Book review: The Lives of Bees

This scholarly tome by Thomas D. Seeley is fascinating, even to a mere supporter of bees, like myself. The subtitle, “The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild,” hints at the unique world you’re about to explore. Seeley, a biology professor at Cornell University in New York, has done extensive fieldwork to learn about the little-known lives of European honeybees that live in tree holes in forests (think Winnie-the-Pooh). 

The book is packed with photos, illustrations and graphs – you can tell the author is an instructor. Moreover, he’s a passionate researcher, setting up experiments in a nearby forest over many years. He discusses in detail what a bee colony in the wild looks like and how it operates, the distribution of hives in the wild and the health of the bees. 

Years of research lead up to lessons that beekeepers can possibly apply to domesticated hives. You can slog through the dense research presented as I did – though in all fairness, Seeley manages to make most of it an interesting read. 

I found his discussion of disease transmission between hives fascinating. Apparently bees will rob a colony that’s been weakened by disease and unwittingly bring back the dreaded varroa virus. (Sounds like a pandemic…) But Seeley has a hunch that the most common means of transmission is from bees returning to the wrong hive by accident. Who would have thought that animals with such highly evolved communication skills would end up at someone else’s doorstep?  

The last chapter, “Darwinian Beekeeping,” contains a distillation of the lessons learned. He lists 14 steps beekeepers can implement to improve the health of their hives. Even seasoned beekeepers may learn something about the natural ecology of honeybees that will surprise them. I’m keeping mum on this because I want you to read it for yourself. This is a book well worth acquiring, especially for anyone fascinated by honeybees. I guarantee you’ll learn a LOT about them!

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