beelining: in search of wild honey bees, with tom seeley

BEEKEEPING IS A ‘THING’ in recent years, an increasingly popular hobby, but our relationship with honey bees goes back much further, to one we had as early human hunter-gatherers, following wild bees in hope of finding their hives and the honey therein.

This history of beelining, the other way to connect to honey bees besides keeping hives, is the subject of the book called “Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting,” by Cornell University biologist Thomas Seeley, just released in paperback edition. Tom, Horace White Professor in Biology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell, has been passionately interested in honey bees since high school, eventually doing his doctoral thesis on them, and his ongoing scientific work has primarily focused on understanding the phenomenon of swarm intelligence with the help of these incredible animals.

Learn about how a hive works, with its female-dominated order, about how and why Tom beelines to locate wild hives. And maybe most astonishingly listen about what he calls our “shared uniqueness” with the honey bees–what characteristic we share with them and no other creature.

Read along as you listen to the June 17, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

a wild honey bee q&a with tom seeley



Margaret Roach: Before your book, I’d only read about the subject of bee hunting or beelining I think twice: in Bernd Heinrich’s book “The Homing Instinct,” and then in a much older work by the late 19th-, the early 20th-century New York State naturalist John Burroughs. You mentioned both of them in the book, but I think you first got excited about bee hunting from a little vintage book about the subject by a Harvard professor maybe?

Tom Seeley: Yes. That’s right: George Edgell. Yes, he was a very well-educated man. He was a professor of architectural history at Harvard, and became the director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. So he was a very distinguished gentleman. But surprisingly his favorite pastime was bee hunting, or sometimes called beelining, and he learned his craft from an old-timer from the Adirondacks, northern New York State, who I think he said in his book had fallen into the situation of taking care of his father’s mules up in Newport, New Hampshire. The old-timer knew this craft, and Edgell picked it up, and it was … he said it was probably the most pleasurable thing he did in his life when he went bee hunting.

Margaret: This little book of yours maybe will be a book that can inspire people to carry on in that tradition. As I said in the introduction, it’s likely that we’ve been intently connected to the honey bees since early human hunter-gatherers hunted them. So can you give us a little perspective about how did honey bees get here anyway and how old is our relationship with them, things like that?

Tom: Certainly. And that’s a really, that’s a great topic to set the stage for if we want to talk more in detail about the bee-hunting method.

Historically humans, which arose in Africa and spread of course to Europe and Asia, historically honey was the only really super-sweet that people had. Later on they had dates, and that became an important source of sweetness, too, like for the Egyptians, but honey has always been the premium source of sweetness for humans.

We know that our closest ancestors, the chimpanzees, the gorillas, the orangutans, the bonobos, they all like honey. [Laughter.] So it’s very likely that even the proto-humans … and our ancestors now we know go … the human Homo sapiens dates back 300,000 years. We know from the fossils probably 300,000 years ago, primitive Homo sapiens were honey hunting, driven by the lure of the sweetness.

Margaret: I love that. Now honey bees don’t come from America. They’re not a native bee species, right?

Tom: Correct, correct. Apis mellifera was introduced to North America. The earliest record I think is 1640, English, brought in from England to the Virginia colonies. And next one was to the Massachusetts Bay Colony; that was a few years later.

Margaret: And were they from England and Europe, or where were they from? Is that their native habitat?

Tom: Yes. Right. Those first imports came from England. And they were what to the bee specialist, they were the Northern European dark bee, Apis mellifera mellifera.

Margaret: Going fast-forward a long way from the early man that you just spoke about, we’ve also been “keeping” bees—not just hunting them but sort of keeping bees for a long time, haven’t we?

Tom: Yes. The earliest record we have of beekeeping is 4,500 years ago. It’s a sculpture that was found in a temple, an Egyptian temple to the sun god Ra, and it depicts a very sophisticated beekeeping operation. There are clay pipes from which one individual, one man, is extracting honeycombs. And then we see people filling pots with honey. And then another individual is sealing up the pots, putting probably some sort of seal on it to show that it’s official.

That goes back 4,500 years, but the point is these people, these Egyptians 4,500 years ago, knew a lot about beekeeping, so clearly the roots of beekeeping go back well before that.

Margaret: Yes, I think in the book you say one sentence that really struck me. You said, “It’s a remarkable fact that humans have been keeping bees for at least 9,000 years, starting in the Middle East, and yet, this insect still remains an essentially wild animal even today.” You’re a beekeeper yourself, as well as studying bees. So it’s still a wild animal?

