The Lives of Bees

Thomas D. Seeley / Princeton University Press / 376 pages

I don’t think there is another animal on the planet considered to be as beneficial to humanity as the honey bee (Apis mellifera). For our earliest hominid ancestors, to have come across a wild bee hive would have been like winning the lottery. Collecting minute amounts of nectar and pollen from flowering plants spread across the landscape and bringing them to a central hive location, honey bees produced a glorious, sticky manna. When Egyptians began beekeeping nearly 4,500 years ago, honeycombs and beeswax became available with a new regularity, and it transformed our relationship with this social insect. Today, honey bees both produce honey and pollinate many agricultural crops. In 2019, the USDA estimated that honey bee operations with five or more colonies in the United States totaled 2.67 million colonies, with thousands of bees in each colony.

Surprising to some, honey bees are not native to North America. In the book, The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild, biologist Thomas Seeley writes that the dark European honey bee was brought to the northeast in the early 1600s. Commercial beekeepers refined systems for increasing the size and accessibility of beehives, boosting a colony’s honey production, and an industry was born.

However, bees don’t always stay put, and that is the focus of this book. Seeley studies honey bee colonies in the wild, and argues that honey bees going through the wringer of natural selection are, well, a different animal. Wild honey bees behave differently than their captive cousins. Seeley argues that captive honey bees are best considered “a semidomesticated species,” avoiding the fundamental genetic changes occurring in domesticated animals. This means reverting to a wild existence takes no more effort than swarming away from a beekeeper’s hive, and they “still follow a way of life set millions of years ago.” 

This is primarily a book about the natural history of the wild honey bee. Seeley discusses bee behavior in the context of a colony’s ultimate goal: to amass enough food during the summer to last the winter. He concludes his book with a chapter titled “Darwinian Beekeeping.” Seeley reviews 21 differences between wild and managed colonies, and develops 14 suggestions for beekeepers to improve the health of their colonies… to find a “kinder and gentler approach.”

Seeley believes today’s beekeepers need to encourage these wild behaviors in order to protect bees from disease and stress. Why? To allow bees to be healthy and happy (my words), and “to put the needs of the bees before those of the beekeeper” (his words). Even in the 21st century, nature has things to teach us. Luckily, honey bees are patient teachers.

—Robert Schmidt, PhD, AWI Scientific Committe