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.
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.
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.
I can highly recommend BeeCraft magazine and you can subscribe here: https://www.bee-craft.com/
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.