Book Review by Professor Tom Seeley & Literature Review on Genetic Diversity in Honey Bees.

Wild Honey Bees; review by Tom Seeley.

This week we start with a review of a recently published book full of beautiful photographs of honey bees. Thank you, Tom, for treating Beelistener readers to this professional review which has already been published in the academic journal, Quarterly Review of Biology, and the UK’s popular magazine, BeeCraft.

Wild Honey Bees:  An Intimate Portrait

By Ingo Arndt (photos) and Jürgen Tautz (text).  Princeton University Press; Princeton., New Jersey.  $29.95 hardcover.  191 pages.  2022.

Human beings have always been fascinated by the honey bee—Apis mellifera.  Our earliest ancestors in Africa surely marveled at this bee’s astonishing industry in storing honey and making beeswax.  Over the last ten thousand years, modern humans invented the craft of beekeeping.  But only in the last few decades have biologists studied how honey bees live in the wild—in hollow trees—rather than in beekeepers’ hives. 

This book gives bee enthusiasts a gorgeous tour of the lives of wild honey bees in Germany.  It is a lavishly illustrated, large-format, coffee-table type book.  Its macrophotographs, often printed full page, are the finest photos I have seen of the form and functioning of honey bees.  Readers will marvel at the clarity of those that depict the hairy bodies of worker bees.  Equally marvelous are the photos that show how these bees stand when drinking water from a puddle, how they collect honeydew from aphids, how they spread their legs (landing gear) when returning home, and how they execute dozens more behaviors.  There are also grim photos of dead worker bees caught by giant hornets to feed their young.   

To present the lives of wild honey bees, the authors needed to photograph these bees both outside the nest, when gathering their food and water, and inside the nest, when building their beeswax combs, rearing their young, and storing their food.  This need for within-nest photos was met by Ingo Arndt.  He worked with a colony that moved into an abandoned woodpecker nest cavity that was 66 feet (20 meters) up in a beech tree.  After building an “observation lodge” on the rear of the tree, he sawed an opening into the bees’ home and spent countless hours photographing the bees as they built and occupied their nest.  His observation lodge became an oven in summer.  He concluded that “working with honey bees requires a certain capacity for suffering.”  Thanks to his suffering, we see photographs that are thrilling. 

A good coffee table book will entertain guests and inspire conversations, and this book will certainly do these things.  Often, however, a book of this sort is not a solid source of scientific information.  This is the case for Wild Honey Bees.  The text, by Jürgen Tautz, appears to have been written hastily, for although it is an engaging read, it is peppered with misleading statements about the biology of honey bees.  Three that I find particularly strange are that “a veritable map forms in the bee’s head and this can then be conveyed to nest-mates using the dance language” (p. 106), that when foragers fly to a food source “they emit the pheromone geraniol… to mark the trail to the feeding site ” (p. 115), and that nest-site scouts form a “mental image of the [tree] cavity’s volume” (p. 128).  These things are not true.  Bottom line:  this is a book about wild honey bees that can be admired greatly for its photos, but cannot be trusted fully for its text.

Apiary News.

The last couple of weeks brought unseasonably warm weather, up to 16˚-17 ˚ Celsius, so good enough to make some quick inspections to assess stores and put queen excluders between the brood boxes and supers of stores. One queen was up in the top box. In fact, she was on the crown board which I had scanned quickly (but obviously not carefully enough) before placing in front of the hive for that very reason (if she was there, she could get back in the front door) but I didn’t spot her till I was putting the crown board back on; phew! Since I’d put the queen excluder and the super on, I let her walk in the front entrance.

 Only one colony really needed some fondant; all the rest had plenty stores of honey in bulging combs which also provides marvellous insulation.

Apiary management consisted of cleaning the equipment after moving two colonies into full sized hives from 2 poly nucs with 2 boxes of 5 brood frames each and a 5- framed super of honey each. This involved lots of scrubbing with an old dish brush, washing soda and washing up liquid. Strong warm sun quickly dried everything for storing ready for the upcoming swarm season. I filled 17 shallow boxes with frames ready for supering up in a couple of weeks once the predicted cold snap has passed.

The sun was hot enough to bring out the solar wax extractor and get the wax out of all the nooks and crannies of some super frames.

Melting Fondant.

A friend commented on bees dying in the feeders of her poly hive when the fondant melted and became liquid in the high humidity. I got to thinking about my own set up which was pretty gooey as well so I put the fondant on small pieces of cotton towel which did the trick and the bees were able to suck water from them as well.

