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: 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: the American Dainty

Adapted from pages 374-375 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America:

Two species of Baccha occur in North America and there are 16 species worldwide, with most of the diversity in the Palearctic and Indomalayan regions. These flies are small and slender, with elongate, petiolate abdomens. They are most similar to species of Ocyptamus, Pelecinobaccha, and Pseudodoros, but are smaller and more fragile in appearance than these flies. Larvae are predators of ground-dwelling aphids.

The American Dainty (Baccha cognata) is 7.2-10.1mm in size, and is readily identified by the narrow abdomen and unmarked wings. The face is black with a small tubercle, the oral margin is not produced, and the scutellum is black. The female ocellar triangle is pollinose. These bugs are common, with flight times from early May to early October (from late March in California).

Baccha cognata is resurrected from synonymy with B. elongata. They are restricted to the Nearctic while B. elongata occurs in Alaska, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and the Old World. The species are genetically distinct and females of B. elongata have a shiny ocellar triangle.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

Insect of the Week: Pipiza

Adapted from page 308 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America:

Pipiza are small black syrphids that vary from having all black abdomens to having paired yellow spots on tergite 2 and sometimes also tergite 3. They can be mistaken for Heringia and Trichopsomyia and so should be checked for a bare anterior anepisternum and katepimeron. Th ere are 52 world species; 11 in the Nearctic and seven from the northeast.

A recent revision in Europe (Vujić et al. 2013) turned much of the original taxonomy on its head and illustrated how difficult this group is. Despite recent work by Coovert (1996) in the Nearctic, taxonomic concepts need to be reevaluated incorporating genetic data. Many problems with current concepts exist but cannot be solved without complete revision. We thus follow Coovert here with the caveat that changes are needed.

Pipiza species are often found flying through herbaceous vegetation or around shrubs. Known larvae are predators of aphids and phylloxera (mostly gall-making or leaf-rolling aphids that create waxy secretions). Characters illustrated below generally work, but male genitalia should be checked for confirmation.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

Insect of the Week: Palpadas

Adapted from pages 120-121 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America

Palpadas are a distinctive New World genus of flies, generally resembling Eristalis, but with a characteristic color pattern consistent throughout most of the species in the genus. The larvae are filter feeders in aquatic environments. There are 83 valid species, only four of which make it into our area.

The Palpada vinetorum is typically 10-13.5mm in length, with a pollinose face and a yellow medial stripe. Their wings are partly microtrichose apically. These flies are fairly common, with flight times in early June through mid-October. Like other Palpada species in our area, this species may be migratory. Flowers visited include Baccharis, Gymnosperma, Lobularia, Miconia, Serjania, and Solidago.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

Insect of the Week: Leafwalkers

Adapted from pages 172-173 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America:

The Yellow-haltered Leafwalker (Chalcosyrphus [Xylotomima] curvarius) is identified by its bright yellow halteres. It is the most distinctive of the orange-legged Chalcosyrphus species, with an entirely black metacoxa. These insects are common, and fly typically between mid-May to late August. Like the two preceding species, they can often be found on hilltops. On hilltops, the males more often land on the ground rather than on leaves or twigs. They are mostly found in hardwood forests but there are a few records from the tundra. There is no genetic variation between Arctic and eastern specimens. One specimen was collected on a large fallen Populus (aspen) log that had been on the ground for about one year.

Meanwhile, the Violet Leafwalker (Chalcosrphus [Xylotomima] chalybeus) is distinctive as it is all black, and has a metallic purple sheen to its body. Its legs are entirelyblack, and unlike the wings of other black Chalcosyrphus, the wings are largely dark brown. These bugs are between 12.4.-16.1 mm in length, and are fairly common, flying typically between mid-May and mid-August. These hardwood forest flies are often seen around fallen dead tree trunks. They are spectacular and glisten with purplish iridescence on a sunny day. They only occasionally visit hilltops. Flowers visited include Rubus and Spiraea. These flies
mimic solitary wasps such as Sphex pensylvanicus and Chalybion californicum.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

Insect of the Week: Laetodon

Adapted from page 38-39 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America

Laetodon species are small metallic ant flies (Microdontinae) with a posterior appendix on wing vein R4+5. This genus used to be included within Microdon and was described in 2013 by Menno Reemer. The genus Laetodon includes five species, four of them Nearctic and one Neotropical. Only one species occurs within the area of the field guide. Larvae are presumed to be predators in ant nests but have not been described. 

