SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University Library.
KELEE PACION: Hello, my name is Kelee Pacion. I am the instruction coordinator and the liaison to the Neurobiology and Behavior Department here at Cornell University. It is now my pleasure to introduce our speaker today.
When it comes to the rewarding insights gleaned from careful field work, there may be no better example of that at Cornell than the work of Dr. Tom Seeley, the Horace White Professor in biology at Cornell University. Dr. Seeley has devoted a lifetime to the close study of the behavior and social life of honeybees focusing specifically on the phenomenon of swarm intelligence, which is to say the solving of cognitive problems by a group of individuals pooling and processing their knowledge through social interactions. Is this still loud enough? OK, good.
His previous books, Honeybee Ecology in 1985, The Wisdom of the Hive in 1995, and Honeybee Democracy in 2010 have all received wide acclaim. And his published papers, numbering over 200, are heavily cited by the scientific research, beekeeping, policy-making, and business communities alike. Dr. Seeley received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Dartmouth College and his PhD in 1978 from Harvard University, where he studied with Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson. Having first begun teaching biology at Yale University, in 1986 Doctor Seeley joined the faculty at the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior where he teaches courses on animal behavior to both undergraduate and graduate students who have been known to call him one of the best, most inspirational professors of their college career.
Dr. Seeley has received that Alexander Von Humboldt Distinguished US Scientist Prize, been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, received a Gold Medal Book Award from Apimondia for The Wisdom of the Hive, and been elected a fellow of both the Animal Behavior Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has observed, however, that his most enduring honor is to have had a species of bee named after him, neocorynurella seeleyi. Please join me in welcoming this extraordinary scientist for our Book Talk today.
TOM SEELEY: Thank you very much for those very encouraging introductory remarks. And I just want to add that the reason I got that little green bee named after me is there was an entomology PhD student. I served on his committee. He did a very strategic thing. He had to name, I think, it was four or five species he discovered. He named one after each of his committee members.
A good tactic, I'd say. Thank you for coming out today. It's a beautiful day outside. I'm really impressed that you showed up here. But what I'm going to do is I'm going to take you outside anyhow. So even though we're inside here, we're going to go out into the fields. And we're going to be doing some bee hunting.
So let's dive right into that. You might be wondering, what is bee hunting? Well, bee hunting is hunting for a wild colony of honeybees. And historically this was done not out of curiosity about the bees but to get their honey, to steal their honey. And we know this goes back for thousands of years.
There's rock art paintings-- not the rock art you're thinking of, but rock art on the walls of caves-- in Valencia 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. Clearly, there's a woman climbing up to the nest on these ropes or vines to get up to that nest. And she's reaching in to get the honey. Here there's a honey hunter in the Zululand. And on his back there's a converted cow stomach, which is built for putting the honeycombs in when he climbs back down. So that's been going on a long time, bee hunting for honey.
And I guess I've already answered this question, why have people have been doing it for tens of thousands of years? It's for the honey. But why this real desire, this drive to go out and overcome the defenses of these stinging insects to get their honey? Well, it's because only recently have we had pure sucrose as a sweetener. Sugarcane comes from Asia, didn't make it to Europe and the New World where the production really got going until a few hundred years ago.
And I've known old timers, when they grew up, they've told me, when we wanted something sweet, we went out and found a bee tree. We didn't have money to buy the honey or sugar. So we would line our way back to a bee tree, take an axe, chop it open, and take a ladle and dig out some honeycombs and bring them home on a plate. So it's something that's still done. And, indeed, even into the 20th century it was quite common.
And here's a 19th century nice depiction of it from Harper's Weekly. Two gentlemen have climbed up into a tree and are hacking it open, just like I mentioned, with some smoke. And they're going to dig out some honeycombs.
And in some parts of the world, it's still very important. Here's a pygmy bee hunter in Congo. Note, there's two gentlemen, just like we saw in the last diagram. And these guys, I mean, are very fierce honeybees. These are these African bees. They sting, they fight like fury when their nests are disturbed. You can see the guy below, [SCREAMS QUIETLY].
They really want that honey. But all of these images that I'm presenting you also raise the question, how on Earth did these people find these bee nests? How did those pygmies find the nest up in that tree and these guys up on the top of what looks like an oak tree there?
