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Wild honey bees are doing just fine

  • A swarm of wild honey bees. Courtesy photo—


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Honey bees swarm in early summer. In a democratic process worth modeling, the swarm’s representatives go forth in all directions to find a new home, report back, and a gradual process towards consensus follows. It’s a life-and-death decision process perfected over millions of years. The best site agreed on, off the swarm flies.

Very good news. Honey bees in the wild are doing OK.

I’d read that they weren’t, that the only honey bees surviving are ones in hives that beekeepers monitor for the varroa mite, a parasite, and apply a miticide as needed.

Years back at a pollinator workshop I’d heard that if we see honey bees in our gardens it means there’s a beekeeper within two miles. Ever since, wherever I see honey bees I wonder where the beekeeper is.

I’ve passed the sad news along to others: no wild honey bees.

In this case, how wonderful to be wrong.

Thomas Seeley, Sunday’s speaker at the Monadnock Lyceum, really knows honey bees after decades doing original field and lab research, writing up his findings, giving talks worldwide and guiding a generation or two of graduate students eager to learn more.

He says that honey bees in the wild live a comparatively healthy life and therefore can resist the mites and other stressors that add up and often overwhelm commercial bees.

He said that wild bees have been doing their own thing for a long time. They forage for nectar and pollen from a diversity of flowers instead of being shipped to almond groves, then on to cherry, then apples and so on.

There’s less exposure to pesticides — one of the major stressors in the mix.

When wild bees swarm (leave the parent colony to set up a daughter colony), they select a new home that’s not too close to another colony. Distance provides some protection against spread of diseases and parasites.

More about a swarm’s amazing new-home search process later. Not to be missed.

Results of a major study on the impacts of pesticides on bees have been getting a lot of attention in the last few weeks. It’s the latest of many.

Bees were placed near pesticide-treated fields and untreated fields.

The pesticides were neonicotinoids, systemic neurotoxins—meaning they stay with a plant. I’ve written about them before, eager that people avoid them in their yards.

They also are a standard application on lawns treated by outfits like TruGreen.

Study results: Exposure to “neonics” resulted in lower winter survival of honey bee hives; and lower reproduction success, largely because of fewer queens in both bumble bee and wild bee populations.

A population of bees in Germany, however, thrived. Why?

Compared to study groups in the U.K. and Hungary, the bees were freer of parasites. They also foraged more widely than the treated crops because there were more neonic-free options nearby.

Forty to 50 percent of pollen collected by U.K. and Hungary honey bees was from treated crops compared to 10 percent in Germany.

The results fit well with what Tom Seeley said on Sunday. Wild honey bees eat better. They also aren’t crowded together and have a stable home life—not trucked around a lot. Result: They are resistant to parasites and disease.

Now, for the fun part. Seeley described how honey bees find what he calls a “new home.” It’s a life and death decision. No small matter.

When a colony expands naturally beyond a certain population, the old queen along with some 10,000 of her daughter worker bees “swarm.” They depart and then gather in a tight congregation while some 100 scouts go forth in search of a new tree-cavity home.

The scouts are the wiser, older bees, more experienced in foraging and navigating. A scout’s inspection of a cavity is painstaking, as though following a checklist of required features.

They return and do a “waggle dance” to the other scouts—if they have found a potential site. The direction of the dance indicates direction and distance to the site, and, most importantly, the length of the dance indicates the degree of a scout’s enthusiasm for the site.

With a stuffed-toy honey bee, Seeley demonstrated the dance.

The honey bee dance was known before as it communicated food direction and distance; Seeley is the pioneer who applied the process to finding a new home.

It’s a democratic process as he describes it. Each scout has a “voice” that is paid respectful attention. All scouts act in behalf of the common good. They don’t showboat a mediocre site, as in LOOK WHAT I FOUND. IT’S THE GREATEST.

Gradually the scouts arrive at consensus as less desirable sites are discarded as options. It can take a couple days for all scouts to dance the same dance, indicating a unanimous vote. And then off the swarm flies, led by the scouts in a unique combination of leading and herding action.

Again, it’s a life and death decision. The tree cavity has to be insulated against a winter freeze,

Seeley wrote “Honeybee Democracy,” describing the democratic process whereby wise scouts are representatives of the community. Again, it’s a life and death decision they are entrusted with. The tree cavity has be insulated against winter cold, and be located high enough, with a small enough entry hole, to discourage predators.

And be large enough for 20,000 bees and 50 pounds of honey to get them through the winter.

It’s a process perfected over millions of years. By comparison, we humans haven’t been at the business of collective decision-making very long. Thomas Seeley makes that very clear, and includes steps to take to improve the process.