Insect of the Week: Why do bees fill up on honey?

Adapted from 82-84 of The Lives of Bees:

Worker bees filling up on honey.

There are two distinct contexts in which it is adaptive for worker bees to stuff themselves with honey and become averse to stinging. One is when they are in a swarm. Swarming bees tank up with honey—indeed, they nearly double their body weight in doing so—before they leave their old home in order to be fully energized for the flight to their new dwelling place and for the work of fitting it out with beeswax combs. But why are these honey- laden bees so reluctant to sting? The answer is simple: the act of stinging is fatal for a worker honey bee, and a swarm needs as many worker bees as possible once it has moved into its new nest site. 

The second circumstance in which it is highly adaptive for worker bees to engorge on honey and then refrain from stinging is when their home is threatened by fire, a danger they sense by smelling smoke. A field study recently conducted by Geoff Tribe, Karin Sternberg, and Jenny Cullinan has revealed how colonies of the Cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis) in South Africa benefit from imbibing honey and becoming passive when they smell smoke. Seven days after a wildfire incinerated a 988- hectare (2,441- acre) swath of the Cape Point Nature Reserve, these investigators inspected 17 nesting sites within the charred landscape that they knew had been occupied by wild colonies before the fire. Each colony occupied a rock- walled cavity located either beneath a boulder or in a cleft within a rocky outcrop. The research team discovered that all 17 colonies were still alive, even though several had suffered partial destruction of their nests: some melting of the propolis “firewall” at the nest entrance and (less often) of the beeswax combs deeper in the nest cavity. Evidently, the bees had filled up with honey upon smelling the smoke, had retreated as deeply as possible into their fireproof nest cavities, had survived the wildfire, and were sustaining themselves on the honey they had cached in their bodies. A week or so later, plants known as fire- ephemerals would sprout and start to bloom, so soon these bees would be able to resume foraging.

This investigation of wild honey bee colonies surviving a wildfire shows us how the bees’ engorgement response to smoke is adaptive for the bees living in a fire- prone region of South Africa. What it reveals, however, is a bit different from the standard explanation for why honey bees fill up on honey and become quiet when they smell smoke: to prepare for abandoning the nest to escape the fire. I think the standard explanation is probably incorrect, for I suspect it is unlikely that a colony threatened by fire can successfully evacuate its nest site and fly off through flames and smoke, especially since its queen is apt to be gravid and therefore a perilously clumsy flier.

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.

Insect of the Week: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt

Adapted from pages 58-59 of The Lives of Bees:

The earliest known evidence of hive beekeeping is the stone bas-relief carving shown in Figure 3.3 (below), which dates to 2400 bce, or nearly 4,500 years ago, when honey and dates were the chief sweetening materials in Egyptian cookery and beekeeping was an important Egyptian industry. This sculpture is now displayed in the Neues Museum in Berlin, but it was originally part of the pharaoh Nyuserre’s temple to the sun god Re at Abū Jirāb, a site about 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Cairo. On the left side of the panel, we see a beekeeper kneeling by a stack of nine horizontal hives, whose tapered shape suggests they were made of fired pottery. The three hieroglyphs above this beekeeper are the letters for the Egyptian word nft (to create a draft), so evidently the man is using the time- honored method of using smoke—the smoker (missing) is between him and the hives—to pacify bees and drive them off their honeycombs. In the center and on the right, we see other men handling honey in a production line that ends with one individual, perhaps an official, affixing a seal on a vessel to safeguard its precious contents.

Oldest evidence of beekeeping, from the sun temple of the pharaoh Nyuserre, which was constructed nearly 4,500 years ago. On the far left, a kneeling man puffs smoke toward a stack of nine horizontal hives. In the middle, two standing men pour honey from smaller pots into larger vessels, the taller vessel being steadied by a kneeling man. On the right, a kneeling man ties a seal on a container filled with honey; on a shelf above him are two similar containers that also have been sealed shut.

Further direct evidence of hive beekeeping in antiquity was discovered in 2007 by archaeologists who found 30 intact hives, along with the remains of another 100–200 hives, while excavating the ruins of the Iron Age city of Tel Rehov, located in the Jordan Valley in northern Israel. Radio carbon dating of spilled grain found near the hives indicates that this apiary dates to 970–840 bce, hence to nearly 3,000 years ago. Each hive is an unfired clay cylinder whose length (ca. 80 centimeters/32 inches), outside diameter (ca. 40 centimeters/16 inches), and entrance opening (diameter 3–4 centimeters/1.3–1.6 inches) matches those of the traditional hives used in the Middle East today. What is perhaps most remarkable about this find is that these ancient cylindrical hives, the oldest yet found, are stacked horizontally and parallel—like logs in a woodpile—to form three rows about 1 meter (ca. 3 feet) apart, each one three tiers high. This shows that this nearly 3,000- year- old apiary was organized in the same way as those of traditional beekeepers in the Middle East today.