More specifically, the Laetodon laetus is a small metallic ant fly ranging from 6.0-9.7mm in size. These are small, strongly metallic flies that are green, blue, or purple. The tibiae are orange and the flagellum has a short sensory pit on the outside edge. The eye is sparsely pilose. These insects are rare and local, with a flight time ranging from late March (in Florida) to early October (in Arizona), or late May to late September within the area of the field guide. In Maryland, the records are all from mid-to-late July. Larvae are unknown.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

 

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.

Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash on Britain’s Dragonflies

Britain’s Dragonflies is the only comprehensive photographic field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland. Written by two of Britain’s foremost Dragonfly experts, this fully revised and updated fourth edition features hundreds of stunning images and identification charts covering all 57 resident, migrant and former breeding species, and six potential vagrants. The book focuses on the identification of both adults and larvae, highlighting the key features. Detailed species profiles provide concise information on identification, distribution, flight periods, behavior, habitat, status and conservation.

What does the book cover?

This is a practical field guide covering every species of dragonfly and damselfly recorded in Britain and Ireland up to the end of 2017. It also includes a few species that might occur in the future. Dragonfly biology and preferred habitats are covered in the introductory sections. Detailed accounts describe and illustrate each species, and give details of status and distribution, along with helpful identification tips. Although the book focuses on the identification of adults, there is also a unique guide to the identification in the field of larvae and exuviae (larval ‘skins’ left behind when adults emerge from water). The concluding chapters give tips on photography, conservation and recording.

Who is the book aimed at?

The target readership includes both beginners and experts alike. The book is written in an accessible style and has a user-friendly design, making it easy to understand for beginners, but with the level of detail needed occasionally by experts. Scientific jargon is avoided as much as possible and the book follows a sequence that leads the reader to likely species in a logical order. An e-version gives enthusiasts the chance to carry this wealth of information, as well as other WILDGuidesbooks, in their pocket during excursions into the field.

How is the book illustrated?

Britain’s Dragonflies is lavishly illustrated with over 500 superb color photographs. Photographic guides are often preferred over those with painted illustrations because of their better reflection of reality. We have carefully selected photographs that were taken specifically for this book by ourselves, as well as many by some of the world’s foremost dragonfly photographers. We have used these in combination with graphics specially produced by WILDGuides’ Chief Designer, Rob Still, to summarize the finer identification details.

This is the fourth edition, so what has changed since the first?

As with many other insect groups, Dragonflies are taking advantage of warmer conditions around the globe. Populations have spread generally northwards in Europe, including in Britain and Ireland, and we have seen rapid extensions in the ranges of many species in recent years. Indeed, we have experienced colonizations by species previously unknown in these isles, as populations have built up in continental Europe. For example, the Small Red-eyed Damselfly has spread rapidly across southern Britain following its discovery in 1999. At the same time, powerful fliers such as Emperor Dragonfly and Migrant Hawker have spread north and west within Britain and Ireland. The quality of images available has improved tremendously since the advent of digital photography, allowing us to incorporate even better examples. Our close links with the British Dragonfly Society have enabled us to build on the experience of others to produce what we, and many of the reviewers of previous editions, consider to be the ultimate field guide.

Why did you write this book?

As keen all-round naturalists we built up many years’ experience in running field courses for both professional and amateur naturalists, and felt it was time to put this wealth of experience on paper. Our key driver, as keen conservationists, was in encouraging others to take an interest in this amazing and enigmatic group of insects. The WILDGuides Britain’s Wildlife series has set new standards in the development of photographic field guides,  and provided us with an ideal platform to give Dragonflies the coverage they warrant.