by Gene E. Robinson
July 02, 2019
from Nature Website
Wild honeybees live in hollowed out trees.
on the plight of the honeybee
Apis mellifera grips.
The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild
Thomas D. Seeley
University Press (2019)
The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, accounts for nearly half of all crop pollination worldwide, and the annual losses - as high as 40% in North America - are unsustainable.
It's a cruel twist of
fate that this central player in food security has never been as
visible as now, when it is in serious trouble.
We now understand that the primary culprits are the 'four Ps':
...which all interact.
But Thomas Seeley's
The Lives of Bees sounds a
fresh note, providing a new perspective on the roots of the crisis
and a provocative proposal for how to deal with it. Unusually, its
focus is honeybees in the wild.
Seeley is a world expert on honeybee behavior. His previous books, such as Wisdom of the Hive (1995) and 2010's Honeybee Democracy, elevated this social insect to prominence as exemplars in behavioral ecology.
This book does not use
honeybees as exemplars of anything. It's all about them. At a
crucial moment for the species, Seeley seeks a solution centered on
Because they seemed to take nicely to the variety of beehives humans have invented over the 10,000-year history of beekeeping, no one thought to reveal the truly secret life of bees.
And very few biologists beyond Seeley have the vision and tenacity to conceive of and perform a long-term study of the type that underpins this book.
(Apis mellifera ligustica)
constructing wax combs
Most of the studies were done by Seeley and a group of talented students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, whose work is fully and frequently acknowledged.
Elegantly simple in design, the research is expertly synthesized by Seeley to give us a vivid glimpse of how honeybees live when left to their own devices:
It is the most complete
picture yet of the honeybee's natural history.
This is one of many fascinating behaviors reliant on the coordinated activities of tens of thousands of individual bees to produce an outcome that matters to the whole colony.
But this mechanism is
much more effective in a bee tree, which tends to have thick walls,
than in standard thin-walled beehives.
are much greater in hives, and the bees have to work harder to
maintain the temperature of their brood - which can add stress to
the life of a colony.
The mite, which feeds on honeybee fat tissue and transmits pathogens such as deformed wing virus, has devastated honeybee populations in many parts of the world.
This unremitting loss of
colonies changed the focus of Seeley's book. He discovered how
conditions in the wild make it possible for them to withstand V.
He calls for "Darwinian beekeeping", modeled after Darwinian medicine, which posits that mismatches between the current environment and the environment to which an organism originally adapted diminish the organism's fitness.
For Seeley, this relates mainly to the differences between life in a bee tree and life in a beehive, especially in the northeastern United States. He spends less time on environmental changes at larger spatial scales, such as land-use patterns and climate change.
His practical suggestions
amount to a "kinder and gentler" approach that takes advantage of
bees' natural tendency to adapt to their local environment, and
minimizes disruption to the natural architecture of their nests.
But 'modern' movable-frame hives and smokers (used to calm bees) were invented in the mid-nineteenth century, along with the honey extractor. I see little technical innovation since then.
Bee-keepers barely use processes that have become staples in other sectors of agriculture, such as intense genomic-based breeding or manipulation of physiology and behavior by hormones and pheromones.
bee-keeping (moving hives to orchards and fields when flowers are
blooming), which dominates the industry today, was invented in Egypt
about 5,000 years ago.
Two traits exhibited by bees in the wild - small colony sizes and frequent colony reproduction through swarming - are linked to greater resilience to parasites and pathogens. But these traits also diminish the colonies' effectiveness as pollinators and honey producers.
From the human
perspective, smaller colonies are less productive ones.
By framing honeybee
natural history in this way, Seeley has written a highly technical
but eloquent book on the bee that will also appeal to those
interested in sustainable agriculture.
In the era of CRISPR gene editing,
I hope we can pioneer a third way, and do both.
As the biblical Proverbs 6:6 notes of the ant, we need to go to the bee, "consider its ways and be wise".
Seeley has done that
better than anyone...