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.

Insect of the Week: Bees in the Forest

Adapted from page 23 of The Lives of Bees:

Crowd of forager bees recruited to help exploit a square of comb filled with sugar syrup, at the start of a hunt for a wild colony’s home.

How abundant are wild colonies of honey bees? Building on the 1978 study of the density of honey bee colonies living within the Arnot Forest, other biologists have investigated this matter at various sites in North America, Europe, and Australia. The first of these additional studies was led by Roger A. Morse, the entomology professor at Cornell University who generously let me start working in his honey bee laboratory when I was still a high school student back in 1969. He and a team of seven graduate students conducted their study in the spring of 1990, in the small port city of Oswego, on Lake Ontario in northern New York State. Their investigation was triggered by the discovery of a colony of Africanized honey bees—a hybrid between European subspecies and the African subspecies A. m. scutellata —nesting in a shipment of pipes from Brazil. The presence of these exotic honey bees raised concerns that Africanized bees, and the fearsome ectoparasitic mite (Varroa destructor) that these bees could carry, might have been introduced to North America, so attempts were made to locate all the honey bee colonies living near the port so they could be checked for Africanized bees and Varroa mites. Newspaper and radio advertisements were run offering a $35 reward for information on honey bee colonies living in the semicircular area within 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) of the port. Eleven wild colonies living in trees and buildings, and one managed colony residing in a backyard beehive, were found. This work revealed that in this small city, the density of the wild colonies was 2.7 colonies per square kilometer (7 colonies per square mile), much higher than what Kirk and I had found in the woods of the Arnot Forest. Fortunately, no Africanized honey bees or Varroa destructor mites were found.

A still higher density of wild colonies was found in a remarkable study conducted by a team of biologists led by M. Alice Pinto at Texas A&M University in 1991–2001. This group worked in the Welder Wildlife Refuge, a 31.2 square- kilometer (12.2 square- mile) nature preserve in southern Texas. Their aim was to track the “Africanization” of a population of wild honey bees living in the southern United States, and they did so by sampling the colonies living in this wildlife refuge before, during, and after the arrival of Africanized honey bees from Mexico. Africanized honey bees are derived from a founder population of an African subspecies, A. m. scutellata, that was introduced to Brazil from South Africa in 1956. The purpose of this introduction was to crossbreed a tropical- evolved African subspecies with several temperate- evolved European subspecies already in Brazil to create a honey bee well suited to tropical conditions. However, several colonies of A. m. scutellata escaped from the quarantine apiary, thrived in the Brazilian climate, and spawned strong populations of wild colonies of this subspecies throughout the American tropics.

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.

Insect of the Week: Honey Bees in the Natural World

Adapted from page 2 of The Lives of Bees

Nest entrance of a wild colony of honey bees living in Munich, Germany.
Photo credit: Felix Remter

Knowing how the honey bee lives in its natural world is important for a broad range of scientific studies. This is because Apis mellifera has become one of the model systems for investigating basic questions in biology, especially those related to behavior. Whether one is studying these bees to solve some mystery in animal cognition, behavioral genetics, or social behavior, it is critically important to become familiar with their natural biology before designing one’s experimental investigations. For example, when sleep researchers used honey bees to explore the functions of sleep, they benefited greatly from knowing that it is only the elderly bees within a colony, the foragers, that get most of their sleep at night and in comparatively long bouts. If these researchers had not known which bees are a colony’s soundest sleepers come nightfall, then they might have failed to design truly meaningful sleep- deprivation experiments. A good experiment with honey bees, as with all organisms, taps into their natural way of life.

Knowing how honey bee colonies function when they live in the wild is also important for improving the craft of beekeeping. Once we understand the natural lives of honey bees, we can see more clearly how we create stressful living conditions for these bees when we manage them intensively for honey production and crop pollination. We can then start to devise beekeeping practices that are better—for both the bees and ourselves. The importance of using nature as a guide for developing sustainable methods of agriculture was expressed beautifully by the author, environmentalist, and farmer Wendell Berry, when he wrote: “We cannot know what we are doing until we know what nature would be doing if we were doing nothing.”

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.

InDialogue with Thomas Seeley and Nick Haddad: Why is insect conservation important?

The PUP Ideas blog is pleased to announce our new InDialogue series. In keeping with our mission to provide a range of perspectives and voices, each month we’ll be posing a big question to a pair of authors. With Earth Day fast approaching, we’ve asked a series of questions to our natural history authors on issues from the central role of oceans to climate science. Today we asked PUP authors Thomas Seeley and Nick Haddad to sound off on why insect conservation is important, and to reflect on the magnitude of the loss of key populations. Watch this space for more Earth Day posts in the coming days.