Well, there's a couple of different ways it's done. I'll show you the coolest way first. And this is from Mozambique and other parts of Africa. They have the coolest method of working with the bird that steers them. These are the distribution of points of where a bird was indicating to this gentleman, this bee eater here, the direction to the bees' nest.
I'll show you a video of it in a second, but here's another picture of the process. There are several species of these bee eaters. And what do the birds get out of it? These birds are especially adapted to digest wax. Wax is an energetically very rich material. Very few organisms can digest it. These bee eaters can.
And what they do, as we'll see momentarily in the video, is the birds attract the humans or the humans attract the honey hunters or vice versa. And then the bird catches the human's attention and flies off in the direction of the nest. And this is a recording of the tracks. Each of these solid black lines indicates the direction the bird flew-- here and up to here to here to here. And these little dots indicate where the hunters moved to.
And finally, when the bird got to the nest, it just hopped around. And the hunters followed in. And you can see it only takes them, the honey hunters, 3.2 hours with a bird but like nine hours without the bird. So, OK, I want to show you a YouTube video now that shows these honey hunters.
- Researchers have long known that people in Africa cooperate with a wild bird called the greater honeyguide. The bird shows people where to find bees' nests, which--
TOM SEELEY: That guy looks happy.
- The birds then feed on the wax combs left behind. New research published in the Journal of Science, shows this remarkable cooperative relationship involves two-way communication between humans and a free-living wild animal, which is astonishingly rare in the natural world Honeyguides solicit people with a distinctive, chattering call and fly from tree to tree in the direction of a bees' nest, showing the human where to go. In turn, listen here as these men, the Yao people of northern Mozambique, make a special honey-hunting call, a loud trill followed by a short grunt.
It's passed down from generation to generation in this honey-hunting culture.
TOM SEELEY: OK. So that's the really good way to do it. That was the very efficient way to do it. Where do I go? OK.
Now, there's another approach, the European tradition, because the the honeyguide birds are native only to Africa. So a different technique developed in Europe. And this is a technique. Here's a nice Hungarian bee hunter from the 1930s. The European technique works with a trap. And this is the technique I learned.
And these are little traps where you trap a bee. These are made of horn, but they could be a wooden box like I'll mention shortly. You trap bees off flowers. You put some honey in your trap. And you trap the bees in there so they find the honey easily. You're introducing the bees to the honey. Then you can let one be out at a time in the direction that you see the bees go. And you can follow the bees back down the line to their home.
And there's a surprisingly rich literature on this topic of bee hunting using bee traps. It goes way back to Roman times. But I just show a couple of images here. One of the early books to be printed was a book that included a big chapter on bee hunting. John Burroughs, the famous American naturalist and conservationist, wrote a book on this topic. He wrote beautifully. He was very skilled in his bee hunting in the Catskill Mountains.
Henry David Thoreau wrote a very long-- one of the longest-- entries in his journal for 1852 on bee hunting where he recounts a day when he went out with two experienced bee hunters. And he was just intrigued by the process. And so that was really nice.
My favorite author on bee hunting, however, is the gentleman George Harold Edgell who, in 1949, wrote a tiny little treatise published by Harvard University Press, of all places, on bee hunting. Here's what it is. And Edgell was a very distinguished gentleman. He was a professor of architectural history at Harvard. He went on to become the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
But one of his other passions was bee hunting. He grew up in New Hampshire. He learned it from old timers up there. And he did this for 50 years. And he commented at one point. He had written a number of scholarly books and had written scholarly papers. But he said he never got as much interest in any of that as he did in his little book on bee hunting. So there a long history of writing about bees.
And I threw my hat into the ring last year and wrote this little book, Following the Wild Bees. And the addition that I did to what the work was done before is I could not only talk about the craft, I could explain the science behind it, how it is the bees are able to do things like navigate out from their nests miles out to your food source that you're creating. And then they can find their way back home and then back out. And they can even bring their nest mates, things like that.
What I want to stress is this. And I learned the bee hunting as a research tool. I won't talk about that today, but I need to define wild colonies of honeybees to understand how they're living and living healthily all on their own. But it is a lot of fun. And I really think it's true to refer to this as one of the most fascinating of recreational activities you'll ever find.
After all, you play it outdoors. You use both your muscles and your brains. It doesn't require any costly equipment. Like, you can do this for like $20. The big expense is to buy a magnetic compass. You'll see. You can build the box yourself. You can play it alone or in a group. So whether you're feeling like you need a day out just by yourself, you can go bee hunting. It's really fun to do it as a group, too, because then you've got a lot of pairs of eyes.
