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May 16, 2022

Bee Hunting with Dr. Tom Seeley - Archive Super Episode - (S4, E48)

In this replay from the Beekeeping Today Podcast Archive Super, we talk with Dr. Tom D. Seeley. We originally talked with Tom in 2019. Dr. Seeley is a in Biology at Cornell University where he teaches courses on animal behavior, specializing in...

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In this replay from the Beekeeping Today Podcast Archive Super, we talk with Dr. Tom D. Seeley. We originally talked with Tom in 2019. Dr. Seeley is a Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University where he teaches courses on animal behavior, specializing in understanding the social life of honey bees. His scientific research focuses on the phenomenon of swarm intelligence, which is defined as the solving of cognitive problems by a group of individuals who pool their knowledge and process it through social interactions.

Tom joins Jeff and Kim in this episode to discuss bee hunting (aka: bee lining). He also delves deeper into the topic of his article in the January 2019 Bee Culture on Darwinian Beekeeping. 

Tom is a author of several books related to honey bee biology andbehavior, including:

In the podcast, Tom references his video on the topic of Bee Hunting. You can find it On YouTube.

We hope you enjoy the episode. Leave comments and questions in the Comments Section of the episode's website.

Thank you for listening!

Links and websites mentioned in this podcast: 

Honey Bee Obscura


We welcome Betterbee as sponsor of today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customerBetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at

This episode is brought to you by Global Patties! Global Patties is a family business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honey bees. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will helpGlobal Pattiesensure that they produce strong and health colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Global offers a variety of standard patties, as well as custom patties to meet your specific needs. Visit them today at and let them know you appreciate them sponsoring this episode! 

Thanks for Northern Bee Books for their sponsorship of Bee Books: Old & New with Kim Flottum. Northern Bee Books is the publisher of bee books available worldwide from their website or from Amazon and bookstores everywhere. They are also the publishers of The Beekeepers Quarterly and Natural Bee Husbandry. Check them out today!

Thanks to Strong Microbials for their support of Beekeeping TodayStrong MicrobialsPodcast. Find out more about heir line of probiotics in our Season 3, Episode 12 episode and from their website:

We want to also thank 2 Million Blossoms as a sponsor of the podcast. 2 Million Blossoms is a regular podcast featuring interviews with leading bee and insect researchers in the world of pollination, hosted by Dr. Kirsten Traynor.


We hope you enjoy this podcast and welcome your questions and comments in the show notes of this episode or:

Thanks to Bee Culture, the Magazine of American Beekeeping, for their support of The Beekeeping Today Podcast. Available in print and digital at

Bee Culture Magazine

Thank you for listening! 

Podcast music: Be Strong by Young Presidents; Epilogue by Musicalman; Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus; Original guitar background instrumental by Jeff Ott

Beekeeping Today Podcast is an audio production of Growing Planet Media, LLC

Growing Planet Media, LLC


S4, E48 – Bee Hunting With Dr. Tom Seeley

Jeff Ott:Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcastpresented by Bee Culture. Beekeeping Today Podcast is your source for beekeeping news, information and entertainment. I'm Jeff Ott.

Kim Flottum:I'm Kim Flottum.

Global Patties:Hey, Jeff, and Kim. Today's sponsor is Global Patties. They're a family-operated business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honeybees. It's a good time to think about honeybee nutrition. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will ensure that they produce strong and healthy colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Now is a great time to consider what type of patty is right for your area and your honeybees. Global offers a variety of standard patties as well as custom patties to meet your needs.

No matter where you are, Global is ready to serve you out of their manufacturing plants in Airdrie, Alberta, and in Butte, Montana, or from distribution depots across the continent. Visit them today at

Jeff:Thanks Sherry, and thank you Global Patties. Each week we get to talk about how much we appreciate our sponsor support and we know you'd rather we get right to talk about beekeeping. However, our great sponsors are critical to help making all of this happen. From the transcripts, the hosting fees, the software, the hardware, the microphones, the subscriptions, the recorders, they enabled each episode. With that, thanks to Bee Culture Magazine for continuing their presenting sponsorship for this podcast.

Bee Culture has been the magazine for American beekeeping since 1873. Subscribe to Bee Culture today. Hey everybody, thanks for joining us. We're really happy you're here. Before we get started, just a quick reminder to subscribe or follow Beekeeping Today Podcast and give us a five-star rating, it really does help. Also, we are now adding complete transcripts of each episode on the website after the show notes, check them out. You can also leave questions and comments online under each show.