Last weekend was full on with cleaning and preparing beekeeping equipment, but I sat in the rocker in the sun for an afternoon reading the journals and other interesting pieces. Two particular articles stimulated lots of thought about the selection of particular traits in queen rearing.

Decline in Honey Bee Genetic Diversity.

The paper by Panziera et al published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, March 2022/Volume 10/ Article 76950 caught my attention. It’s called “The Diversity Decline in Wild and Managed Honey Bee Populations Urges for an Integrated Conservation Approach” and explains what happens when animals are intensively domesticated and how they lose genetic diversity. For example, breeding modern dairy cattle for a high milk yield, means that other traits are lost at the expense of selected one, and interestingly there has been a 30% loss of brain volume over the years for these cattle when this new breed is compared with the its most recent ancestor, the auroch, Bos primigenius.  The auroch was a wild European undomesticated cow last recorded in 1627 in a Polish forest.

When honey bee breeding and reproduction is intensively controlled by instrumental insemination, using isolated mating stations, or highly selecting desirable traits for other methods of queen rearing, genetic diversity is lost and honey bee colonies become less resistant to disease and are less adaptable. Lots of people want to keep bees that don’t sting much but breeding very gentle bees can cause problems for the bee. Gentle bees are less defensive which can impact negatively on a colony under threat from robbing because they are less able to fight back and protect their colony, and they are also exposed to disease and varroa mite transfer.

The paper examines how the genetic diversity of the European honey bee has reduced over a few decades by beekeepers focussing on particular traits during selection and breeding and largely ignoring locally adapted bees. It discusses how free-living unmanaged honey bee colonies in the Arnot Forest NY have survived over a few decades through natural selection without a high loss of genetic variation despite a genetic bottleneck. A genetic bottleneck is a situation where a population of a certain species gets so small it loses much of its genetic diversity. This is a problem for many endangered species because as its populaton dwindles, and the numbers of individuals carrying copies of the genes, of the species, shrinks to 100 or so much of the diversity of the species gets lost.This is similar to the situation of intensively bred dairy cattle, where breeding programmes involve the use of sperm from only a few of the best animals causing a reduction in diversity.

The authors suggest an integrated approach to conservation, and that beekeepers leave reproductive decisions to their colonies and let them to choose the queens to rear and mate with the strongest local drones. They explain how survival of the fittest in natural selection is not just about only the best fitting animal surviving, but also about the least fitting gradually being eliminated by lower reproductive successes.  

Basically, some beekeepers can upset the balance and narrow the gene pool which also affects free-living colonies of bees living in parts of the world close to managed colonies where there is no isolation zone between them to prevent mating. To improve conservation of honey bee genes the authors suggest creating isolation zones preventing wild and managed colonies from meeting and mating, and promoting natural nest sites in old tree cavities by leaving some forests unmanaged. Tree cavities which are ideal honey bee nest sites form in damaged or diseased trees which are usually earmarked for felling in managed forests.

Practical Solutions for Beekeepers.

Coincidentally, the next article followed on perfectly and gave me some ideas about how to manage my own beekeeping better. Dr Chris Palgrave’s thought- provoking piece in April’s BeeCraft (page 16) called “Chasing Sunbeams-Conserving a local gene pool offers some solutions, and practical beekeeping advice. Chris will avoid buying intensively reared queens from home or abroad, and will stick to local queens rearing them himself from locally adapted colonies with a darker appearance. He will allow colonies to raise as many drones as they wish by providing a couple or more brood frames with starter strips of foundation so that the colony chooses the size of cell to make and will naturally produce more drones.

I bought a pack of drone brood foundation a couple of years ago with the intention of experimenting and raising more drones. When a friend offered to make up some of my deep brood frames for me, I jumped at it like a fish at a fly but forgot about the pack of drone foundation in my box of foundation and Cynthia didn’t notice either. Neither did I when I put 8 in a colony. You can imagine what happened. I thought that the queen was a drone layer when I saw the many hundreds of extra drones in that colony till reality registered. The frames were not all used for drone rearing and some were nicely drawn out and rescued for later use.

BeeCraft Magazine.

