Insect of the Week: Managed & Wild Colonies

Adapted from pages 3-5 of Following the Wild Bees:

Wherever there are honey bees, there exist both managed colonies living in beekeepers’ hives and wild colonies living in tree cavities, rock clefts, and the walls of buildings. While it is true that managed and wild honey bee colonies lead rather different lives— the former are manipulated to produce honey and pollinate crops, whereas the latter are left alone and can do whatever boosts their survival and reproduction— the bees in both types of colonies are virtually identical. The members of these two groups look, function, and act so similarly because the two groups have essentially the same genetic composition. This genetic similarity is a consequence of the frequent swapping of genes between the managed and wild colonies living in the same geographical area. Part of this genetic exchange between the two groups arises because the colonies living in beekeepers’ hives produce swarms that escape and then lead lives in the wild, while at the same time the colonies living in natural abodes produce swarms that beekeepers collect and then install in their hives.

The exchange of genes between managed and wild colonies also takes place in a second, more sensational way: the curious sexual behavior of honey bees. Every queen bee mates on the wing with 15– 20 males drawn from the neighboring colonies living within four or so miles from her home. This shameless promiscuity of queen honey bees evolved because high genetic diversity among a queen bee’s female offspring— that is, the workers in her colony— is essential to her colony’s health. These days, it also has the effect of blending the genes in the managed and the wild colonies living in the same region. Incidentally, this extensive gene flow between managed and wild colonies explains why humans haven’t created distinct breeds of honey bees through selective breeding, analogous to what has been done in the domestication of dogs, horses, and sheep.

Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting
By Tom Seeley

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. Weaving informative discussions of bee biology with colorful anecdotes, personal insights, and beautiful photos, Thomas Seeley describes the history and science behind this lost pastime and how anyone can do it. The bee hunter’s reward is a thrilling encounter with nature that challenges mind and body while also giving insights into the remarkable behavior of honey bees living in the wild. Whether you’re a bee enthusiast or just curious about the natural world, this book is the ideal companion for newcomers to bee hunting and a rare treat for armchair naturalists.

 

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.

Insect of the Week: Food Collection for Honey Bees

Adapted from pages 187-191 of The Lives of Bees:

Worker bee flying home bearing loads of yellow- green pollen on her hind legs and a load of nectar in her crop (honey stomach). That she is carrying a nectar load is indicated by the distension and translucence of her abdomen.

We generally think of a honey bee colony as a family of bees living inside a bee hive or a hollow tree. A moment’s reflection will disclose, however, the important fact that during the daytime many of the bees in a colony are dispersed far and wide over the surrounding countryside, where they toil to gather their colony’s food. To accomplish this, each forager bee flies as far as 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) to a patch of flowers, gathers a load of nectar or pollen, and then flies home, where she quickly off- loads her food and then heads out on her next collecting trip. On a typical day, a colony will field several thousand worker bees, or about one- third of its members, as foragers. Thus, in acquiring its food, a honey bee colony functions as a large, diffuse, amoeboid entity that can extend itself over great distances and in multiple directions simultaneously to exploit a vast array of food sources. To succeed in gathering the pollen and nectar it needs, a colony must closely monitor the food sources within its environment, and it must wisely deploy its foragers among these sources so that its food is gathered efficiently, in sufficient quantity, and with the correct nutritional mix. The colony must also properly apportion the food it gathers between present consumption and storage for future needs. Moreover, it must accomplish all these things in the face of constantly changing conditions, both outside the nest as foraging opportunities come and go, and inside the nest as the colony’s nutritional needs change with the seasons.

Pollen, nectar, and water are the substances most commonly gathered by a colony’s foragers. But during late summer and early fall, if you keep a close watch at a hive’s entrance, you will also spy a few bees returning home with shiny brown loads of tree resin stuck in their pollen baskets. As discussed in chapter 5, the bees jam this gluey material into cracks and small holes in the walls of their nest cavity, making their home more weathertight and easier to defend. We also saw that they use this resin to coat the walls of their nest cavity because it has antimicrobial properties that promote colony health. 

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: Bee Reproduction

Adapted from pages 156-157 of The Lives of Bees:

A honey bee swarm, with approximately 12,000 worker bees and one queen bee, resting safely inside the cluster.

Although reproductive success by a honey bee colony involves producing both fertile drones and big swarms, the two production processes do not unfold in perfect synchrony. Instead, a colony usually has a peak in its drone production approximately 30 days before the colonies in its neighborhood begin casting swarms and then sending forth virgin queens to be mated. The reason is simple. Drones have a 24- day developmental period, and they require another 12 or so days after emerging from their brood cells to reach sexual maturity. (Queens have much shorter times for development and sexual maturation: about 16 days and 6 days, respectively.) So, if a colony is to have a maximum number of sexually mature drones ready for active service at the time of year when virgin queens are most abundant—the swarming season—then it must start rearing its drones long before the seasonal peak of swarming.

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 Winter

Adapted from pages 141-142 of The Lives of Bees:

Worker honey bee collecting pollen from eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which flowers early in the spring. Only the flowers are visible above the muddy soil; the stems remain buried below the surface of the soil, with the leaves emerging later.

 Shortly after the winter solstice, when the days begin to grow longer but snow still blankets the countryside in Ithaca, each colony raises the core temperature of its winter cluster to about 35°C (95°F) and starts to rear brood. Initially, there are only a hundred or so cells of brood in a colony’s nest, but by early spring, when the red maple trees, pussy willow bushes, and skunk cabbage plants (Symplocarpus foetidus) have come into bloom and are providing the bees with plentiful nectar and pollen, more than 1,000 cells hold developing bees, and the pace of a colony’s growth is quickening daily. Worker honey bee collecting pollen from eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which flowers early in the spring. Only the flowers are visible above the muddy soil; the stems remain buried below the surface of the soil, with the leaves emerging later.

Come late spring, when the bumble bee queens and sweat bee queens are just rearing their first daughter- workers to adulthood, honey bee colonies have already grown to full size—30,000 or so individuals—and are starting to reproduce. Colony reproduction by honey bees involves not only the simple process of rearing males, which fly from their nest to find and mate with virgin queens from neighboring colonies, but also the intricate process of swarming (colony fissioning), in which a labor force of some 10,000 to 15,000 worker bees, together with the colony’s mother queen, suddenly departs in a swirling mass to establish a new 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.

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.

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.