You can leave a comment, ask a question, reply to a question, ours or our listeners'. Click on "leave a comment" at the top of the episode's show notes to join the discussion. Have you listened to an episode and thought, “That person sounds really interesting? I'd like to know more about them.” Well, now you can. Each episode links to a guest profile. Each profile has a guest photo, bio, contact information including Instagram and Twitter details if they have them. Check it out. Finally, share the podcast with your beekeeping friends, e-mail them links, or mention it at your next beekeeper meeting.

Hey everybody. Thanks a lot for listening. Today, we have opened up the podcast archive super and have extracted one of our favorite episodes, originally recorded in 2019. Dr. Tom Seeley was just about to release his book, The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild. Kim and I talked with him about the new book as well as his previous book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. This is a fun episode full of great insight to the lives of honey bees. If you missed this episode, originally, or if it's been a while since you listen to it, you want to stay tuned.

Dr. Seeley has reopened our eyes and minds to what the bees have known all along. Also, the episode has been re-edited and mixed so it should even sound a little bit better. Don't forget, we now have transcripts so you can read what you may have missed while listening. We have great episodes lined up as we plan the start of our fifth year of the podcast at the kickoff of Pollinator Week on June 20th. Thank you for joining us and if you like this podcast, make sure you share it with your beekeeping friends. Subscribe to it. Give us five stars.

While you're at it, leave a review. You will be a mentor to other beekeepers just for doing so. Now, let's get on with our interview with Dr. Tom Seeley after a quick word from our friends at Strong Microbials.

StrongMicrobials:Hey beekeepers, many times during the year honeybees encounter a scarcity of floral sources. As good beekeepers, we feed our bees, artificial diets of protein and carbohydrates to keep them going during those stressful times. What is missing though, are key components. The good microbes necessary for a bee to digest the food and convert it into metabolic energy. Only SuperDFM-Honeybee by Strong Microbials can provide the necessary microbes to optimally convert the artificial diet into energy necessary for improving longevity, reproduction, immunity, and much more.

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Jeff:This is going to be a fun podcast. This is one I've been looking forward to ever since we got our guests scheduled. Kim, you and Tom go back a long ways. Why don't you talk a little bit about that and introduce Tom?

Kim:Well, we do Jeff, and by the way, it's good to talk to you again. Yes, officially Dr. Tom Seeley, Cornell University Ithaca, New York long ago and far away he was at Yale University and I was living in Connecticut. The Connecticut beekeepers got into a squabble over Penncap-M. We had a trial and we got Dr. Seeley to come down and testify. We had his testimony and we had the testimony of a commercial beekeeper, the only commercial beekeeper in Connecticut at the time. He used the pregnant cow story and Tom used the "I’m a professor at Yale" story.

He convinced the judge that we were right and Penncap should go away. Indeed Connecticut was the first state to outlaw Penncap-M being used in the state so that goes back a long way but thank you, Tom. It was a good day for beekeepers.

Dr. Tom Seeley:Yes, and that was important because people didn't realize that when you microencapsulate a pesticide, you're basically making the pesticide into a pollen grain and so that's become very, very dangerous.

Kim:Tom is here today. We're going to talk about probably a lot of things but I wanted Tom to come on and talk about his two most recent books and both of them are fascinating. One of them is applying a simple beekeeping technique or a simple honey bee. I'm not sure. What are we applying Tom when you go out and do your beelining what's the word I want there?

Tom:Well, we're applying the bee’s biology in terms of feasibility to recruit to rich food sources. We're taking advantage of that communication ability to let the bees lead us back to their nests. This is something that people have been doing for thousands of years and now we know much more about exactly why it works. It's something that we've long done and it's still a lot of fun.

Kim:This of course is from Tom's book, Following the Wild bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. He is an expert at it and he tells us how to do it. I've read it a couple of times already. I've done it in the past. I'm better at it now having read Tom's book again. Why don't you just tell us about bee hunting you call it? I always call it beelining, both the art and the science of it as you presented in your book as a fascinating story?

Jeff:It's a good read.

Tom:Thank you. Well, first of all, the heart of it is to find a wild colony of honeybees. Sometimes you work your way back to a beekeeper's hive and that's fun too. It's different from beekeeping because you are not managing bees, you're just offering them food. You’re letting them lead you back to their home. You're conducting a treasure hunt. You're not trying to-- These days you don't actually go to the wild colony, the bee tree, cut it down and pull out the honey. That's what was done for, as I say, thousands of years and that's how bee hunting got started.