I can highly recommend BeeCraft magazine and you can subscribe here:

Lynfa Davies’ excellent article, “A Fight for Fitness: the pressures faced by drones in a modern world” appears on page 27 and was a must read for me with my recent great interest in drones and sharing information in my latest PowerPoint presentation, The Drone’s Story. The article emphasised the importance of good nutrition in a colony for drone production, and it focussed on the problems for drones of exposure to pesticides, and what beekeepers can do to mitigate some of these problems. This is definitely an article to cut out for my “drone folder”.

The Beginners in the Apiary series this year is written by Christine Coulsting and I’m pretty sure that every reader enjoys these well-written and interesting articles. They are based on Christine’s own experiences when it comes to the practical side of things, and she always has useful tips for us. The description of her early encounters with swarms makes me smile and brings back mirror-image memories.

18 thoughts on “Book Review by Professor Tom Seeley & Literature Review on Genetic Diversity in Honey Bees.”

  1. Thanks for another great blog Ann – and thank you for the mention too. As you say, this important, newly-published paper by Delphine Panziera and colleagues sheds further light on the loss of genetic diversity seen in honeybees – I do hope with increased awareness and a gradual shift in public opinion we will start to see some movement on this front.

    I really enjoyed the balanced and candid book review by Prof Seeley too – and agree that BeeCraft is going from strength-to-strength; my very modest contribution is just a tiny part of a tremendous publication with some great authors and lots of practical advice.

    1. Great to hear from you again, Chris, and thank you for your favourable comments on all subjects of last week’s blog. I am looking forward to when you have time to contribute some bee health material to Beelistener.

  2. Funny you should say that, Tom! I noticed factual errors in ‘Honey Bees’ by the same authors. I will get it off the shelf and make a list of them.

    1. Thank you, Margaret. I did not have space in my book review to list all the incorrect statements about the biology of honey bees that are found in the text of the book by Arndt and Tautz, so I mentioned only the three especially weird/shocking ones. Please add your list of the errors to the discussion. If Tautz is a good scientist, then he will welcome constructive feedback as a way to improve his knowledge and understanding of the biology of honey bees. It is a complex subject, and I know that his direct experience with honey bees is quite limited.

      1. Just four things to start with, Tom. The text often contains words instead of precise facts, even misleading ones, like emerging bees ‘hatching’ or an emerging queen ‘seeing the light of day’ or young drones being fed to ‘keep up their strength’. The activities of so called ‘heater bees’ is misleading’; heat is generated in the brood nest area by the metabolizing of food:- by larvae; by nurse bees; by bees attracted to cells occupied by pupae generating pheromones; by young drones being nourished in the brood area for twelve days till they reach sexual maturity. Honey is not made by heating nectar to remove water; the rate of evaporation from a liquid is proportional to its surface area, so house bees paint nectar on the insides of empty cells and fan it to remove moisture. Heating air does not reduce the humidity of the brood nest but increases it to the required high level, of about 42% at temperatures just above 32 degrees Celsius.

      2. Pages 40, 45 and 48. the bee pupa does not ‘shed a clear body shell as it hatches’; it has its 6th moult then emerges on the following day. P86. The worker bees don’t ‘remove the queen’s faeces’; the queen’s excrement is pleasant, as she only consumes royal jelly and sometimes honey, so it is consumed by members of her retinue.

        1. Hello Margaret, thank you for contributing this information and I have learned from reading your comments. I must confess to not knowing that the retinue ate queen faeces but it makes perfect sense. I had never given her faeces a second thought before. I know that damaged larvae and royal jelly are recyled and I always leave royal jelly behind in the hive when I remove queen cells. I like your attention to detail re insect physiology which is why I bought a copy of Wigglesworth that you recommended a couple of years ago.

      3. Tom, as a postscript to my list of members of the colony that contribute to the warmth of the brood nest, perhaps the term ‘incubator’ bees would distinguish the bees that are attracted to the capped brood area by the the pheromones of pupae.

      4. The word ‘incubation’ seems perfect for the bees on cells occupied by pupae as well as for birds:
        INCUBATION – maintaining something at the most favorable temperature for its development
        IINCUBATION – sitting on eggs so as to hatch them by the warmth of the body

  3. Dear Margaret, as a staunch admirer of your vast knowledge I shall not dare to criticise. There is although the demonstrated activity of the heater bee as observed in tonight’s SBA webinar by Prof. Tautz himself. It made perfect sense to me. The choice of language in his reviewed book may divert from strict scientific terminology at times and I wonder if that could be considered an author’s freedom of expression. The one point I want to make is the very interesting battle of opinions which will always keep science alive and I am very interested in the follow up. Hoping that comments will always be professional and on the subject.

