Author: Thomas Seeley
It’s one of the wonders of the natural world. But despite its rather fearsome appearance, a swarm of honey bees is a fairly harmless entity, if you keep your wits about you. Honey bees swarm when their hive becomes overcrowded. They gorge on honey, round up about 10,000 volunteer sisters, grab the queen (their mom) and exit the hive with an impressive roar, heading to a branch on a nearby tree or bush. And there they sit, a giant ball of writhing feminine bee life protecting the queen, waiting for their next step. They may stay like this for several days, through wind, wet and cold if necessary, until they’re ready to move.
Eventually, when the time is right, they’ll take flight and head directly to their new home. They won’t get lost, they won’t change their minds, they won’t take an errant left turn, they’ll fly straight there in a beeline. How do they do it? How do they know where there’s a space that’s large enough, dry enough and safe enough to serve as a new hive? There are mysteries a plenty in this story and Thomas Seeley, a honey bee enthusiast and scientist, has spent most of his life revealing many of these secrets. Much to the joy of honey bee fanatics everywhere, he’s chosen to share them quite eloquently in Honeybee Democracy.
While a queen honey bee may produce hundreds of thousands of offspring in her lifetime, she’s only got two ways to pass her genes on to the next generation: producing drones (male honey bees) who can fly off to mate with other queens; or flying off with a swarm, leaving some of her daughters behind to raise a new queen. So every spring, if the hive has survived winter in good shape, there’s a strong reproductive drive to swarm. Carrying on in the great tradition of mentors like E.O. Wilson, Bert Hölldobler and Bernd Heinrich, Thomas Seeley has been studying the intricate details of honey bee behavior for forty years. His initial work focused on how foraging bees communicate with each other about the location of prime nectar sources – using the famous waggle dance – but over the past couple decades he’s studied how they decide when and where to move when they need a new home.