Being stewards to the bees

Thomas D. Seeley

There is no doubt that humans are now the primary movers and shakers of the natural world.   We are busy tearing down the planet’s forests and, in one way or another, we are appropriating some 40 percent of the solar energy captured by plants.  But we are not self-sufficient.  We depend on what Edward O. Wilson has called “the little things that run the world”:  the insects and other invertebrates, which together form most of the biomass in terrestrial habitats.  If humans were to disappear from the planet, then life on Earth would certainly go on.  Indeed, it would begin to heal itself.  But if insects were to disappear, then our species and countless others would go extinct, because most of the flowering plants—including those that produce the fruits and vegetables we eat—would die out for lack of pollination.   

There is one insect whose pollination services are especially important to us:  the honey bee, Apis mellifera.  This bees’ paramount value to humans was recently quantified in an authoritative, 59-author paper on the contributions of various bee species to crop pollination.  It reports that honey bees provide nearly half of all crop pollination services worldwide.  Remarkably, this one species’ contribution to humanity’s food production nearly equals the combined contributions of the many thousands of other bee species.  Clearly, the conservation of honey bees merits special attention. 

One way we can support Apis mellifera is by conserving forests.  They provide habitat for wild colonies of honey bees, and these colonies are important to their species’ long-term survival.  Recent studies of the population genetics of honey bees in the southern and western states of the U.S. have found that wild colonies—those living on their own in hollow trees and the walls of buildings—have far higher genetic diversity than the managed colonies in these states.  This is because commercial beekeepers typically replace the queens in their colonies every year or so using queens purchased from large-scale queen producers, and these replacement queens are the daughters of a small number of “breeder queens” (ca. 600 for the entire U.S.).  These practices create a genetic bottleneck in the population of managed honey bee colonies within the U.S. 

Other studies have revealed recently that the wild colonies of honey bees—those not living in beekeepers’ hives—possess effective mechanisms of resistance to a species of parasitic mite (Varroa destructor) introduced from east Asia.  The females of this species feed on the adult and immature honey bees.  They also spread a virus that deforms the bees’ wings and destroys their health.   Approximately 40% of the managed colonies in the U.S. die each year from infections of the deformed wing virus.  The wild colonies are also infested with these mites, but they have better survival because they have experienced strong natural selection for mechanisms of resistance to Varroa destructor.   These include chewing the legs off adult mites and destroying cells of bee brood infested with mites.

Besides conserving forests that support populations of wild colonies, we can help Apis mellifera by revising the practices of beekeeping, to find a better balance between the needs of bees and the desires of beekeepers.  Most of the practices of conventional beekeeping—such as encouraging colonies to grow extremely large, and packing them close together in apiaries—boost the productivity of colonies as honey makers and crop pollinators, but also increase their vulnerability to parasites and pathogens, including deadly Varroa destructor.   To conserve Apis mellifera, we must build a new relationship between human beings and honey bees.  We must revise our methods of beekeeping to bring them more in harmony with the honey bee’s natural way of life.  Only then will we be truly responsible stewards of Apis mellifera, our greatest friend among the insects.

Thomas D. Seeley is author of The Lives of Bees. He is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Following the Wild BeesHoneybee Democracy, and Honeybee Ecology (all Princeton) as well as The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

 

The value of the rarest butterflies

Nick Haddad

When I began writing The Last Butterflies in 2013, I worried that the title was over the top. After all, I was writing about just a handful of the rarest butterflies in the world. The five rarest butterflies number from a few hundred to a few tens of thousands of individuals. Could these be in any way representative of the last butterflies on the earth?

One way they are not representative is in their “value”. Their value might be to ecological systems. However, the earth’s thirty thousand individual Fender’s Blue butterflies might weigh as much as a basketball. These simply cannot be of consequence to interactions with other plants or animals as parts of functioning foodwebs. They are not effective pollinators or herbivores of, or food sources for, other species in their environments. Perhaps their value is in the bigger lessons the understanding of their declines holds for the declines of other butterflies. If so, then knowledge accrued during their decline can provide guidance to avert catastrophic declines of other insects.

Also when I started writing this book, I did not imagine broad implications to other insects that have economic value that can be measured. Data had not yet amassed to support the “insect apocalypse,” a phrase used to refer to catastrophic loss of abundance and diversity of insects. Then in 2014, reports surfaced that Monarchs reached epic low numbers, 97% below their peak two decades earlier. Later that year, a more general survey found declines across butterfly and insect species at the rate of 10% or more per decade. Such broad losses across insects must have substantial cost.

