Insect of the Week: Defending Honey Bee Colonies

Adapted from pages 243-244 of The Lives of Bees:

Every living system faces a legion of predators, parasites, and pathogens, each of which is equipped with a sophisticated tool kit for penetrating the defenses of its prey or host. In the case of a honey bee colony, there are several hundred species, ranging from viruses to black bears, whose members are forever trying to breach the bees’ defenses. What makes a bee colony so attractive to so many is, of course, the store of delicious honey and the horde of nutritious brood that lies inside its nest. In summer, the combs inside a bee hive or a bee tree typically hold 10 or more kilograms (20- plus pounds) of honey, plus thousands of immature bees (eggs, larvae, and pupae). Moreover, these brood items are neatly packed together in the warm center of the bees’ nest, making them an absolute bonanza for any viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and mites that succeed in infecting or infesting this host of developing bees. Clearly, a colony of honey bees is an immensely desirable target. It is also a perfectly stationary target. Because a colony’s beeswax combs are a huge energetic investment, and because these combs are often filled with brood and food, a honey bee colony cannot afford to find safety by fleeing its home when threatened. Instead, it must cope with its foes by standing its ground, and usually its succeeds, by drawing on a sophisticated arsenal of biochemical, morphological, and behavioral weapons. 

Given that honey bees have a 30- million- year history, it is likely that most of the relationships between Apis mellifera and its predators and agents of disease are long- established. We can expect, therefore, that colonies living undisturbed in the wild possess defense mechanisms that usually prevent pathogens and parasites from multiplying sufficiently to cause severe disease. Indeed, it is likely that wild colonies of honey bees have perpetual, endemic infections of parasites and pathogens, and it is also likely that symptoms of disease arise in these colonies only when they are weakened by adverse environmental circumstances, such as food shortages or damage to their nests. We will see, however, that the balance of power between the bees and their pathogens and parasites can be upset by intrusive beekeeping practices, and that these practices can lead to severe losses of colonies.

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 hereInsect of the Week: Managed & Wild Colonies >>