Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting

Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting

by Thomas D. Seeley


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691170268
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 574,403
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Thomas D. Seeley is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Honeybee Democracy and Honeybee Ecology (both Princeton) and The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

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Following the Wild Bees

The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting

By Thomas D. Seeley


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8033-1



This book is about bee hunting — a fascinating open-air sport in which you find a flower patch humming with honey bees; you capture, sumptuously feed, and release a dozen or so of these bees; and then, using simple equipment but sophisticated skills, you trail these bees, step-by-step and in whatever direction they fly, back to their home. Bee hunting is a sport of infinite variety. If you start a hunt where colonies of bees living in the hives of beekeepers are fairly common, such as a suburban neighborhood or a country district with farms, then you might find yourself zeroing in on somebody's apiary. But if you start someplace wilder, say along an uninhabited road running between wooded mountains, then you'll probably find yourself following a beeline for the deep woods, homing in on the one tree out of the thousands around that is the secret residence of a wild colony of bees (fig. 1.1). Wherever this outdoor game is played, it combines almost everything that is desirable in a sport: it requires no costly equipment, can be played alone or in a group, exercises both the muscles and the brain, demands skill and persistence, builds suspense, and ends in either harmless disappointment or exhilarating triumph.

The greatest thrill in bee hunting, for most bee hunters, is to locate a wild colony of bees living in a stately tree deep in a forest, and to sense the colony's vitality by watching the heavy traffic of its foragers zipping in and out of a picturesque knothole. Whenever I have this experience, I am reminded of the opening words of Aldo Leopold's classic tribute to nature, A Sand County Almanac: "There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot." Like most beekeepers, I love the honey bee colonies that I keep in my hives, for they are easily observed and studied. But I am in love with the honey bee colonies that live in the woods. They choose by themselves their tree-cavity homes, build as they see fit their beeswax combs (fig. 1.2), gather all their nourishment from flowers in the surrounding landscape, and fight without aid every predator or disease that crosses their lives. In short, these wild colonies draw fully upon the wonderful array of structural, physiological, and behavioral adaptations that constitute the biology of honey bees.

Wherever there are honey bees, there exist both managed colonies living in beekeepers' hives and wild colonies living in tree cavities, rock clefts, and the walls of buildings. While it is true that managed and wild honey bee colonies lead rather different lives — the former are manipulated to produce honey and pollinate crops, whereas the latter are left alone and can do whatever boosts their survival and reproduction — the bees in both types of colonies are virtually identical. The members of these two groups look, function, and act so similarly because the two groups have essentially the same genetic composition. This genetic similarity is a consequence of the frequent swapping of genes between the managed and wild colonies living in the same geographical area. Part of this genetic exchange between the two groups arises because the colonies living in beekeepers' hives produce swarms that escape and then lead lives in the wild, while at the same time the colonies living in natural abodes produce swarms that beekeepers collect and then install in their hives.

The exchange of genes between managed and wild colonies also takes place in a second, more sensational way: the curious sexual behavior of honey bees. Every queen bee mates on the wing with 15–20 males drawn from the neighboring colonies living within four or so miles from her home. This shameless promiscuity of queen honey bees evolved because high genetic diversity among a queen bee's female offspring — that is, the workers in her colony — is essential to her colony's health. These days, it also has the effect of blending the genes in the managed and the wild colonies living in the same region. Incidentally, this extensive gene flow between managed and wild colonies explains why humans haven't created distinct breeds of honey bees through selective breeding, analogous to what has been done in the domestication of dogs, horses, and sheep.

It is a remarkable fact that humans have been keeping honey bees for at least 9,000 years, starting in the Middle East, and yet this insect still remains an essentially wild animal. The honey bees residing in beekeepers' hives look and behave the same as their wild counterparts. Indeed, they are all as much at home in a hollow tree as in a manufactured hive, and they are all fully capable of surviving entirely on their own.


This little treatise is written in conscious admiration of Henry David Thoreau — not that Thoreau did much bee hunting. He did, however, write a remarkably detailed and reliable description of how it is done. I will try to do likewise, while bringing things up to date. Thoreau's guide to bee hunting is tucked away in the two-million-word journal — the daily record of things he thought, saw, and felt — that he kept from 1838, shortly after leaving Harvard College, to 1861, one year before his death. The entry of special interest to bee hunters is the one made on September 30, 1852, which begins "10 AM to Fair Haven Pond — Bee Hunting. Pratt, Rice, Hastings & myself, in a wagon." (fig. 1.3). It runs over eight pages, making it one of Thoreau's longer entries for all of that year. What makes it such a trustworthy guide to the sport of bee hunting is that Thoreau does not include anything that he has been told but has not seen. There is no hearsay. Instead, Thoreau sticks to recounting what he saw and what he did on that "fine clear day" when he and the cobbler Hastings climbed on a wagon with two experienced bee hunters, Minot Pratt and Reuben Rice, and rode out to a field beside Fair Haven Pond, some two miles south of the village center in Concord, Massachusetts.