In this context, the rarest butterflies have higher value. Most of what we know about the insect apocalypse is what we know about butterflies. Are the rarest butterflies and Monarchs representative? A chilling picture has emerged. My former student Tyson Wepprich just completed an analysis of butterfly abundances using data collected across Ohio in surveys conducted every week for two decades. He found that butterfly abundances are declining by 2%  / year; abundances are now a third lower than twenty years ago. This is not an isolated case. Tyson reviewed other, decades-long studies in the UK, the Netherlands, and Spain. All of them have found 2%/ year decline in butterfly abundances. It appears that, after all, The Last Butterflies is an appropriate book title.

This rate and magnitude of loss is perhaps the best indicator of the cost of insect decline. Considered together, butterflies are the best known group of the earth’s 5.5 million insects. The less substantial evidence that exists for other insects points in the same downward direction. Like butterflies, those insects are herbivores, prey, and pollinators (and, of course, many are predators). They are exposed to the same levels of habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change. The scale of loss of butterflies, even if it is only partially representative of loss of other insects, will cause catastrophic loss of functioning ecosystems on which we all depend.

Circling back around to the rarest butterflies in the world: what is their value? It is certainly not in their importance within their ecosystem, at least not now. Their decline has generated some value in the sense that is provides some guidance for conservation of other insects, animals, and plants. Their true value, however, is intrinsic; when driven to extinction by global environmental changes, loss of value will be to people, and to the earth.

Nick Haddad is author of The Last Butterflies. He is a professor and senior terrestrial ecologist in the Department of Integrative Biology and the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Twitter @nickmhaddad

Five Books to Read in Honor of National Honey Bee Day

August 22nd is National Honey Bee Day and, in honor of the occasion, Princeton Nature would like to recommend five of our most recent titles that will get you buzzing about these vital bugs.

The Bee cover

Bees pollinate more than 130 fruit, vegetable, and seed crops that we rely on to survive. Bees are crucial to the reproduction and diversity of flowering plants, and the economic contributions of these irreplaceable insects measure in the tens of billions of dollars each year. Yet bees are dying at an alarming rate, threatening food supplies and ecosystems around the world. In The Bee, a richly illustrated natural history of the titular insect, Noah Wilson-Rich and his team of bee experts provide a window into the vitally important role that bees play in the life of our planet.

You can also check out Noah Wilson-Rich’s essay about the founding of his beekeeping company, The Best Bees Company, here.

Honeybees make decisions collectively–and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. A remarkable and richly illustrated account of scientific discovery, Honeybee Democracy brings together, for the first time, decades of Seeley’s pioneering research to tell the amazing story of house hunting and democratic debate among the honeybees.

You can read our Q+A with author Thomas Seeley here.

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

You can read this op-ed about the importance of fireflies by author Sara Lewis here

Following the Wild Bees is a delightful foray into the pastime of bee hunting, an exhilarating outdoor activity that used to be practiced widely but which few people know about today. Thomas Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, vividly describes the history and science behind this lost pastime and how anyone can do it. Following the Wild Bees is both a unique meditation on the pleasures of the natural world and a guide to the ingenious methods that compose the craft of the bee hunter.

Check out some photographs from one of Thomas Seeley’s bee hunts here

The Bees in Your Backyard provides an engaging introduction to the roughly 4,000 different bee species found in the United States and Canada, dispelling common myths about bees while offering essential tips for telling them apart in the field.

The book features more than 900 stunning color photos of the bees living all around us—in our gardens and parks, along nature trails, and in the wild spaces between. It describes their natural history, including where they live, how they gather food, their role as pollinators, and even how to attract them to your own backyard. Ideal for amateur naturalists and experts alike, it gives detailed accounts of every bee family and genus in North America, describing key identification features, distributions, diets, nesting habits, and more.

Check out our Q&A with authors Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril here.

Noah Wilson-Rich on The Best Bees Company

Author with beehive

Wilson-Rich on May 9, 2010, just six weeks after founding The Best Bees Company. Photo credit: Izzy Berdan

Pollinator decline is a grand challenge in the modern world. We are losing 40% of beehives annually nationwide, and more in places with tough winters, which are now at 50% or higher. Can you imagine if we lost half of our population each year? And if those we lost produced food for the rest of us? It’s untenable. I predict that at this rate, bees will be gone in 10 years. Furthermore, we will be without fruits and vegetables, causing global hunger, economic collapse, and a total moral crisis worldwide … if not for beekeepers, who replace those dead bees,

When I finished up my doctorate at Tufts University in honey bee immunology, I needed to find a laboratory, field sites, data points, and funding! It was 2009, in the deepest throws of the recession, so grant funding was more competitive for less resources, and the job market for academia was just as scarce. So I set up a laboratory of my own in the living room of my apartment in Boston, and started a Facebook page offering to install beehives at people’s home gardens and business rooftops in exchange for research funding. I’d volunteer my time to manage the beehives, they’d get all the honey, and I’d get the data.

