Following the Wild Bees
Many thanks for this book review by Richard Rickitt, editor of the Honey Bee Times, the newsletter of the Wiltshire Beekeepers’ Association. The book could make a very good Christmas present for beekeepers with all the hive tools they can handle.
Following the Wild Bees by Thomas D Seeley
Princeton University Press
Professor Thomas Seeley, author of some of the most fascinating recent books about honey bee research, has taken time out to write a quite different sort of book: Following the Wild Bees.
Bee hunting or bee lining is the practice of following honey bees from their foraging sites to their nests. This is not as simple a task as it might sound and whilst Seeley has found some wild colonies in less than an hour, others have taken him more than three years to locate.
Seeley describes how bee hunting in the USA was developed by early woodsmen searching for wild nests made by bees that had been first introduced to the continent by European settlers. Their reward was valuable honey and wax, but sadly it often entailed the destruction of the colony. One Victorian bee hunter apparently earned a small fortune from the 1700 lbs of honey that he found and gathered in just one season.
Contemporary bee hunters require patience but very little in the way of equipment. The main device is a homemade box for scooping up and holding bees as they collect nectar from flowers. Once several bees have been captured, they can be fed sugar syrup laced with a tiny amount of anise. The well-fed bees are then marked before being released.
If you are lucky your original bees will return with recruits – and by recording the returning times and direction of flight, it is possible to estimate the distance and direction of the nest. After collecting and releasing bees several times, you can move your feeding station to a new position in the direction that the bees are flying, hoping that the returning bees will find you in your new position. In this way, you gradually move closer to their home. Each time you record the time it takes for each of the bees to return.
Seeley has found that it is surprising how many detours are made by the bees, who rarely fly directly towards their home, but often take a curved or angled route which takes into account various obstacles and geographic features.
Eventually, there should come a time when you have moved close to the nest and the bees are taking almost no time at all to return to your nectar source. Then it is a matter of studying the nearby trees to find their home – a task which can be exceedingly tricky when there are dozens or even hundreds of trees within sight.
Seeley describes bee lining as a leisure pursuit or even as a sport — a sport that is all about the chase and not the kill. The general text is very informal in style, but it is also interspersed with what Seeley calls Biology Boxes – fascinating research-based sections that explain the detail of the science behind the hunt. The reader even learns about the different flying speeds of bees in search of forage and those returning with full loads.
As someone who doesn’t have an athletic bone in their body, this sport appeals greatly to me, combining as it does a gentle walk in the countryside, close interaction with honey bees and the use of a little bit of gadgetry in the quest to solve a mystery. The reward is the discovery of a bee colony that might otherwise have never been known to anyone.
Beyond the pure pleasure of the hunt, Seeley believes that it is important to find and record colonies of wild bees, enabling us to keep track of which ones manage to survive without human intervention. It is those colonies that prosper despite the threat of varroa and brood diseases that he thinks are the key to the survival of the wider honey bee population. Indeed, Seeley now only restocks his own apiary with bees acquired using bait hives placed near to the location of wild colonies.
Attractive though the activity sounds, I wonder if bee hunting might be quite so rewarding in the UK where, instead of finding a nest in a 1,800 ha (4,500 acre) forest, British bee hunters might be more likely to find themselves blundering into a fellow beekeeper’s garden in search of a colony. That said, Seeley does say that he has successfully used his methods in many countries, including the UK, and even in urban environments.
Whether or not you intend to take up bee hunting, this book is an elegantly written and absorbing read. The author’s love and respect for honey bees is clearly evident and quite infectious. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about bees and our relationship with them.