The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861

For the Love of Bees and Beekeeping

The Road to Apis mellifera: Putting the “Honey” in Honey Bee

- February 1, 2015 - Keith Delaplane - (excerpt)

I’m convinced that beekeeping provides a place for nearly every kind of human personality and interest. There are as many reasons for getting into beekeeping as there are beekeepers, and whether the initial attraction in your case was pollination for your garden, a sideline income, a family tradition, a social outlet, a shared family project, or a taste for honey, I hope that at least part of the reason was a frank fascination with the colonial life of these social insects. The term “social insect” was coined by humans as a descriptor for ants, termites, and group-living bees and wasps because we saw in their teeming populations, appearance of order, and elaborate nests an appearance of our own societies and infrastructures. But as we will see in the next few months, the term “social insect” is falling under new scrutiny.

My purpose here is not to unpack the vocabulary of sociobiology but instead to begin laying out an evolutionary history of our bee, the western bee, Apis mellifera. I’m doing this with beekeeping in mind – so we can better understand why it does what it does and how it has solved life’s problems. I suggested last month that it’s time we beekeepers become students of this evolutionary history so we can mine it for clues to modern bee health management. This column and the ones to follow are written in context to opinions I’ve expressed in earlier months about the shortcomings and limits to the management paradigms that have prevailed in beekeeping up to this point.

At the beginning of a journey it’s helpful to know where we’re going; so let’s remind ourselves that the honey bee is an example of a so-called eusocial insect, as spelled out by the venerable (and still quite active) biologist E.O. Wilson1, and by definition must express three characteristics: (1) cooperative brood care, such that individuals in the same nest help tend the common brood, (2) reproductive division of labor, such that some individuals abandon reproduction in order to help others reproduce, and (3) overlapping generations, such that some or all offspring remain at the nest to help their mother rear another generation. It is possible to possess some but not all of these characters, thus giving rise to lower and higher expressions of sociality. Sweat bees, for example, often express characters (1) and (2), but not (3). Among the eusocial species it is possible to be eusocial only part of the year. The bumble bees and many wasps fit this pattern; over winter these species exist in a solitary state – represented by single mated queens in hibernation. These solitary queens emerge in spring and single-handedly found a nest, forage for food, and rear the first batch of workers. Only at that point do the workers take over foraging, the queen stay at home, and the colony achieve a truly eusocial state. We call these …