It's done now just as a hobby or a pastime. Bee hunting is a lot like geocaching. Only instead of getting your instructions about where you're searching for the gold from somebody on your smart smartphone, you get it from the bees who are coming to a little feeding station here that you’re operating. The way it works is that you go to a patch of flowers and it can be anywhere. It could be in your backyard or it could be way out in the countryside. It can even be in a park in a city and I’ve hunted bees in Central Park in New York City.

You go to a patch of flowers. You use a little device called a B-box which is just a way of capturing some bees so you can introduce them to a small square of old comb that you've put sugar syrup into. Then you trap the bees in your little B-box with that comb filled with a sugar syrup. You'll leave them closed up for a few minutes. You let them out. 9 times out of 10 some of the bees you've captured will have discovered your little wonderful feeding station. We'll go home and then we'll come back and eventually they'll bring their hive mates, nestmates with them.

Then that creates eventually a trail or directional information that you can use to work your way back to their home. Which is who knows where it is at first.

Jeff:To do this, the preferred method is a little B-box. I remember seeing one of those at-- well, Brushy Mountain used to sell them before they went under. The little B-box and the old comb with sugar water. For the sugar water, could you use honey or is it just sugar water is just more easier to handle and work with?

Tom:Honey is a little too thick, Jeff. It takes the bees too long to suck up a load of honey. We use this sugar solution that's about two parts sugar and one part or one and a half parts sugar, one part water. That makes some pretty thick syrup. You want it thick, so it's highly sweet and attractive, but not so thick that it's hard for the bees to drink it up.

Jeff:All right, and then then I assume a compass and a pad of paper.

Tom:Yes, you'll need a notebook because you're going to be taking information about the direction that they're flying off, and you record that direction using your magnetic compass. The other thing that's very handy to have is some paint pens, like what we use to mark queens, so that you can label some of the bees when they come back to your free lunch. Put a dot of paint on them. The reason you want to do that is you want to be able to time bees. You want to see how long it takes individual bees to fly home and then come back to your feeder.

That is useful to know because that is an indicator of the distance. We can talk about how you translate those times into distances. I just wanted to stress that everybody that I've done it with said they have had a great time. Why is that? Well, there's a couple of things. One, of course, you're working with the bees, you're getting to watch the bees very closely. When you're a beekeeper, and you pop the lid on a hive, what have you got in front of you? You've got thousands of bees and they're all anonymous.

Our focus, we can't follow an individual very well but when you're bee hunting, you're working with a handful of bees, maybe only 5 or 10 at a time. They're labeled as individuals. You can really focus on what an individual bee does, how it behaves when it comes in, lands, loads up with food, cleans itself off, and then flies home. You have a much more personal and intimate experience as a bee hunter than as a beekeeper. That's part of the fun. Another part of the fun is that you're outdoors.

It's often something I like to do just start in the afternoon and see how far I can get on a sunny day when the flowers are in bloom. You're outdoors. A third thing is it takes you to places you wouldn't otherwise go because you're going to go back to wherever the bees live. That often, as I say, it takes you to places often of great beauty or ones you didn't know about because you're following the bees down their beeline step by step. There's a lot of things that make it fun. It can be done by yourself if you like to work alone, or you need some quiet time.

Or it can be done in a small group. I've done it with groups of up to 20 individuals and that works really, really well because you have lots of eyes to track the bees and see which direction they're going home. The old-timers called it a sport. They call it bee lining, as Kim mentioned. They would do it partly for the honey but most often for the fun. If you read the old books, they often talk about the challenge of it and the thrill of finding the bee tree.

Jeff:I wish I had known about this when my daughter and son were young because they always liked working with me in the bee yard. Then this would have been just another avenue of enjoyment for them at that age, the six seven age. It's a great sport, though.

Tom:It is really. A lot of young people children think bees are scary because they know they can sting. What I've experienced is they take delight in realizing, "Oh, I can get up really close to a bee. I can get with my face inches from the bee and look at how it sucks up the sugar syrup. How it grooms itself without any fear." Again, you're not opening a hive, the bees are not disturbed, they're not defensive. Instead, you're giving them a free lunch and they're happy as clams in high tide. It's a different relationship to the bees than a beekeeper. Then in the beekeeping scenario.


Tom:No bee veil. No bee food. No bee gloves.

Jeff:Not hot and sticky.

Tom:Not hot and sticky.

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Kim:Tom, there's a good question. Then why did you write a book about this? Isn't there enough out there already? I already know the answer to that but go ahead.

Tom:Thank you for asking that question, Kim. It's a great question because as you know, writing any book is a ton of work. Even a little book like this one if you want to do it well. The reason I wrote this book is because there are really only a handful of books that are written on this topic. There are many books where it is discussed but there's only about five books total, that were written by somebody who actually is or was a bee-hunter. All of those books that were written prior to mine talked about the craft, but not also about the science.

In other words, I felt that I could make the sport even more interesting by explaining what we know about the biology and behavior of bees to understand why these bee hunting techniques work. That's why I called the title of the book, Following The Wild Bees, The Craft, And Science Of Bee Hunting.

Kim:It certainly gives it more depth. It's not only the how-to, it's the why-to. I think that was the part that I enjoyed the most. Why does this work?

Jeff:I liked it. When I was reading I really enjoyed the tying in of the biology and the behavior that made it or not make it work, but just why it worked. I enjoyed the tie-ins. I really enjoyed the book. It's a good-- I recommend it to anybody.


Tom:There's one more thing I'd like to mention. That is, for me, it was a challenge to write in a way that would be entertaining. As you know, from reading the book, I weave in just anecdotes and stories and challenges and ups and downs of being a bee Hunter. It was a new kind of writing. I'm a scientist. Usually, I'm writing something that's not quite as-- it's a different style. That was part of the fun of writing to develop a new way of telling stories.

Jeff:That's great.

Kim:You mentioned the ups and downs. From what I was doing it a few years ago, I remember tripping over logs you don't see because you're watching the sky and that we're walking in. I imagine you've had some of those experiences?

Tom:Yes. One of the ones that was most challenging was when the bees flew off from the field or I was starting my bee hunt. They flew across a river that was a half a mile wide. Now that was a challenge.

Kim:That's a big river.

Tom:It was up in Maine. It's an estuary river where the river widens out as it comes out to the mouth of the river at the sea. I had to go all the way back up the estuary and around, pick up the line on the other side.

Jeff:[laughs] Add that to the equipment list a canoe.

Tom:Yes, there you go. Right. The perfect justification for getting that little boat you always wanted.


Kim:One of the things that you just mentioned are the tools that you could probably use a canoe in this case, but there is a bucket of tools that you bring with you when you do this.

Tom:Yes, there is. The main tools are the B-box and these are very simple tools. The little B-box that's the most complicated one, but even that is not hard to make. Some of the bee supply places like Betterbee up in Upper New York state, they sell a nice B-box. Also, Hudson Valley Bee Supply sells the Cadillac of B-boxes. That's a beauty they sell. Anyhow, you need a B-box. It's nice to have an empty hive body to provide you with a little table to set up on. You need a piece of comb, squared comb about two inches square, nice dark old sturdy comb is good.

You need a canning jar of this sugar syrup. It's not too thick and not too thin you need a dropper bottle to take the sugar syrup out of your jar and put it in the comb. It's nice. You need some paint pens, you need a notebook. It's good to have a watch so you can do timing of the bees. None of this is very technical equipment. Oh yes, the most technical thing is that magnetic compass. You want to have a compass so you can right down the direction the bees are flying off.

I like to also have a topographical map so that when I see the direction the bees are going, I can look ahead and see what's across the countryside in that direction. That helps me plan the hunt. It all fits into a knapsack or a little kit box that you might build too. It's a low-cost sport.

Kim:Well, Tom, do you want to just run us through a quick session just to give folks a feel for what you do first and what you do next. Then once you do next and then there's a tree?

Tom:Yes. Here are the stages of a typical bee hunt. You go to a field or an open area where you know there are flowers that the bees are visiting. I like to do it any time of year from April into October. Let's say you go to a field in August or September that's filled with goldenrod. You look around, you find some bees on the goldenrod, using your B-box, you capture some bees in the box. Then in ways that are a little hard to explain but are explained well in the book or if a person wants to see it, I can recommend a demonstration.

There's a YouTube video that I made that's calledBee Hunting: Finding a Wild Colony of Honey Bees. That's called Bee Hunting: Finding a Wild Colony of Honey Bees. It runs for 24 minutes and it takes you all the way through a beehive. It's been watched by over 200,000 people. I guess it works or it's-- If you really want to see a demonstration and you've got 24 minutes, you'll see me explain the whole thing from start to finish. It starts by capturing bees in the box and then using the boxes features, you can then insert the comb filled with the sugar syrup into the box that introduces the bees to the comb.

