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The Lives Of Bees by Thomas D Seeley - our thoughts

Princeton University Press. 2019. ISBN 978-0-691-16676-6

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Honeybee Democracy’ by Tom Seeley and was eager to read this book, particularly as the jacket claims that it ‘reveals how we can become better custodians of honey bees’. I need to become one of them!

Much of what we know or believe about honey bees has come from studies undertaken using managed colonies. The author thought it was high time we considered wild colonies to see what we can learn from them. In Northern America, where he comes from, wild colonies are abundant, and seem to be coping with all that life has thrown at them. Although they may have taken a hard hit when encountering varroa in the 1990s, the wild colonies are thriving as well now as they had been when he first studied them in the 1970s.

The first few chapters set the scene. You get to learn about the area in which Tom lives and works. He clearly loves bees as his charming personal interjections show. He describes the times he has lain amongst his hives watching the bees ‘crisscrossing the blue sky like shooting stars’ as he wondered what they were doing. He wasn’t content at wondering and has devoted his life to finding out what the bees are up to, much to the benefit of us all. After a bit of history Tom goes on to consider whether our bees are domesticated. Spoiler – he considers them semi-domesticated in that we have not managed to genetically alter them in the same way as cattle, sheep, dogs, etc. Bees will happily revert to the wild whereas the afore-mentioned creatures will not.

Following that, the chapters take one aspect of the honey bee’s environment, which is what we are good at changing and looks at it in detail comparing it to our managed colonies. The chapter headings of ‘The Nest’, ‘Annual Cycle’, ‘Colony Reproduction’, ‘Food Collection’, ‘Temperature Control’, and ‘Colony Defence’ will give you an idea of where the main body of the book will take you. Each includes details of the experiments undertaken and the conclusions drawn. The depth of information about the ingenious methods employed may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least those who accept nothing at face value can cast their critical eye across the page. I loved the experiment where he loosely attached metal ID disks to bees at food sources to help identify what each hive’s bees were foraging on. As the bees arrived at the entrance, a magnet gathered the discs and ‘Hey Presto!’, he knew where they’d been. There are many interesting nuggets along the way. For example, Tom disagrees that smoke causes bees to gorge themselves in readiness to flee the nest in the event of a fire. He says that they do become calm, but that the Queen is in no state to fly, and where would they be without her? He suggests that they retreat deeper into their nests, with the food, in an attempt to survive until the surrounding vegetation recovers. We hear of such instances from the current Australian bush fires.

The book closes with 21 differences between wild and managed colonies. 21 opportunities to get closer to take advantage of millions of years of evolution. Most of us have different aims to that of natural selection, so a compromise is needed. To help us cherry-pick these, Tom’s final ‘Darwinian Beekeeping’ chapter steers us through some possibilities. He invites us to ‘think of the items on the list as ingredients for a personal recipe of Darwinian Beekeeping, one that is realistic given your aims and opportunities as a beekeeper’. He has important points to make about treating for varroa etc and not importing queens. If we refrain from treating, we help the bees acquire resistance to the mites through natural selection. He says that ‘it is now clear that this will happen, probably within 5 years’. When someone of Tom’s stature makes such a statement it needs serious consideration.

So, I would recommend this book to all. I believe it is a must-read, particularly for those who attempt to think like a bee. This claims to be the only synthesis of studies made of wild colonies to date and for that alone it is an invaluable source of information. The guidance then offered by Tom about what this all means for managed colonies is certainly of value in planning where you want to take your colonies in the future. Typically, it is all written with a charming, easy to read style, making it a worthy addition to any library.

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