Insect of the Week: Inside the Honey Bee Nest

Adapted from pages 109-111 of The Lives of Bees:

Combs in the nest of a honey bee colony living in a hollow tree.

The tree cavity or rock crevice that houses a wild colony’s nest is the center of the universe for its inhabitants. It is the spot where these bees have built their nest, the place they will defend with their lives, and the only site on earth to which they return from miles around bearing loads of nectar and pollen. Both the nesting site and the beeswax combs inside are parts of the colony’s set of survival tools that extend beyond the bodies of its members. It is obvious to anyone who has peered inside a wild colony’s nest and admired its combs that these labyrinthine structures are products of the bees living there. After all, the beeswax used to build each comb is a secretion of the bees’ bodies, and the marvelous hexagonal- cell structure of each comb is a product of the bees’ behavior. What is less obvious, though, is that the hollow tree or rock pile that shelters this intricate nest is also part of the colony’s extended tool kit for survival. Although honey bees do not build their nesting sites, they do carefully choose them, so the cavity that a colony occupies is also a product of its members’ behavior.

The honey bee’s process of choosing a dwelling place unfolds during colony reproduction (swarming), which occurs mainly in late spring and early summer (May–July) in the Ithaca area. The first step in this house- hunting process begins even before a swarm has left the parent nest. A few hundred of a colony’s oldest bees, its foragers, cease collecting food and turn instead to scouting for new living quarters. This requires a radical switch in behavior. These bees no longer visit brightly lit, sweet- scented sources of nectar and pollen; instead they investigate dark places—knotholes, cracks in tree limbs, gaps among roots, and crevices in rocks— always seeking a snug cavity suitable for housing a honey bee colony.

The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild
By Tom Seeley

Humans have kept honey bees in hives for millennia, yet only in recent decades have biologists begun to investigate how these industrious insects live in the wild. The Lives of Bees is Thomas Seeley’s captivating story of what scientists are learning about the behavior, social life, and survival strategies of honey bees living outside the beekeeper’s hive—and how wild honey bees may hold the key to reversing the alarming die-off of the planet’s managed honey bee populations.

Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, sheds light on why wild honey bees are still thriving while those living in managed colonies are in crisis. Drawing on the latest science as well as insights from his own pioneering fieldwork, he describes in extraordinary detail how honey bees live in nature and shows how this differs significantly from their lives under the management of beekeepers. Seeley presents an entirely new approach to beekeeping—Darwinian Beekeeping—which enables honey bees to use the toolkit of survival skills their species has acquired over the past thirty million years, and to evolve solutions to the new challenges they face today. He shows beekeepers how to use the principles of natural selection to guide their practices, and he offers a new vision of how beekeeping can better align with the natural habits of honey bees.

Engagingly written and deeply personal, The Lives of Bees reveals how we can become better custodians of honey bees and make use of their resources in ways that enrich their lives as well as our own.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Insect of the Week: Bees in WinterInsect of the Week: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt >>