Looking 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.