And so our de factocitizen science journey began. We’d created a new way to engage the general public to own these little living data factories, pollinating gardens and farms, allowing everyone to participate in research.

When I told my apartment landlord in Boston that I’d set up a bee research lab in my living room, I was admittedly nervous. I must have caught him on a good day. He replied not with an eviction notice, but with a big smile and said, “Let’s put those bees in the back alley!” I was shocked. To all of our delight, that little data factory produced more honey that first year than any other beehive I’d ever worked. Over 100 lbs.! We were filling up pickle jars with the stuff! Since honey never goes bad, some of the tenants are still sharing it with their loved ones and the greater community.

The Bee coverThat beehive and this citizen science approach, shifted my research question forever. It moved me away from why bees were dying, as so many researchers ask, and toward what is it about this beehive – this urban beehive – that’s allowing these bees to live and thrive?

With that, The Best Bees Company was born! As we grew, more people and companies got our research-based beekeeping services throughout urban, suburban, and rural towns alike. Meanwhile, the more data we got, the more accurate our maps became. Trends began to emerge for precisely where bees were thriving best.

Nine years later, The Best Bees Company and I oversee 1000 beehives, in 10 greater metro areas, with 65 beekeepers on our team in this little company that we made up. We’ve brought in 25 million pollinators nationwide, enhancing the properties of citizen scientists. That’s 10 million data points, this year alone, a sum of nearly 20 million data points since the first pickle jar beehive. For my team, that scale meant more accurate maps, which we now share with NASA and Google Earth. And now I can report what’s saving bees to you.

You, too, can be part a citizen scientist – If you have a balcony in your apartment, a backyard at your home, you can participate in stabilizing our food system! To become a citizen science client and purchase The Best Bees Company’s beekeeping services nationwide, visit www.BestBees.comor contact info@bestbees.comor (617) 445-2322.

 

Insect of the Week: the Bumble Bee

Adapted from pages 674-675 of Garden Insects of North America

Bumble bees are large, fuzzy bees brightly colored black with yellow and/or orange. Like honey bees, they are social insects that produce a colony, usually in an abandoned rodent or bird nest where there is insulating material they use to surround the nest. Bumble bee colonies are abandoned at the end of the year, however, and only new, large, fertilized queens survive the winter. The queen establishes a new colony in spring, conducting all chores of foraging, hive construction, and rearing. The first workers produced are usually quite small, but they assist the queen as the colony develops. As the colony grows, worker size tends to increase and some reproductive forms (queens, males) are produced toward the end of the season. 

A bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii). Photo credit: Whitney Cranshaw.

Bumble bees are native insects, with close to 50 species in North America. Many are important pollinators, and they have a unique method of acquiring pollen from some plants, known as buzz pollination, which shakes pollen from some kinds of flowers. The collected pollen is then packed into pollen baskets on the hind legs, in a manner similar to honey bees and others in the family Apidae. Bumble bees are used extensively to pollinate greenhouse-grown tomatoes, and many native plants are dependent on buzz pollination for seed set. Bumble bees sting readily in defense of their hive but are nonaggressive while foraging. The sting is painful, but the stinger is not left behind.

Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs
Second Edition
By Whitney Cranshaw & David Shetlar

This second edition of Garden Insects of North America solidifies its place as the most comprehensive guide to the common insects, mites, and other “bugs” found in the backyards and gardens of the United States and Canada. Featuring 3,300 full-color photos and concise, detailed text, this fully revised book covers the hundreds of species of insects and mites associated with fruits and vegetables, shade trees and shrubs, flowers and ornamental plants, and turfgrass—from aphids and bumble bees to leafhoppers and mealybugs to woollybears and yellowjacket wasps—and much more. This new edition also provides a greatly expanded treatment of common pollinators and flower visitors, the natural enemies of garden pests, and the earthworms, insects, and other arthropods that help with decomposing plant matter in the garden.

Designed to help you easily identify what you find in the garden, the book is organized by where insects are most likely to be seen—on leaves, shoots, flowers, roots, or soil. Photos are included throughout the book, next to detailed descriptions of the insects and their associated plants.

An indispensable guide to the natural microcosm in our backyards, Garden Insects of North America continues to be the definitive resource for amateur gardeners, insect lovers, and professional entomologists.