After five minutes, you let the bees out of the box, they've loaded up, they'll fly home, and then you sit there and wait because now you need to see if some of them will come back. If nobody comes back, it means the forage is too plentiful and the bees would prefer to go to flowers than your feeder. If some do come back, now you start labeling the individuals and you can start taking notes and see, "Well, did that bee go to the east or did it go to the southwest? You can start timing the bees. Was it five minutes away?

If it's only five minutes away, it means it's only about a quarter of a mile away. If it's 10 minutes away, it's probably more like a mile away. You can decide, "Do I really want to walk to go for a mile, or am I lucky today? It only takes five minutes. Then I'll persist." Then once you've done that, you've got a sense of the direction and a rough sense of the distance. You actually put your little comb back in the B-box, wait for the bees to pile onto the comb. They're usually eager beavers to get more sugar syrup, you close up the B-box and then you pick up everything and you move off in that direction.

Like I had to jump across a river once in the direction that the bees were going towards their home and then you get to your new place. Again, it has to be a clearing. You have a clear view of which direction the bees are flying away. You let the bees out and now you repeat the process. Now, of course, you'll be closer. It won't take the bees as long. Everything will speed up. Every once in a while, though, what you find is the bees are no longer flying off in the direction they were before. They're flying back in the opposite direction.

That means you jumped past their home. Now you work your way in reverse. You work your way back down the line that you moved along. Then when the bees are taking only a minute or two to make a round trip, two minutes say, then you have to just start searching for the tree. You know you're within 100 yards of the tree, but you don't know where it is. Often, the entrance can be inconspicuous. That can be quite a good search. Sometimes it's very easy if the entrance is low down and conspicuous, but oftentimes, these entrances are high up and they're not so conspicuous.

That's where the craft, the skill, the persistence of the bee-hunter comes in at that final stage of the hunt.

Jeff:I could see, maybe where that would be a great sport, especially for people who like solving puzzles and riddles. Getting to that last 100 yards to find that location would be the challenge.


Jeff:I just want to mention that we will put a link to that YouTube video in the show notes with the podcast so people can find your YouTube video on bee hunting and finding the wild colony of honey bees. That'd be fun.

Tom:Thank you. That really is of the best way for me to communicate how the process works is through that demonstration on the video.

Kim:Well, Tom, as exciting as that has been, and chasing bees through the woods can be exciting sometimes. I've tripped enough to recall most of that. What else we wanted to bring up today was your new book, the one not out yet. It's coming out in April this spring. It's The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild. I was one of the fortunate people that got to read it early and I sat there, I couldn't put it down. As for as many books as I read, not to be able to put one down is to me, it was fascinating.

I think it's about a trail-on from your first book on hunting wild bees because the question it asks is are there still bees living in trees? Are there still wild bees? Have they all been wiped out by varroa? You seem to answer a lot of the questions that are there. I'm just going to get out to your way here. Are there still bees in trees?

Tom:Yes, there still are bees in trees. They have not been wiped out by varroa destructure and the viruses that it spreads. Even though the bees in the trees, every colony I found living in the wild in a tree does have the varroa. That might seem paradoxical, but what has happened here is that these bees, and I'm referring here, in particular, to the bees living in the Arnot Forest, the research forest owned by Cornell University. It's many, many, many square miles. These bees had experienced strong natural selection for mechanisms of resistance against the mites.

We're still learning about what these mechanisms are, but they include things like killing the adult phoretic varroa by biting off their legs. Disrupting the reproduction of the varroa by opening the cells in which the varroa are reproducing. Also, the bees may have developed a shorter development time. The period in which cells are capped is a little shorter. We know the bees in the wild are a little smaller than the bees that we have in our hives at the laboratory. That may reflect their shorter development time.

what we do know is that the bees are not using smaller cells. Their cells are just a tad smaller than the cells that larvaes make on foundation. The bees do still live in the wild and part of that is because they've undergone strong natural selection for these mechanisms of resistance. There are also however many things about the way these wild colonies live their lives that help them deal with the varroa. I'd be happy to talk about those two.

Jeff:Well, of course, that's the $64-question is what do they have that the bees in my hives at home don't have and will succumb to varroa if I don't interfere somehow with that, but it's got to be me, not the bees. What have you got there that they're doing that we probably should be looking at real hard?

Tom:In general, two things. One is to get stock or bees that have been selected for resistance. I do that by capturing wild swarms from remote places. I can just stick them in a hive and they will persist without any treatments. I don't just stick them in any hive because this gets to another part of the "what's going on in the wild?" The way they live is different. In particular, they live in small colonies. Their nest cavities are about the size of one deep 10-frame Langstroth hive body. It's a relatively small nest.