Tom: I like to think of it as a wild animal, because primarily because even though people, humans, now keep colonies of bees and hives, we still don’t have much control over their breeding. And that’s because the mating of the queens and the drones occurs outside the hive, in the air.

So even when a beekeeper’s got his or her hives, when a new queen comes into a colony, it goes out and mates with males from any of the colonies in the area, and at least in New York State there are many more wild colonies than there are managed colonies.

So the genetics of honey bees is still being strongly selected by nature, natural selection, and that’s still in the colonies that are kept by beekeepers. And any beekeeper knows that. They will know that they can capture a swarm out in the wild and it will behave just like the bees they would buy from a … if they bought a queen from a queen producer in Georgia or California.

Margaret: So interesting. [Laughter.]

Tom: It’s a lot like there are ponies, there are horses, there are wild horses that just go out and breed on their own, and nobody really takes care of them. Well, we’ve got that same situation with honey bees. We’ve got colonies that we manage, like people keep horses, but there are also wild colonies that aren’t getting care from anybody, and the genetics are really the same, both the managed and the ones free-living out in the woods.

Margaret: Early on, we would go hunting for a tree that had or another structure that had bees in it, and we would take that sweetness. And then I think you say in the book around 200 AD European men started the shift from hunting the wild bees to keeping bees. So even the keeping of bees in the more formal sense, I mean not just going out and finding them, is that …

Tom: Yes, and the first step went as follows: People would, and this would be in Northern Europe or Europe, would be locating a colony of bees in a tree, and instead of just cutting down the tree and cracking or splitting it open and pulling out the honey, the bee hunter would cut out the section of the tree containing the bees and bring it back to their farm or wherever so they could then harvest honey from it repeatedly, like taking the top off or doing some way to get inside.

Margaret: You also write that they have a brain smaller than a grass seed, these honey bees. And yet they’re totally self-sufficient. So tell us a little bit, like how many bees are in a colony or hive, whether managed or wild, and who’s who, kind of what’s a little bit of that what goes on?

Tom: O.K. The basic composition of a colony of bees is that there’s one mother queen bee. A colony of bees I should say is a family, and the queen is the mother of everybody. She producers daughters, and most of those daughters are workers. They do not reproduce. They do not lay eggs.

The queen also has sons, known as drones. So most of the time in a colony there would be one queen bee and during the height of summer there might be 20,000 worker bees and maybe 1,000 or so drones. So that’s the family.

All of those daughters, those worker daughters, they do not reproduce themselves. Instead, they work, so they’re aptly named. The work they do is all the work that maintains the colony: building the combs, collecting the food, rearing the young bees, keeping the nest clean, defending the nest, and so forth. The drones, well, they’re really, their only function is to mate with young virgin queens from neighboring colonies. But they’re very important because you need fertilization of … You need sperm in any species.

Margaret: And it keeps the genetics kind of good, too, doesn’t it to …

Tom: That’s right.

Margaret: Yes. It was interesting, because at first it stopped me in the book when you would be describing one of these foraging bees or one of the food-storing bees who … the forager would come back to the hive and bring some sweetness, and it would be stored by a storer. You kept using the pronoun “she,” and at first it threw me and then I thought, “Of course, they are all females.” [Laughter.]

Tom: Yes, they are.

Margaret: Yes. And it’s funny, though.

Tom: Yes, they have ovaries.

Margaret: Yes, it’s funny because you don’t really think, I’m not an entomologist—I’m a lay person with a little bit of knowledge—but it threw me. But yes.

Tom: No, that’s perfectly understandable. The old-time bee hunters, they often called the bees “he,” the bees they were working with “he’s,” because that’s what they thought. Those were the bees that were going out and doing the hard work, so they thought they were guys.

Margaret: Take us on a little bit of a hunt. So here you are, modern day, and a scientist as well, as a modern-day human, and you learned about over the last, I don’t know, several decades about beelining or bee hunting. When we want to find out where a wild colony is, what do we do? How does a hunt work?

Tom: Let’s see, here’s how a hunt works. First you get together some equipment, and it’s very simple. It’s like five or six things. One is a little device that a bee hunter calls a bee box [above, and top of page]. It’s just a contraption. It’s kind of like a miniature shoe box. It lets you … You use it to capture some bees inside the box, and then you’re going to put in the box to get the hunt started, you’re going to put in a square of old comb from a bee hive, and you put sugar syrup in that. Basically you’re …

This bee box is a way to introduce bees that you’ve captured in the box off of flowers, introduce them to the world’s best food source.