  • Revised and expanded edition covers most of the insects, mites, and other “bugs” one may find in yards or gardens in the United States and Canada—all in one handy volume
  • Features more than 3,300 full-color photos, more than twice the illustrations of the first edition
  • Concise, informative text organized to help you easily identify insects and the plant injuries that they may cause

 

Calling all bee hunters: Thomas Seeley on Following the Wild Bees

following the wild bees seeleyLooking for a new outdoor experience? Are you interested in honeybees but hesitant to invest in full-fledged beekeeping? Perhaps you should consider bee hunting. Once a popular pastime, it’s fair to say the practice has fallen into obscurity, but Thomas Seeley’s new book, Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting seeks to change all that. According to Seeley, (who has been enjoying the thrill of the chase for 40 years without a single sting), bee hunting is an exhilarating experience that can be practiced in the forest or the big city, by people of all ages. Read on for the inside scoop on the craft and science of bee hunting.

What exactly is bee hunting?

TS: Bee hunting is a fascinating outdoor sport in which you locate a wild colony of honey bees living in a hollow tree, old building, or abandoned bee hive. It is a form of treasure hunting. What makes it so intriguing? It involves closely observing a small group of foraging bees and using simple but clever techniques to trail them to their home. You start by catching honey bees from flowers, providing them with sugar syrup in a small square of beeswax comb, and labeling them with dots of paint. Once you have a bunch of bees “hooked” on your free lunch and labeled for individual identification, you determine the direction to their home from the compass bearings of their homeward flights. You also estimate the distance to their home by seeing how many minutes individual bees need to fly home, unload their valuable cargoes, and zip back to your feeder. Next, you move your sugar-syrup feeder and the bees in a series of steps down their flight line home, each time updating the information about direction and distance. Once you know you are close to the bees’ home address, you examine every tree or structure in the area, and eventually you spy your bees diving into their nest’s entrance opening. Success!!! Sometimes the bees’ dwelling place is close to where you started and the hunt takes only an hour or so, but other times it is farther away (a half mile or more) and then the hunt is longer and more challenging. Either way, you will have great fun with these wonderful little creatures as you work with them to discover their secret residence.

What is the appeal of bee hunting?

TS: The allure of bee hunting lies in the “chase”, not in a “kill”. But this is new. For thousands of years, humans living in hunter-gatherer groups hunted wild colonies of honey bees and robbed them of brood and honey for food, as some hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa and Asia still do. Bee/honey hunting was also practiced in Europe and North America for centuries. However, I urge my readers to not pursue bee hunting to get honey because this involves stealing from the bees and usually destroying their nest. I explain that the attraction of bee hunting these days is that it is a lovely way to observe honey bees close up as they feed on your sugar syrup bait and perform flights to and from your feeder comb. The bee hunter learns so much about how these marvelous little creatures behave while gathering food: how they orient to your feeder, land there, imbibe your food, tolerate being bumped by nest mates, groom themselves before taking off, and finally launch into flight and steer a course home. Furthermore, while watching how these little wonders work harmoniously at the feeder and recruit their nest mates to the site, you are struck by how these bees cooperate closely to acquire food for their colony. So for many who go bee hunting, the greatest reward will be that it causes them to stop, watch, and ponder the marvelous six-legged beauties that help keep our planet flowering and fruitful. For others, the greatest appeal of bee hunting will be that it is a great way to get outdoors and enjoy the natural world. I should also mention that finding the one tree among the thousands in a forest that is the bees’ home is a huge thrill! I always feel soaring feelings of success, even triumph, when I discover the home of a wild colony of honey bees.

Do you need a forest or other wild place to go bee hunting?

TS: No. You don’t need a forest. You can even do it in a city. For example, this summer, I will lead a bee hunt in Central Park to begin to map out the wild colonies living in the heart of New York City. Central Park covers 843 acres, and much of it is wooded, so I am sure that there are bees living in it. Some years ago I had fun conducting an urban bee hunt in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Harvard Yard. One April, I noticed bees collecting pollen from crocuses in front of Memorial Church, and I wondered where these bees were living. I was keen to determine their “home address.” Using my bee hunting skills, I found that these bees were from a colony living right in Harvard Yard, in the west wall of Emerson Hall. So you can see, you can have fun bee hunting essentially anywhere: city, suburb, or wild area. Wherever you can find honey bees on flowers, you can have fun following these bees to their home.

Is bee hunting a sport that’s equally enjoyable for everyone, even kids?

TS: Yes, definitely! Throughout my book, and in this interview, I refer to the bee hunter as “he,” but this is done merely for simplicity. Every “he” and “him” also encompasses a “she” and “her.” Older children fascinated by nature will definitely enjoy this open-air activity, especially if they have an iPhone that they can use to plot their location, record the bees’ flight directions as they fly home, and track their progress as they zero in on the bees’ home.

