“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.” ― Henry David Thoreau
Spending a rainy Sunday afternoon in the woodshop, I resume my wrestling match with dadoes and end grain tearout as I work to construct hive components for a colony arriving in a couple of weeks. As I pause for a cup of tea in the midst of a bout of frustration, I reflect on the marvel that are not only honeybee colonies in general, but also the way by which this remarkable “superorganism” goes about finding a suitable home. To be able to construct – with technology even as advanced as a table saw and jointer – a pleasing structure for such collectively intelligent organisms is nothing short of an honor.
Functioning in a cohesive manner similar to that of the neurons comprising a brain or the cells, an organism, all nascent honeybee colonies, or swarms, must begin the truly vital process of finding a suitable nest site. The process begins about this time of year, late spring or early summer, as the weather begins to warm but before the season’s pollen and nectar have reached their peak.
While the following is a vast oversimplification of a biologically beautiful and complex process, the search essentially begins with scouts that independently investigate potential nest sites. Upon their returns, they share their findings with hive mates through the performance of the famed “waggle dance” originally discovered by Karl von Frisch in his investigation of bee foraging behavior. The vigor and pattern of the dance communicates both the quality and location of the site, thus allowing additional scouts to conduct their own investigations. As time passes, inferior sites lose advocates to their higher quality competitors until the swarm crosses an agreement threshold and the bees depart en masse to alight on some particular tree cavity or unsuspecting chimney. Here they will begin building comb and filling it with enough food to get them through the winter, a task that among humans continues to challenge even the most resilient homesteader.
What I find so fascinating about this practice among honeybees is that they do so well what we humans have been trying to master for thousands of years with little, if any, progress – group decision making. In his book Honeybee Democracy, Tom Seeley makes a compelling comparison between honeybee swarms and New England town meetings. In theory, the two groups are working towards the same end of identifying a course of action that is most beneficial for the group as a whole. Whether the effort be to ensure survival through winter thus allowing reproductive success or to maximize the happiness and well-being of a constituency, the two respective bodies do so through a method shaped by time and history. That said, while experiments by Seeley and others have found house-hunting honeybees to consistently make the best choice, results of town meetings (or committee meetings or presidential elections…) vary much more widely.
Surely there are a number of reasons for this variability. While bees have parameters for the ideal solution to their housing question woven into the fabric of their DNA, humans must often first identify such parameters among groups perhaps even working towards different objectives. And even after this point, following the best idea is not a given. Surely, we sometimes do. We also follow attraction. We follow charisma. Sometimes, we just follow loud. While this is undoubtedly a contribution to the complexity, joy, and frustration of being human, it is arguably useful every once in a while—whether in or out of the next community meeting—to let go of our pet hypotheses, brain children, or territorial solutions and to give a listen to the bees.
Whether you are captivated by the myriad of phenomena housed within a hive of bees, compelled by the thought of jars of honey filling your pantry shelves, or looking to broaden your perspective on how to care for an existing hive…
Join Ross Conrad, experienced beekeeper, lover of bees, and author of Natural Beekeeping, for one of Sterling College’s School of the New American Farmstead Sustainable Working Landscape workshops.
More information can be found here.