen has only flown a few brief days during her meaty flights very early in her life. By now she's weighed down with thousands of eggs stored in her abdomen is quite ponderous. And so to ensure that she can fly again, the queen is herded and run around the comb to help her lose weight. To replace the mother queen who's leaving, nurse bees are feeding a dozen or so selected larva royal jelly, so that one will eventually emerge as the new queen in the weeks ahead. At the same time, foragers and house bees are hard at work provisioning stores of nectar and pollen for those who will be left behind. And when the time to swarm is imminent foragers leaving this warm will gorge on nectar as that will be the only provisions for the journey ahead.

Linda: When the time to swarm has finally come about half of the colony, mostly foragers and the original queen, literally spill out of the hive. Veterans and take flight in a swirling cloud. Believe it or not, even with perhaps tens of thousands of airborne bees swirling about, this is when the honey bees are most unlikely to sting as they no longer have a nest to defend. Within about 15 minutes, the airborne cloud gathers to land in in a cluster on a temporary rest spot, usually a nearby branch, where they'll hang for anywhere from a few hours to a few days to decide where to go next. And how's that decided? Well, researchers have found that honeybees have developed a fascinating process of working together to come to a collective consensus of where their new home will be located. Depending on the size of the swarm, dozens to maybe several hundred of the most experienced foragers, called scout bees, take off in search of a suitable home. They're looking for a dry cavity, maybe 15 feet up off the ground, about 10 gallons or so in size with an easily defendable entrance, maybe a couple of square inches in diameter, with walls thick enough to help keep them warm over winter. For instance, the hollow of a tree or maybe the walls of your home.

Linda: When the scout bees returned to the swarm cluster, they must communicate news of what they found. And our returning scout bees use a method of communication we talked about before they dance. Yes, they waggle dance. But this time they dance on the outside of the Swarm cluster. The point of this waggle dance is to recruit sister foragers to the location the scout bee found. She reports direction and distances before with the same figure eight pattern. But this time, the number of circuits the number of figure eights that she does, conveys the quality of what she's found. The more circuit to figure eights, the higher the quality. Researchers have found that scouts reporting on premium sites will dance a hundred or more circuits. Scout bees who may have not found as an ideal location will make note of the direction and distance of the higher quality reports and then go fly off to check it out herself. She then reports back to the clustered swarm with her own dance. This happens over and over and over until eventually a favored location emerges with the vast majority of dancers, a good 80% or so, communicating the same location. Thus, a consensus is reached and the swarm takes off in that direction to make its new home.

Linda: If the colony can successfully survive over winter, the whole process of reproduction by swarming will start over when this new home has reached its full capacity. This whole process of communication and consensus decision making is where the term ":hive mind" originated and is eloquently described in Cornell Professor Tom Seeley's book Honeybee Democracy, which is available in many branch libraries within the Mid-Hudson system. I'll also include a link in the show notes to his YouTube lecture on this topic. While we may be alarmed when we see a honeybee colony swarm, it's actually a naturally occurring process involving collective decision making developed by a super organism to ensure its survival over the millennia. And if you think about it, perhaps outgrowing a home means life is good. At least for this colony of honeybees. So please join me again for the next episode of the Hum of the Hive as we delve into the fascinating world of the honeybee. Thanks for listening.

Musical segue

That concludes another episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. We'd like to thank Sandra Linnell and Devin Connolly from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene counties for production support. And a special thank you to our listeners for joining us on this episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. You can find links to any of the topics mentioned in this episode at our website at Comments and suggestions for future topics may be directed to us at or on the CCE Master Gardener Volunteers of Columbia and Greene County's Facebook page. For more information about Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene counties, visit our website at CCE Columbia or visit us in Hudson or in Acra. Cornell Cooperative Extension provides equal programming and employment opportunities.


Sandra Linnell
Community Horticulture Program Coordinator
(518) 828-3346 ext 106

Last updated June 23, 2022