Book reveals wild honeybees’ biology, with insights for beekeepers

While human relations with honeybees date back about 4,500 years, little has been known about how bees live in the wild.

Now, a new book describes the biology and behaviors of wild honeybees and takes lessons from nature to inform small-scale beekeepers on how to manage their hives to better face modern challenges.

The book, “The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild” (Princeton University Press, 2019), by Thomas Seeley, a world-renowned authority on bees and the Horace White Professor in Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, is written for experts, beekeepers and biology buffs alike. Seeley’s fifth book on bees illuminates why wild honeybees across the planet are thriving while managed colonies are under threat.

As an entomology graduate student in the 1970s, Seeley searched the literature for wild bee studies, and quickly found none existed. Even basic research that described the organization of a hive had not been investigated.

“This is the most important insect in the world to humans, but as a whole we lack the foundation of what its basic biology is,” Seeley said. Bees provide honey, pollinate plants and crops, and offer valuable insights for humans through their social behavior and organizational structure.

“This is a step-by-step look back over 40 years,” he said, “at how bees live in the wild, comparing it to how they live under management.”

The book’s chapters outline Seeley’s investigations of bees in Cornell’s Arnot Forest; a history of bees’ relationships with humans; bee “domestication”; explanations for humans’ lack of knowledge about wild bees; and the biology of wild bees, including their nests, annual cycles, colony reproduction, foraging, temperature control and defenses.

The final chapter, “Darwinian Beekeeping,” takes account of the genetics and lifestyle of wild honeybees and applies them to managing honeybees.

Managed bee colonies are under threat from Varroa mites, which transmit deadly viruses. But due to wild honeybees’ constant exposure to the mites, natural selection has led to genetic adaptations – with strong evidence in both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA – for defending against the hive invaders. Wild bees are programmed to recognize the mites as a threat, rip open the hive’s brood cells in which the mites hide, and bite off their legs.

The wild bees’ lifestyle has also led to advantages over managed bees. For example, wild bee colonies, often found in tree cavities, are small, topping out at 20,000 bees, instead of 60,000 bees for managed hives. “That means they are not as rich a host for the mites; there isn’t as much opportunity for the mites to reproduce,” Seeley said.

Also, since wild colonies are smaller due to the tree cavity size, they swarm every year when the colony grows, which has great benefits for preventing mites. Beekeepers, on the other hand, actively try to prevent colonies from swarming. “When a colony swarms it goes through a period without any brood,” Seeley said. “When there’s no brood, the mites don’t have brood cells in which to hide, and they are exposed to the bee’s control behaviors.”

Beekeepers raise bees in box hives with movable frames, which makes it convenient to extract honey. But these frames are often moved among colonies, which further spreads mites.

Seeley advocates following the guidance of wild bees – in accordance with the Darwinian beekeeping method– though he adds that the method won’t work for commercial beekeepers, whose goal is to harvest large amounts of honey. At the same time, this model of beekeeping applies to some 90 percent of beekeepers, who operate at small scales. For the model to work, communities of beekeepers must together agree to stop using expensive treatments that include toxic miticides.

“Step one is for communities to say we’re going to stop treating, and we’re going to experience colony mortality and then we’re going to breed from survivors,” said Seeley, who maintains such hives himself. There are successful examples of natural selection running its course in Central and South America, in Wales and in Sweden, he said. But it can take two to three years before colonies begin to rebound.

In addition, beekeepers should keep smaller hives and let them swarm, Seeley said.

“The Lives of Bees” begins with this epigraph from poet and essayist Wendell Berry, which encapsulates the book’s main point: “We cannot know what we are doing until we know what nature would be doing if we were doing nothing.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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