“Honey Bee Biology” Reviewed.


The perfect window of weather came this week for vaporising the colonies using Apibioxal and the Varrox Eddy kit. Yesterday was particularly beautiful with sunshine to brighten the skies after days of low lying leaden grey clouds when one feels tightly sandwiched between the soggy earth and sky. It had been some months since my last visit to the out apiary in the walled garden and everything seemed bright and dazzling. Raindrops suspended in the apple trees sparkled like disco lights and I could hear the river Nairn in full spate from all the recent rain. A large flock of guinea fowl announced my arrival like a myriad squeaky gates opening at once before taking wing and moving off to the pony field where Sally’s herd of Highland ponies grazed.

The day was so still and the hives so well sealed because I couldn’t see any vapour leaking out. I take my time vaporising, because I can, and I walk off between each treatment to admire the scenery a good distance from the hives. When I return the green light is on and the wand has cooled. The sun is hitting the wall at the far end of the garden and one of the three free-living colonies of honey bees living in the wall is flying though it is not much above 5 or 6 degrees C. I wonder what they are up to then I notice one at my feet drinking water from a blade of grass.

One of the three colonies of my honey bees has been flying too as the sun hits their entrance. They all settle down after treatment and I leave them for a couple of days before returning to count the dead Varroa on the floor inserts. The home apiary was treated on the 11th so I count the fallen mites. Only one colony has had a significant mite kill of 100. The rest have less than 10. This was a very productive colony that made Ross rounds and I’d waited till the last moment before removing the box and treating with Apiguard so perhaps not so effectively treated at the end of the season. I shall be watching this colony carefully.

Book Review.

I was pleased to be invited to review our latest biology book despite the challenging read to capture the essence and give an honest appraisal. This review was first published in BBKA News December 2023.

Title: Honey Bee Biology

Author: Brian R. Johnson

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Year published: 2023.

Hardback cover, ISBN 7980691204888

Cost: £38. Available from Northern Bee Books and other bookstores.

Brian R. Johnson is an associate professor in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California, Davis. He is an expert in the behaviour, genetics, and evolution of honey bees. During his graduate studies at Cornell University, Johnson was mentored by professor Thomas D. Seeley who endorses this masterpiece and credits the author in the Foreword of Honey Bee Biology.

The publication of Honey Bee Biology is timely since it is over 30 years since the release of Mark Winston’s The Biology of the Honey Bee, which served as the main reference book for many students till now. Winston’s book remains relevant, but it is out of date in the areas of genetics, bee behaviour, nutrition, toxicology, pollination, and immunity. So much more new research informs biology today and is encapsulated within Johnson’s Honey Bee Biology.

Honey Bee Biology contains 19 chapters. There are 481 pages containing the assimilated and updated scientific research results of several hundred years of honey bee science. This is a work of love and dedication. The broad and encompassing literature reviews are reflected in 123 pages of references. There are 8 plates with 16 colour photos, 101 black and white illustrations, and 16 tables. This is a splendidly illustrated definitive reference book. It is written in a friendly easy-to-read style.

Johnson has written primarily for scientists and he makes this clear at the outset. However, he knows that beekeepers have been waiting for an updated biology book, and many of the chapters are written such a way that makes the information understandable by readers without a scientific background. These include chapters covering anatomy and physiology, taxonomy, reproduction, chemical communication, nesting biology, parasites and pathology, tropical bees, pollination, and pesticides.

Nearly every chapter reveals something of interest to the beekeeper, though this book is unlikely to be read from cover to cover. Rather, it is a book for dipping in to for specific information. It will be used as a reference by beekeepers researching topics when writing articles. The BBKA (British Beekeepers’ Association) Exam Board members will delight in its accurate, new information that will inform the updating of their syllabus and examination questions. For example, there is an excellent table of honey bee mechanical signals on page 228, and the descriptive glossary of dances on page 229. The term “round dance” will be relegated to the realms of history.

We discover that there are no clear data and evidence for 2-heptanone being used as an alarm pheromone; rather it signals avoidance of marked flowers to make forage less attractive to fellow foragers. Readers will also be fascinated to learn why the differences in biology and behaviour between tropical and temperate climate honey bees make African bees less at risk from Varroa than bees in the rest of the world.

In the pollination chapter, Johnson explores why our dependence on honey bee pollination is unlikely to change while we still grow food the way we currently do under largely unsustainable conditions. Honey bees remain the linchpin of pollination in a risky environment.

An amusing account explains why alfalfa is a crop that individual bees will not persevere in pollinating. When a bee visits an alfalfa flower, the spring-loaded stamens are released and hits the bee on the head with a jolt, covering her in pollen. It is not good news for the bee who must spend too much time grooming rather than food collecting so she gives up after a few jolts and this crop is not well pollinated by honey bees.

Evidence documented in Reproduction (chapter 8) shows us why using locally adapted bees is better for the bees. Species managed outside their native range demonstrate maladaptive behaviour and this could account for why so many beekeepers experience afterswarms late in the season. This chapter will intrigue and inform beekeepers interested in queen rearing. Find out why duelling queens spray each other with faeces in some situations.

Honey Bee Biology will become the new definitive textbook for entomology courses, research scientists, science writers, and scientists interested in bees as a model system. Beekeeping teachers and keen students will buy this book as will the curious beekeeper just wanting to learn new things and be a better beekeeper.

1 thought on ““Honey Bee Biology” Reviewed.”

  1. Thank you, Ann, for helping to spread the word about Brian Johnson’s amazing synthesis of our scientific knowledge about the biology of honey bees. I like how this book is written in a way that works for beekeepers in general, not just biologists in particular.

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