Is there any danger of being stung while bee hunting?

TS: Bees will be buzzing around the bee hunter while he is keeping track of their comings and goings from his feeder, but I can honestly state that there is little or no chance of being stung while bee hunting. The reason is that bees are entirely friendly to the human who is providing them with delicious food. They will fight off a yellow jacket wasp if she discovers the feeder and starts to help herself to the goodies. But the bees have no reason to sting the bee hunter, and I’ve never been stung in my nearly 40 years of bee hunting. It may seem incredible, but unless you accidentally put a bare arm down on a bee resting on a knee, or you thoughtlessly slap at a bee flying near your face, you don’t need to worry about being stung while bee hunting.

Why did you write this book?

TS: The popularity of honey bees has skyrocketed recently, but not everyone can become a beekeeper, so I figured it would be good to show honey bee enthusiasts another way—beside beekeeping—to have fun with these delightful little creatures. A beekeeper manages colonies of honey bees that are living in hives he (or she) has provided, so beekeeping requires having a fair amount of equipment and space for the hives. A bee hunter, however, searches for colonies of honey bees that are living in tree cavities and other living quarters that they have found for themselves, so there is no need for complicated equipment. In my book, I describe the simple and inexpensive tools used in bee hunting, and I point out that “The complete toolkit of a bee hunter fits easily into a knapsack in the field and a shoebox back at home.”

My second reason for writing this book is to inform people that the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is still an essentially wild animal. Wherever there are honey bees, there exist both managed colonies living in beekeepers’ hive and wild colonies living in tree cavities, rock clefts, and the walls of buildings. And even though humans have been keeping honey bees in hives for at least 9,000 years, starting in the Middle East, because humans do not control the matings of queen bees and drone bees, the bees residing in beekeeepers’ hives look and behave the same as their wild counterparts. The honey bees living in the wild are no longer super important to us as honey makers, but they do remain valuable for their pollination services. After all, it is not just the bees flying from beekeepers’ hives that pollinate our apple orchards, tomato fields, cranberry bogs, and other croplands. Honey bees from wild colonies—together with bumble bees, solitary bees, and diverse non-bee pollinators—also contribute hugely to the business of agriculture.

My third reason is to attract young people to study the behavior, social life, and ecology of honey bees. To do so, I end each chapter in the book with a “Biology Box” section in which I explain briefly what biologists have learned about the behavioral skills of honey bees that the bee hunter observes when he induces them to lead him to their home. For example, he sees bees guide their hive mates to his little feeder, which can be a mile or more from their home. How on earth does this happen? I hope these Biology Boxes will give my readers an intoxicating taste of what biologists have revealed about how honey bees do all the amazing things that they do!

Are there any websites that have more information on bee hunting, such as videos that demonstrate the hunting techniques?

TS: Yes, indeed. Check out beehunting.com. There you will find three beautiful videos that show the methods of collecting bees, marking bees, and following bees. These videos are excellent accompaniments to the written descriptions found in the book.

Thomas D. Seeley is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Honeybee Democracy and Honeybee Ecology (both Princeton) and The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York and his most recent book is Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting.

Bee Hunting—Tools of the Trade

BeesIn Following the Wild Bees, Thomas Seeley provides a handy how-to guide on the ancient practice of bee hunting. Bee hunting involves luring bees to a honeycomb filled with homemade sugar syrup and then, once they’ve had their fill, tracking them as they fly off to their hive home. Finding the beehive is the ultimate goal. Along the way, the bee hunter can appreciate natural beauty while learning about the unique behavior of the cognitively advanced honeybee.

To bee hunt successfully, there are a few tools that are must-haves, and a few that will make life easier as you track bees through their natural habitats. Never fear, though! Bee hunting is a relatively inexpensive sport, and all of the items can fit comfortably inside a backpack.

The most important tool is the bee box. This is a small wooden box (5.5 inches long, 3.5 inches wide, and 3 inches high) with two compartments that enables the bee hunter to capture bees and lure them to the store of sugar syrup. You will also need an opaque cloth to cover the bee box once there are bees inside to help them discover the bait.

Bee Box

For bait you will need two small squares of empty comb that will fit inside one of the compartments of the bee box. These can be obtained from a beekeeper. Next, you will need a jar of sugar syrup. This sugar is easily made by mixing 1.5 cups of pure, white cane sugar with enough boiling water to make two cups of syrup. To finish, add 1 drop of anise extract to make the bait irresistible to the bees. To transfer the sugar syrup to the comb, use a small dropper.