They don't have as much brood for the varroa to reproduce on, and that also means that the period in which they have brood ends sooner. You come by the middle of August, those colonies are filling up their nest with honey and the amount of brood available for the mites is not very large. The other thing that happens in the summer in the wild in a wild colony is they swarm every summer. They have a broodless period where there's no capped brood for the mites to reproduce in. There is also a time when the varroa mites are susceptible to all these defensive killing behaviors that the bees possess.

The third thing that they have going for them, which is has to do with their lifestyle, not their genetics, is their colonies live widely spaced. They're on average about 1,000 metres apart. What that means is there's much less robbing going on between colonies in the wild. We now have evidence of that. That means that if you have a colony that crashes with varroa because not every colony does survive. In the wild if a colony crashes with varroa, the neighboring colonies are not nearly as likely to go over and rob from it and pick up the mites and get heavily invested with mites through robbing.

There's a lot about the genetics and the ecology of these wild bees that is enabling them to survive. Here's an example, I've been following these wild colonies now since the 1970s, and I've done two studies where I've looked really carefully at how their survival and reproduction works. I'll just walk you through an example because it's a little different than in a beekeeping situation. We would like 100% of our colonies to survive every year every winter. In the wild here's how it works. Let's say you're in May and you have 100 colonies living out in the woods.

Almost none of those colonies in those trees will die over summer and most of them on average they'll produce one swarm. You start with 100 colonies in a forest in May, in September you've got 200 colonies, 100 of the original colonies and the 100 colonies started by new swarms. Now what happens? Those colonies that are what I call established colonies they've been there for more than a year. 80% of them will get through the winter and 20% will die so there's still mortality. The new colonies, what I call the founder colonies they have a much tougher time.

Only 20% of them survive and 80% of them die that's because it's just hard to get a new colony going. What that means is next May, there's 100 colonies again in that forest. There's 80 of the old colonies that made it through the winter and there's 20 of the new colonies that made it through the winter. We beekeepers, we don't like colony mortality, but out in the wild it's half the colonies-- Of the 200 that made it that are there living in the woods in September, 100 of them are going to die over the winter.

Part of that's because a lot of that is we're looking at natural selection and action too. Both at the behavioral level and at the evolutionary level that's what's going on that's enabling colonies to live in the wild.

Kim:I can see that there's a lot of that that we could do and I can see I'll use your word resistance from the beekeeping community in adapting some of those. It would be difficult to make money with bees having one every square mile and losing half of them every year and them making not enough honey to harvest.

Tom:That begs the question okay, what can we learn from these wild colonies? Certainly, we're not learning from them how to have a different model for commercial beekeeping. I think the way the bees are living in the wild is not a model for how to be a commercial beekeeper for the reasons you just said. They're going through lots of mortality. They're small colonies, they're swarming, and so forth. They're not making much honey. I think that what we're learning about these wild colonies does provide a model for hobbyists or people that just want to have a few colonies in their backyard.

Where they know the colonies will get by and they don't need to make much or any honey from them. They really enjoy having them there and watching them and studying them. That's a different relationship between humans and honeybees. That's one that I think that we don't see heralded very much in the world of bees and beekeeping. It's if you go into the bee magazines and you know one very, very well, the ads in there are largely about honey production and getting your colonies big and productive so you can make lots of honey.

As you and I know, that was a model that worked perfectly well before varroa and the viruses that it spreads but now to my mind our bees are pretty sick. I think they're sick almost all the time and, but we're still pushing them. If a human being were as sick as most of the bee colonies are, I don't think we would be asking them to be out and being as productive as they would be if they were healthy. You may think I'm nuts, but I think that's an adjustment that we're slowly coming around to. In fact, will help us to continue to enjoy the bees, have a different expectation for the bees.

Jeff:It's definitely a mental shift in terms of going through your article in the JanuaryBee Culture Magazineand then Darwinian Beekeeping, which you pretty much outline this whole new way of thinking about keeping bees. It's against the tradition of the straight line of beehives along a tree line and all the white boxes, six inches apart down the line. It doesn't fit that model anymore. I'm curious to see what reception you're receiving to this new way of beekeeping.

Tom:You might expect it's a mixed reception, but that's why I want to stress I'm not saying it's appropriate for everybody. I think it's probably only appropriate for a certain segment of the beekeeper world. It's a segment that I think we could respect more and give more credence to people that want to do it on a small scale. Want a colony of bees that's something they enjoy as a piece of nature, not as a production unit and I think that's valid. I think if you went back into the old-time old scale beekeeping when in England or Ireland or Scotland, they'd have a hive or two of bees in the backyard out behind the craft.