Margaret: [Laughter.]

Tom: And you’re doing that because you want to get those bees to come to your little feeding station with that comb, and make trip after trip after trip to your feeding station. And every time they fly away, you then have an opportunity to see the direction they’re flying. And also if you mark some of those bees you’ve caught, with a dot of paint or fingernail polish or whatever, you can then time how long it takes for it to go away and come back to your feeder.

With that information you can start the hunt. You’ll know from the general direction they’re from and the general distance to their home. Then they start the hunt.

Margaret: And you know how fast bees could potentially fly and you know, from your expertise, you layer in factors like I think they explain in the book about the usual dropoff time, the time spent for a forager to spend back in the hive to drop off her goodies is a certain period … So you can make those calculations and say, “Hey, I think it’s about a half a mile away and it’s in that general direction”?

Tom: Yes, that’s right. The time is a pretty good accurate indicator. The round-trip time, the time spent away, going home, offloading the load of sugar solution that she’s collected from your comb, and then flying back to the feeder to get more, you can translate that into with considerable precision to a distance. But it’s a little tricky to do that if you did it from the first principles, you might say, because when a bee flies home she’s laden with the nectar she’s picked up, and that can be nearly the weight of her own body when she’s empty. So she flies home slowly. But then when she has offloaded and is headed back to your feeding station, your little goldmine for her, she flies quickly.

But yes, in the book I have a little chart that shows for so much time spent away that corresponds to a given distance to the home base.

Margaret: One thing that can happen—and there was a funny word in the book too, recruits—that there may be recruits, other bees who learn about this goodness that you’ve put out in this little enticing in the bee box and that she may go home, this forager, she may go home and not say but indicate with … Is it with the waggle dance? Does she do a dance, does she show them where there’s goodness to be found? Or how does that communication work?

Tom: She does. The successful and excited forager does go into the nest, and in addition to offloading the nectar or sugar syrup that she’s brought home, she’ll perform a dance which indicates the direction and the distance to this wonderful food source that she’s just found and exploited. Yes. And you can visualize it. If you know the right direction to go and you know how far to go, it will take you to the right location. So that’s what the bees do. They have this waggle dance whereby one bee can tell another bee which direction to find a rich food source and how far to travel in that direction.

Margaret: It’s amazing. It just gives me the chills still just thinking about it really.

Tom: Yes, and that’s actually a very appropriate response, because there’s only one other species on this planet that can give directions in that manner abstractly by saying, oh here’s the direction and here’s the distance you go. In other words, not by leading the individual to the site or leaving markers or something like that, but doing it abstractly. And that other species is of course us. So bees and humans beings are unique. We have a shared uniqueness.

Margaret: I love it. You as a bee hunter, you hope to … I mean the grail for you, you’re not going there to get the honey. You’re not going to—and this is a spoiler alert, the last chapter I think is called “On Not Taking Up the Bee Tree,” meaning cutting down the bee tree, not plundering the tree. You’re going, tell us why, I mean moments like what the knowledge of things like the complexity of their communication and all this magic that’s miracles that are going on would be enough for me, but tell us what you’re going to out looking for and why.

Tom: I go out and do this bee hunting and locating the wild colonies in tree homes, nests in the hollow trees, I do it for two reasons. One is that sometimes I need to find colonies for my investigations where I do, I’m just tracking the survivorship and things like that of wild colonies. So I will use bee hunting to line up a group of study colonies.

The other reason I do bee hunting though is not professional. It’s just personal. It’s fun. It’s a pastime. It’s a lot like geo-caching in that there’s a very specific destination you’re trying to locate and you’re getting directions, you’re getting guidance, but you’re not getting it from another human being, giving you clues or something on your smart phone, but is by you’re getting your information from another species in a more mysterious manner, through by watching trailing them home. It’s a pastime. It’s a challenge. It’s a form of hunting.

Tom: I don’t think I’m unusual that I think we’re really kind of thrilled to go hunting for things. It’s a lot of fun. It’s also a real challenge. And it has, if you’re a beekeeper, if you’re a bee aficionado, it’s a great way to actually look at the behavior of individual bees. And let me explain a little bit about that.

When a beekeeper sees bees, it’s usually, he or she is usually looking at hundreds, if not thousands of bees in front of, just sitting there in front of him or herself because he or she’s opened the hive and you’ve got all these bees and they’re anonymous and they’re running around. Your attention isn’t on an individual.