Once you have trapped the bees in your bee box, helped them to discover the bait, and then set them free to offload the “nectar” in their hive, you will need to make the combs as conspicuous as possible for when they return, hopefully with some bee friends. You will need a jar lid, scented with a few drops of anise extract, and a small piece of 8-mesh hardware cloth (easily obtained at a hardware store) that will sit on top of the jar lid. You then place the comb on top of the hardware cloth in the open air and wait for your bees to return.

In order to identify individual bees, you will need a set of paint pens. You should also have a watch with a second hand, a notebook, and a magnetic compass to take accurate notes on the movements of your bees.

Finally, you will need a backpack or toolbox to carry all of your items as you track the bees to their hidden home. You might want to bring a folding chair, a stand for the bee box, a roll of vinyl flagging to mark your path through the woods, and a topographic map of the area. With these items you will be well on your way to engaging in the sport of bee hunting.

While the tools will help, there are important skills that you will also need to conduct a bee hunt. For a complete guide on how to become a master bee hunter, pick up a copy of Thomas Seeley’s Following the Wild Bees. In the meantime, check out our slideshow of beautiful full color images from the book.

Follow the wild bees with Thomas D. Seeley

following the wild bees seeleyBee hunting—in which one captures and sumptuously feeds wild bees, and then releases and follows them back to their secret residence—is virtually unknown today, though it was once widely practiced. Thomas D. Seeley, world authority on honey bees, vividly explores the exhilarating pastime in his new book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. A unique meditation on the natural world as well as a how-to guide, the book provides history and science about the craft alongside gorgeous photos and helpful diagrams.

Click through the gallery below to see some of Seeley’s essential tools for bee hunting as well as fascinating photographs captured during the hunt.

Top Ten Bees You May Not Know About

For many of us, the bees that are heading out of our backyard gardens and into hibernation this fall are relatively indistinguishable from one another. But in fact there are roughly 4,000 different bee species found in the United States and Canada alone. With over 900 stunning photos, The Bees in Your Backyard provides an engaging introduction to all of these. Curious about which ones you’ve probably been missing? The authors, Joe Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, put together this handy list of the “backyard bees” many people have never heard of. –PUP blog editor

1. Long-horned bees (Eucerini)

1 long-horned beeAll bees feed their offspring pollen and nectar. Many long-horned bees are specialists, a nice way of saying ‘picky’; females only collect pollen for their young from specific kinds of flowers, even when other ones may be available. Many of them prefer flowers in the sunflower family.

2. Mason bees (Osmia)

2 mason beeWe rely on honey bees for the pollination of many of our tastiest fruits. Some mason bee species can be effective pollinators of orchard crops, and research has shown that they are often better pollinators than the honey bee.

3. Leaf cutter bees (Megachile)

3 leaf cutter beeAs their common name suggests, leaf cutter bees use their incredible mandibles to cut out circular pieces of leaves that they carry back to their nests. These leaf pieces are used to line the walls of the nest cells like wallpaper.

4. Small mining bees (Perdita)

4 small mining beeThe genus Perdita has over 650 different species, all of which live in North and Central America. The smallest bee in North America is a Perdita.

5. Metallic green sweat bees (Agapostemon, Augochlorini)

5 metallic green sweat beeWhile most bees in North America are solitary and don’t live in hives with a queen and workers, there are a few species green sweat bee that are partially social. They are solitary at the beginning of the season, but social by the end of the season.

6. Mining bees (Andrena)

6 Mining beeAll mining bees nest in the ground (as, in fact, do most bees in the U.S. and Canada), in tunnels each female digs herself. The deepest bee nest that has been excavated in North America was a mining bee nest and it was over nine feet deep.

7. Sweat bees (Lasioglossum)

7 sweat beeSweat bees, particularly those in the subgenus Dialictus, are often the most abundant bee in people’s backyards, and probably anywhere else one looks for bees. Though nondescript, they are ubiquitous.

8. Masked bees (Hylaeus)

8 masked beeMasked bees are often mistaken for wasps because they are nearly hairless. These bees are the only North American bees that don’t carry pollen on the outside of their bodies. Instead they ingest the pollen, storing it in a crop. When they return to their nest, they regurgitate it.

9. Carpenter bees (Xylocopa)

9 carpenter beeCarpenter bees are among the biggest bees in North America. They are also one our only bees capable of chewing into wood to construct their nests; most other bees use pre-existing tunnels, made by beetles, other insects, or helpful humans.

10. Cellophane bees (Colletes)

10 cellophane beeCellophane bees line their underground nest with a natural cellophane-like material they produce using a special gland. This substance looks remarkably like plastic wrap.

How many of these have you seen in your backyard? Check out the book’s introduction here.