Thoreau starts by describing a bee hunter's most important piece of gear: the bee box. This is a smallish, usually wooden, two-chambered box that is immensely useful in the critical first stage of every hunt, when the bee hunter must convince a dozen or so foraging bees to quit visiting flowers and accept instead a tantalizing free lunch. The lunch counter is usually a piece of old beeswax comb filled with either diluted honey or sugar syrup lightly scented with anise extract. The bee box used by Thoreau's company consisted of a "round tin box about 4 ½ inches in diameter and 1 ½ inches deep, containing a piece of honey comb of its own size and form" together with a wooden box that would be set atop the tin one. Thoreau tells how the bee hunters first caught several bees in the wooden box and then, after setting this box atop the tin box, gently opened an escape hatch in the wooden box's floor to allow the trapped bees to climb out and find the irresistible bait below. A few minutes later, the wooden box was lifted gently off the tin box, freeing the bees to fly home when each had taken her fill.

With a bee box in hand, one is ready to start bee hunting, and Thoreau describes how they searched for honey bees on the flowers by Fair Haven Pond, but found none there. The goldenrod flowers (Solidago spp.) were withered from a severe frost the previous night, and the purple aster flowers (Aster nova-angliae) were sparse. After eating lunch, the four men headed back to the village along Walden Road. When they reached Walden Pond they noticed fresh goldenrod and purple aster flowers on the sunny hillside sloping from the roadside down to the pond (fig. 1.4). These flowers were "resounding with the hum of bees." The team quickly captured and sent forth some dozen honey bees, each one laden with diluted honey drunk from Pratt's (or Rice's) bee box. The bees flew off in three directions, all toward places where the men knew there were colonies living in hives, not toward the forest homes of wild honey bee colonies.

Pratt was probably disappointed by where the bees were going, for he knew that a wild honey bee colony represented real treasure for its first finder. Indeed, he had told Thoreau about this earlier in the year. In the February 10, 1852, entry of his journal, where Thoreau records his discovery of a colony of bees living in a hemlock tree beside Fair Haven Pond, he also mentions that "Pratt says ... I may get five dollars for the swarm [colony], and perhaps a good deal of honey." Thoreau, though, shows no disappointment about their sunny September day spent in bee hunting. Indeed, in summarizing his feelings about the day, he wrote, "I feel the richer for this experience. It taught me that even the insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands. Not merely and vaguely in this world, but in this hour, each is about its business. If, then, there are any sweet flowers still lingering on the hillside, it is known to the bees both of the forest and the village. The botanist should make interest with the bees if he would know when the flowers open and when they close."

Thoreau's account of bee hunting in mid-19th-century New England depicts not just the sport, but also the author: a poet-naturalist who loved the uninhabited roads that led away from Concord, to the fields, woods, swamps, and ponds where he found the wild things that he enjoyed, preferably by himself. The bee hunter who, like Thoreau, delights in observing the ways of nature, perhaps especially in solitude, will love how the sport of bee hunting will lead him to places of quiet, natural beauty, ones that he would never discover were he not lining bees back to their unknown dwelling places.

Thoreau also liked to see how little money it is possible to spend, by working with one's hands and simple tools, and still complete a project. For instance, he built his cabin by Walden Pond for $28.12 ½, a respectably low price even in 1845, when (as Thoreau proudly records in his journal) the annual rent for a mere dormitory room at Harvard was $30.00. He achieved this economy by doing things like borrowing an axe and using it to fell young white pines and hew them into house timbers, rather than going to a sawmill and buying what he needed for his sills, corner posts, studs, and rafters. We shall see that a bee hunter who already has a watch, a magnetic compass, and some scrap lumber, and is handy with woodworking tools (or has a friend who is), can kit himself out for this sport for less than $28.12 ½.


Like Thoreau, I learned the basics of bee hunting from an old-timer who lived in Massachusetts. His name was Dr. George Harold Edgell. He was both a distinguished professor of architectural history at Harvard University and an avid bee hunter at his summer place in New Hampshire. His obituary in the New York Times, on June 30, 1954, notes that over his career, he wrote four books: A History of Architecture, The American Architecture of Today, A History of Sienese Painting, and The Bee Hunter (fig. 1.5). The latter is a trim little book of 49 pages that was published by Harvard University Press in 1949.

The Bee Hunter is a gem. In it, Edgell introduces himself as a successful bee hunter of 50 years' experience. He also explains on page 1 that his main source of motivation to write this little book is the irritation he has felt in reading various books and articles on bee hunting, all of them written by people who must have never gone bee hunting. The telltale sign of their lack of firsthand experience is that the methods they describe could not possibly work. (It seems Edgell did not know about Thoreau's journal entry.) I think Edgell vented a bit of his irritation with these fakers when he wrote, "It is time for someone who has hunted bees and found bee trees to write the facts."