That it's more like that scale and that's just an alternative. In America we got the Langstroth hive, we had big fields. We could make tanker truckloads of honey and that we had a different model. I think in writing this book, I wanted to remind us how bees live in nature originally. I think that helps us in the following way. I think it helps us understand what we as beekeepers are doing to the bees and what we are undoing to the bees. We often don't know and here I'm borrowing a phrase from a gentleman named Wendell Berry where he wrote--

He's referring to agriculture in general, "We cannot know what we are doing until we know what nature would be doing if we were doing nothing." That's exactly what this book is about. How do the bees live when we are doing nothing to them? That tells us what we're undoing, we're putting and what are we doing? We're dealing with bees that are not genetically adapted to their location. Putting bees close together. We put them in large nest cavities. We put them in enclosures that are not well insulated.

We put them in entrances that are near the ground instead of typically high up in the air. We don't let them have much drone comb. We put them in boxes where they're not inclined to coat the walls with propolis. Sometimes we're having them live in places where the diversity of the pollen is pretty low. We sometimes try to force them to rear a brood out of season even before there's pollen available in the wild, in nature. We frequently disturbed the colony. There's a lot that we're undoing and most of those things are good for us, but not so good for the bees as we're learning.

Kim:That's a long list of sins that you just [laughs] named and you're exactly right.

Tom:I'd havw to say, Kim, I don't think of them as sins. It's a thing we're doing whether it's right or wrong depends on your aims and your needs. If you're a commercial beekeeper, you need to do those things, but you have to understand it's making life pretty hard for the bees. I guess what I would like to do is I would like to show beekeepers that there is an alternative model. Sometimes it's called natural beekeeping or has various names. I've forgotten them all now, but that is a model. I guess I would like to show very clearly that there is a logic, there's a validity to that.

It's not just a kooky way to be a beekeeper. It's in fact, the thoughtful way to be a beekeeper.

Kim:There's a lot of people that would agree with that too. Excuse me, Jeff, go ahead.

Jeff:No, I was just going to clarify it because I'm pretty sure you're not advocating people just leave hives out in the backyard and let them natural selection take over and run amuck. There is some management that you would have to do so that they don't become problem for the neighborhood and problem for area beekeepers.

Tom:I'm really glad you raised that point, Jeff, because yes, if you are in a place with other beekeepers around, then you have a different responsibility than if you're like me and I can stick colonies out way away from any other beekeepers. Then I can just let them sit and operate like a wild colony. If you've got a neighbor who's got the colony a hundred yards away, you're in a different situation. You really should monitor the mite levels because we now know from a number of studies that if the mite levels get high and the colony crashes those neighboring colonies.

They can be several hundred yards away or even farther, we'll find that colony come and rob it out and get loaded up with mite. To do this Darwinian beekeeping, as I mentioned, you've got to monitor those mite levels and if you find a colony where the levels are very high. I'm advocating treating that colony to knock the mite levels down, but also re-queening it. Or just killing it outright and starting over with some better stock. It would be irresponsible to just let it go and collapse and become a source of damage for other colonies nearby.

Kim:There are some of the things though that you bring up that almost any beekeeper, but certainly backyard beekeepers could adapt to their hives that-- You mentioned the propolis envelope. That is suddenly getting a lot of attention. If you could figure out the rough surface you need to make the inside of your hive, you would have a propolis envelope. That's going to go some way in helping the hive take care of itself. You mentioned re-queening and, I don't know how we could do that because that's where we lose control, is when our virgin queen from our colony flies out where she goes and who she mates with is anybody's guess.

There suddenly you lose that genetic line, but we could do the propolis. Another thing that you mentioned is the cavity itself. Even if I make my cavity a little bit bigger, or even a lot bigger, if I insulated it more, it sounds like it would be better winter and summer. That make sense?

Tom:Yes. Let's talk a little bit about that. Focus on that insulation. That's one of the areas that is getting a lot of attention now, particularly by a gentleman named aDerek Mitchell in England. He's basically a physicist beekeeper. What he finds is based on what we've found about the natural nests, that the level of insulation makes a huge difference on the physiology of the colony living inside there. For example, in the winter, if a colony, and if the bees are living in a thick-walled cavity, and the entrance is at the bottom.

Which in nature is what the bees select. If you give them a choice between two boxes that are identical, one with the entrance at the top, and one at the bottom. It's night and day, they'll go for the box with the entrance at the bottom, not at the top. What Mitchell is finding is that when bees live in a well-insulated cavity, and there's no top entrance, because of the insulation, the heat production of a typical winter cluster is enough to produce a heat pocket, a warm pocket in the top of a tree cavity.