    1. Hello Younus and thank you for your input. Margaret and I knew that Heater bees are most certainly a fact, and that the initial study was done in collaberation with Professor Tom Seeley in the US. It was good to see the result of further work last night, and the discovery of gas-station bees. That part of the presentation was interesting. I think that the problem arises when Dr Tautz leads readers/audiences to believe the odour plume theory promulgated by Dr Adrian Wenner some time ago. Dr Seeley shows clearly in HoneyBee Democracy that streaker bees lead the swarm to the new nest cavity and Nasonov gland pheromone is only used at the new nest site to welcome and orientate the swarm. It is a fascinating read and you will see that the scientists sealed over the scout’s Nasonov glands for the experiment. There is no clear evidence for the odour plume theory attracting honey bees to forage sites. Forageres bring back the smell of flowers and pollen on their bodies. We know this, but to suggest that they are guided by Nasonov scent to forage sites is confusing for people seeking to truly understand our amazing animal, the honey bee. I’m thinking particularly of the students of the SBA modular exams. I hope that lively debate will move forward futher research. I can assure you that all commnents on my website are professional and polite. This is the beauty of owning a website to share information, rather than disseminating it on social media where sometimes negativity and aggression can hurt people. Best wishes, Ann

      1. Yes, Ann it is good to point out that bees do not waste pheromones under any circumsances: even during flight to the new nest, the queen will only emit pheromones to attract attention, if she gets separated from the other bees.

    2. Younus, it was good that Jurgen Tautz had the oportunity to talk to us about a subject he was involved in, from the start in 2001, and show us pictures of the heat given off by some of the bees, attracted to the capped comb by pupal pheromones, while incubating pupae. It was the best part of the talk last night. Having heard Juliana Rangel’s brilliant lecture, at the National Honey Show, about her work with Tom Seeley with swarms and the behaviour of scout bees, I was disapointed with the rest of the evening. Like you I read about ‘heater bees’ in ‘The Buzz about Bees’ when it became available in the UK and thought, even then, that they should be called ‘incubator bees’. Yes, you are right, Scientists have always tried to be precise about terminology and even how it is printed, so that it can be understood anywhere in the world; even the writing of genus and species names in italics is regulated. You will remember that in ‘The Buzz about Bees’, the bees that feed the ‘heater bees’ are referred to as ‘filling station bees’, last night Jurgen Tautz called them ‘gas-station bees’; translators will puzzle about how to translate these terms into other languages. Even here in the UK we use the words petrol or deisel not gas; gas is a different fuel that is not usually in liquid form like diluted honey and nectar. Just one other point , that I should have mentioned in my list – bees only metabolize sugar solutions that are 50% sugar or less, so bees dilute stored honey before assimilating it. Thirst is deadly for bees that become overheated.

        1. It occured to me that in the near future, with electric cars becoming the norm, ‘petrol filling stations’ and ‘gas stations’ will disapear and have little meaning to the next generation. Something to look forward to.

          1. So you are suggesting to unify vocabulary into > incubator bees and > charger bees? You could write an article and evaluate the response. The younger generation would possibly easier adapt to contemporary nomenklatura. For what it’s worth, I’m with you. On another note, the previously mentioned different opinions have kept us busy and I hope that we can clarify a few details in our next meeting. Criticism requires correction and alternative. Something to look forward to. Quite excited here.

          2. Yes I like ‘charger’ idea, Younus, and as one specific synonym of ‘charger’ is ‘replenisher’, that synonym (as opposed to a plate or a horse) would be perfect. The word ‘replenished’ was used in connection with honey, by Worsworth in July 1800, in verse 9 of his poem The Farmer of Tilsbury Vale.
            “To the neighbours he went, – all were free with their money;
            For his hive had so long been replenished with honey,
            That they dreamt not of dearth; – He continued his rounds,
            Knocked here – and knocked there, pounds still adding to pounds”

            The ‘re’ syllable in ‘replenished’, meaning ‘filled again’, is important to the idea of keeping the incubator bees well fed.
            Another word like that is ‘repletes’, used to name the bees up in the supers, with crops full of honey awaiting the moment to leave with the swarm. I first read about the ‘repletes’ in Ian Craig’s ‘My beekeeping year.

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