Edgell further introduces himself to his readers by explaining that his interest in this sport began at the age of 10, when he was initiated "by an old Adirondacker who had sunk to driving his grandfather's mules in Newport, New Hampshire. George Smith, as I shall call him, was a character, to the youngster as fabulous as Paul Bunyan. He took his whiskey neat. He smoked and chewed at the same time and could spit without removing the pipe from his mouth. His profanity would take the bluing off a gun barrel. Withal, he was one of the kindest and most generous of men and a mighty bee hunter before the Lord, or devil if one prefers."

I discovered The Bee Hunter in the summer of 1978, when I returned to my family's home near Ithaca, New York, with a PhD in biology and was on the lookout for something new to study. Ever since high school, I had been passionately interested in honey bees, and for my doctoral thesis I had enjoyed figuring out how the scout bees in honey bee swarms evaluate prospective nesting cavities, so there was no question that I'd keep going with the bees. I was feeling then, as I still do today, a strong desire to better understand how these beautiful little creatures live as wild colonies in forests, rather than as managed colonies in apiaries. Unless I could learn how Apis mellifera lives in its natural environment, I would never truly understand how its physiology, behavior, and social life adapt it to the natural world.

It seemed to me that one of the most profound environmental changes that beekeepers impose on their bees is the crowding of colonies in apiaries. In Europe, the original home of the honey bees we have in North America, this change started around 200 A.D., when people began to switch from hunting for colonies living in tree cavities to keeping colonies in purpose-made hives, which at first were simply hollow logs and inverted baskets. This switch made it possible to pack honey bee colonies together in apiaries, which of course makes beekeeping practical for humans. Unfortunately, living under crowded conditions can also make life hard for the bees, just as it can for us. Colonies of honey bees living jam-packed in an apiary endure greater competition for food, a higher likelihood of having their honey stolen, and an elevated risk of catching infectious diseases.

I also suspected that the difference in spacing between managed and wild colonies might be startlingly large. On the one hand, I knew that beekeepers (including me) usually space their hives just a few feet apart. On the other hand, I had just read the remarkable book by Dorothea Galton, Survey of a Thousand Years of Beekeeping in Russia, in which she describes how, in medieval Russia, the honey bees inhabiting trees in the forests around the city of Nizhny Novgorod had a density of only four or five colonies per square mile, which meant that the average distance between colonies was approximately half a mile — more than 2,500 feet! I wondered, are the wild colonies living in the forests in North America also spaced so widely?

Coming back to Ithaca, which is also home to Cornell University, was exciting because I knew that close by was an ideal natural area in which to find the answer to my question. Fifteen miles southwest of Ithaca is a 4,500-acre research forest, the Arnot Forest, owned by Cornell (fig. 1.6). The rugged land adjoining the Arnot Forest, which includes the Newfield and Cliffside State Forests, is also largely forested, having been protected by New York State or abandoned by agriculture during the past one hundred years. The whole area is a natural haven for the study of wildlife, including wild honey bees. I had fallen in love with the Arnot Forest a few years before when I had installed bait hives (nest boxes mounted in trees to capture honey bee swarms) of different sizes in the forest, to determine the bees' preferred volume for a nesting cavity, and to this day it is one of my favorite outdoor haunts. Now I was eager to see if I could map the nests of the wild honey bee colonies living in the Arnot Forest and so learn about their dispersion across this vast, hilly, forested landscape.

Step one was to read up on bee hunting. A quick search of the card catalog in Mann Library — the enormous library for biology, agriculture, and applied social sciences at Cornell — revealed two books under the subject heading "Bee Hunting." Great!

The first book that I tracked down in the library's stacks was a thin paperback of 72 pages, smaller than my hand, with a title that suggested it might be, despite its size, a comprehensive handbook: Bee Hunting: A Book of Valuable Information for Bee Hunters — Tells How to Line Bees to Trees, Etc. Published in 1908, it was written by John R. Lockard (1858–?). It seems that Lockard was a kindly gentleman who had lived somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, or Tennessee. He explains in the preface that his book is a distillation of his knowledge of bee hunting gained during "forty years in nature's school room," and was written to "inculcate a desire for manly pastime and make [the reader's] life brighter." He definitely succeeded in both aims with me, for I finished his book feeling both keener to get out hunting and more optimistic of success. I had learned several valuable bits of the bee hunter's craft, including the importance of closely examining every tree, stump, or log when you think you are near a colony's hidden home; how a bee's flight path away from your bait can easily deviate from a direct course home unless you are making sightings in a large clearing; and what a stroke of good fortune it is to discover bees collecting water along a stream or other wet spot in the woods, for this reveals that a colony lives nearby.


Excerpted from Following the Wild Bees by Thomas D. Seeley. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1. Introduction 1

2. The Bee Box and Other Tools 30

3. Bee-Hunting Season 44

4. Establishing a Beeline 57

5. Timing Bees to Estimate Distance to Home 79

6. Making Moves Down the Beeline 99

7. Finding the Bee Tree 118

8. On Not “Taking Up” the Bee Tree 138

Notes 151

References 157

Illustration Credits 161

Index 163

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