A Curious Beekeeper considers Tom Seeley’s The Lives of Bees

Dr. Thomas Dyer Seeley is a Professor of Biology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University. He is an extremely well-respected researcher with a gift for writing: his earlier volumes include The Wisdom of the Hive and Honeybee Democracy. His initial training was as an Ecologist not an Entomologist, which starts him at a different vantage point from most bee researchers.

Dr. Seeley spends the first 10 chapters in the book revisiting familiar territory, though with some wonderful extra detail and research updates. (I was delighted at his giving the history of the Arnot Forest – Cornell’s research forest. In particular his naming of the McClary Road. My middle name is McClary. Does it matter? Not particularly, but I enjoyed it none-the-less.)

The first 10 chapters serve as the underpinning for the 11th, called Darwinian Beekeeping. In this chapter, Dr. Seeley focuses on what his research has shown him is what the Honey bee does in nature, instead of the managed techniques of commercial beekeeping. My reading is that he is very clear not to criticize commercial beekeeping practices, which he recognizes as essential, particularly in the areas of honey production and pollination services.

That said, he describes what he has seen and lays out the differences in list form. Picking 2 of the 21 differences to explore in more detail is no easy task for me. Some of the differences are key to my beekeeping strategy. Others I haven’t fully considered yet. The two I’ll discuss further are colony spacing and the amount of drone cone comb in the colony.

Dr. Seeley’s observation is that colony density in The Arnot Forest is roughly 2.5 colonies per square mile, with the colonies widely spread out. Citing studies from around the world, Dr. Seeley says colony density varies, in part in response to the quantity of available nesting sites and carrying capacity of the land. (It is fascinating to learn how different research teams made their estimates.)

It makes sense to me that in nature, Honey bee colonies don’t exist in neat rows and in places where they can be easily reached and managed. There are practical limits to how far I can keep colonies spaced as I have to worry about bears and protecting my economic investment. Then too, my management requires that I periodically inspect my colonies, so having them 20 feet in the air, isn’t going to happen.

In nature, there should be decreased pest and parasite transmission between colonies widely spaced out. Then too, the density of colonies is aligned with the forage availability and what other consumers of that forage (native bees and pollinators) there might be. (Another thing to consider is robbing pressure.)

Dr. Seeley found that in wild nests, drones make up between 10 and 25% of bee population. A fundamental component of most Langstroth hives is worker sized foundation. This serves to suppress the number of drones; which Dr. Seeley sees as a trend away from what the bees do in nature. (I try to get around this issue by including a frame without foundation in each brood box.) The book identifies other jobs drones do; increasing the number of drones means among other things increased mating competition.

Dr. Seeley’s book is not a manifesto of how we should be keeping bees. Instead it is mostly his observations and analysis of how they live in the wild – How he sees Honey bees as having evolved in response to their environment. If anything, it can cause readers to look closer at their motivations for keeping Honey bees, making management adjustments as they feel led.

As has been recently discussed in the Group, Honey bees are livestock. Management is based on desired outcomes. What Dr. Seeley’s book does for me is provide science about Honey bee living conditions in the wild. I’m glad it is on my shelf, and glad too that it contains numerous points to ponder.

Andrew Dewey