Again, that depends on there not being a top entrance so that the heat actually can accumulate, sit up there in the top. What does that having that hot pocket mean? It means that they're not in tight clusters. Even during very, very deep cold, what's the relevant ambient temperature for the bees is not what's outside the cavity. It's what's inside the cavity where the cluster is. He finds that they're not very tightly clustered in these well-insulated cavities without it where the top is sealed. He also finds that there is condensation, but it's not where the bees are.

The surfaces near the cluster are above the dew point. The point at which moisture condenses. Instead, the condensations below the cluster, that actually helps the bees evidently because it means in the winter, they can get water right inside their nest on a warm day. They can crawl down to the bottom get water. We're just now learning just how much water bees need in the winter. I don't know why we never recognized that earlier, but the bees are in that cavity. There's subsisting on this honey, which is an 82% sugar solution and they need water.

You can't live on eating honey. You have to have some water to keep your osmotic balance going. He finds that they can get the water right inside their nest. There's a lot that we're learning about the wildness in terms of its insulation, the entrance position, and the water dynamics in the nest, which we didn't know about. It really goes back to Langstroth invented a wonderful hive. It's a marvelous hive for human purposes, but nobody was looking at how bees were living in the wild in nature back then. We just leapfrogged past the biology.

I'd say we jumped past some important information, but the beauty of beekeeping is it's all under our control. We can make adjustments, we can improve, and we can do things differently as we learn more. You mentioned, one is the propolis wall. That's really important. there's work out at the University of Georgia. I just read last night, a nice paper, where they looked at various techniques for inducing the bees to apply the propolis. Those are things we're learning. I'm optimistic.

Jeff:You mean the propolis isn't there just to have to get in our way. We have to scrape off and wipe off our fingertips and clothing? [laughs] There's a purpose for it?

Tom:Propolis is a real pain for the beekeeper. Isn't it? You come home and your fingers are all gooped up for the whole week under the fingernails. That's our perspective, from the bee's purpose, they've worked hard to collect it and it's very valuable. They work by and it's such-- The work by Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota. She and her colleagues they've shown that when those bees apply that propolis to the wall of their nest cavity, they're making a very far-reaching investment of the health of the nurse bees in their colony.

The colonies that have that, their health is so much better when they get to the point where they really take producing food for the brood. They're in much better condition. It's fundamental in ways that we didn't realize five years ago, the propolis is fundamental to the colonies' health.

Jeff:Well, I know I could sit here and talk with you all for the rest of the day. I know you have things you need to do, and I know Kim needs to do too. Would you be willing to come back to the podcast in the future maybe after the April-May release book. Talk a little bit more about this concept of the Darwin beekeeping, and the things that you're learning. I think it's a fascinating topic, and I think our listeners would enjoy as well.

Tom:Yes, I'd be happy to Jeff. In fact, I'd be honored to. As we've talked about before, this is information for which that is important to certain beekeeping. I feel that I would like to do my best to help to make this information available.

Kim:I think the other thing, Tom is not only is information important, things we could be doing better, but it's certainly a list of things that if something's going wrong, we should be looking at your list to say, "Okay, what am I doing here that the bees don't like or wouldn't do on their own?" It's a primer for that also, I think. The book is The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of Honey Bees in the Wild by Dr. Tom Seeley from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Tom, it's been great having you here today. As you said, I hope we can get you back here again and talk some more about this. It's fascinating.

Tom:Thank you very much, Kim and Jeff, for having me, it's been really my pleasure.

Jeff:Well, it's been ours definitely. Thanks a lot, Tom. We'll catch you next time.

Tom:Very good. Bye-bye.

Jeff:Bye. Well, that about wraps it up for this episode. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us five stars on the Apple podcast, wherever you download and stream the show. Your vote helps other beekeepers find us quicker. Even better, write a review and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you like. You can get there directly from our website by clicking on reviews, along the top of any webpage. As always, we thank Bee Culture, the magazine for American beekeeping for their continued support of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

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[00:48:46] [END OF AUDIO]

Dr. Tom SeeleyProfile Photo

Dr. Tom Seeley


Dr. Thomas D. Seeley is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is based in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, where he teaches courses on animal behavior and does research on the behavior and social life of honey bees.

His work is summarized in three books: Honeybee Ecology (1985), The Wisdom of the Hive (1995), and Honeybee Democracy (2010).