When you’re bee hunting, you’ve got the bees labeled with paint marks or whatever for individual identification, so you can get those measurements of the time spent away, and now it gets very personal. And you learn that, oh, different bees behave differently. Some are rather calm and just go about their business, and others are like quite nervous. They don’t … When they come back, they hesitate to land. If anything, if you move the paintbrush near them, they’re jumpy. So you get to learn the individuality of bees.

I guess the other thing that’s really nice about bee hunting or at least a big attraction for many is that it takes you to places you’d never otherwise go.

Margaret: [Laughter.]

Tom: And you often, if you like nature you’ll often find places that, wow, you never knew, wow, there’s a waterfall over here, or there’s a stream, or just a really beautiful part of a forest. So that’s another feature of it. And plus, you’re just out in nature. It’s a great excuse just to be out in nature.

Margaret: In the last couple of minutes I wanted to ask about where the hives, where the bees might lead you, where these hives might be located, because I was very surprised at some of the photographs in the book, which were marked to indicate where in the picture the hive was. They weren’t always up high in a big old tree. What kinds of places have you found hives in?

Tom: As a rule they are not in the tippy-top of a tree, but rarely are they less than 20 feet off the ground. Bees, when they choose a home, they seem to go high, prefer high. It’s probably for safety from bears. Bears don’t have great eyesight. In my experience in forests if a nest is high off the ground, the bears don’t find it. If it’s low to the ground, the bears do find it. So I think the bees are going high.

But they like the entrance to the knot-hole, usually it’s a knot-hole entrance. Usually they like it to be on the south side of the tree, the sunny side of the tree. They don’t have, however, any preference with respect to the tree type. But inside that knot-hole they are quite choosy. They need the nest cavity to be about at least about 10 gallons in volume or 40 liters. They’re choosy about the entrance size, entrance direction, cavity size. There may be other things like the thickness of the walls. They may be judging that as well, but we’re not sure on that.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Some subjects for further exploration.

Tom: Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes. There’s so much about any species that we don’t know, it’s mysterious.

Margaret: Well, Tom Seeley, I’m so, so glad to receive the book from Princeton University Press and to read it and to have a chance to talk to you. So thank you so much for making time.

Tom: Well, thank you for your interest in the book. You don’t have to be a bee hunter to enjoy bee hunting. I enjoyed it so much, I figured, “I can go write this book and explain not only how it works, but why it works, what we know about the bees’ behavior that makes this whole bee hunting process work.”

Margaret: Well, thank you.

Tom: You’re welcome. My pleasure.

more interviews about bees, from the archives

enter to win ‘following the wild bees’

I’LL BUY A COPY of the new paperback edition of “Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting,” by Thomas Seeley, for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

Have you ever seen a wild hive of bees, or even a swarm? Or do you perhaps keep honey bees? Just wondering what your relationship to these amazing creatures is–anything you’d like to share.

No answer or feeling shy? No worry; just say something like “Count me in” and I will. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday June 26, 2019. Good luck to all.

(Photos from “Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting,”used with permission.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 17, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Lucy Wood says:

    Thanks—so interesting to those of us who observe and are deeply curious about the amazing wisdom of the nature around us!

    We haves a 26-acre family farm where we grow many veggies for our CSA and now also for a historic market in the local town, and occasionally for a restaurant or two. Obviously we value our pollinators, and several years ago were delighted to observe a swarm develop along our wooden fence. Our then-beekeeper came and took the swarming potential hive, and I do not know its continuing story.

    You are inspiring me to pay more attention, now that I am retired from the wonderful off-the-farm career! And I shall share this with the wonderful CSA manager who is also a naturalist by training!

  2. Vernell Burton says:

    Yes, I have seen bee hives, and I read the article and very very interesting.
    I would like to go bee hunting !!

  3. Suzanne says:

    We are new beekeepers, started last year with one hive which overwintered and we split it this spring so we have two hives now. It’s a very interesting and exciting adventure keeping bees! We are “a Bird and a Bee” apiary located on Cape Cod.

  4. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNER IS: Valerie Knott. Thank you all for sharing my interest in this subject, and your great comments.

  5. Kristin Shaw says:

    Fantastic interview! I can’t wait to read this book. As a backyard beekeeper, I am fascinated by the wild bees that visit our gardens as well.

  6. S says:

    We had a hive for a couple of years in a south facing knothole in our old Catalpa tree at the edge of the road. We didn’t even know it was there until a passing dog walker alerted us. It’s long gone now. Do they move on or was this colony collapse?

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