But it does demand skill and persistence. So it's not a trivial activity. You build suspense because, step by step, you're getting closer and closer to the hidden treasure. This is a treasure hunt. And it ends either in a harmless disappointment-- because you don't always find the bees' home. Sometimes the bees are nesting so high in the trees you can't just can't find their home. But, if you do succeed, it's what I like to call an exhilarating triumph because, well, you'll see why because what I'm going to do now is take you on a bee hunt.
This was a bee hunt that I did in August 2015 up at my place in Maine. And it was this time of year when the goldenrod was in bloom. And what I did is I started. I went to those goldenrod flowers. I captured bees with a bee box, as I'll explain shortly, and gave them a free lunch of sugar syrup. And I served the lunch in this little piece of beeswax comb you can see here.
I introduced the bees to this. And they fly home, and I watch which direction they go. And I can see where they're going. And I just discovered that the bees were flying through the woods across the river there. It's actually an estuary. But it's a 1/2-mile-wide river slash estuary. And they were going to the woods across the river.
So now what? Well, I knew they were somewheres across. They weren't in the river. They were somewheres over in those woods. So then I put the syrup-filled comb back in the box. The bees piled into the box because that's where the food is. Close up the box and move down the bee line, in this case jumping across the river, over into the woods on the other side.
And here it becomes a matter of just moving your feeder, step by step, closer and closer. And you know you're getting closer and closer because it takes less and less time for individual bees to make a round trip. So that's where the suspense builds. You're getting closer. It starts out, it takes them 15 minutes to go home and come back and then 10 minutes and then five minutes and, finally, two minutes. And when it's like that, you know you're close. So you move closer and closer, building suspense at every moment.
And then you find their home. In this case, it was this dead white pine tree. And then you see the knot hole that the bees are flying in and out of. Now, that doesn't look very interesting. So I want to show you a video of what it actually looks like because it's not a static thing. When you find a home, it's full of life. And that's what catches your attention. You're looking all around through trees here, there, everywhere. And finally your eye catches the glitter of the bees.
It's hard to explain, but it really is. You've worked hard for hours tracking your way down-- you know, just carefully looking at things, having to use a bit of woods craft so you don't get lost, things like that. And then, finally, you achieve the discovery. And it took me a day, and it was 0.75 miles.
But when you stop and think about it, the reason it's so exciting, I think, is because it's really finding a needle in a haystack because it's one tree out of the thousands that are over there. And you're able to find it. I didn't cut it down. I didn't go for the honey. It's just recreation. It's just fun and fascination.
Well, let's go quickly through how this bee hunting works. I'll talk about the bee box and other tools, the bee hunting season, how you get a bee line going, how you use the bee line. And, finally, I'll make a pitch at the end about not taking up the tree-- in other words, not cutting it down and stealing the honey. I'll talk a little bit about that.
What's the bee box? The bee box is this little device. It goes back many, you know, centuries and centuries. It's just a little device in which you capture bees. You capture a bee off the flowers. And then it's a device that its function is to help you introduce a bunch of bees to a rich food source.
So you catch a bee in the box. The middle part of the box, there's two chambers in the box-- one with the front door. The rear chamber, you let in light. It has a window. So you capture a bee in the front chamber. You open the rear window to let in light. The bee's freaked out, so she wants to escape. So when you raise the divider, she flies to the window. And then you trap her in the rear chamber.
So you've got one bee in the back. And you do it again. And you can do that again and again. You get half a dozen bees or even more if you're really good at this. And, everybody in the back, then you put the comb in the front. We'll come back to that. And then you'll leave it for five minutes. So we'll leave the box quiet for five minutes now.
What else do you need beside a bee box? This is really technical stuff, huh? You need a square of old comb. You need a jam jar of sugar water. You need a medicine dropper. Here's where we get to the fancy stuff. You need a compass. A topo map is very, very helpful so you can see ahead where you're going once you have the bearing of the bees' flight lines home.
You need some flagging. Flagging's very helpful. Why is that? Find your way back out of the woods or find your way back to the bee tree once you find it. And you'll need some paint pens because we're going to be labeling individual bees for individual recognition.
Well, when do you do this? Whenever you can find bees on flowers. I've done bee hunts in April-- I did one here on the campus in April, we'll see that shortly-- or into October. Around here, that's about when the last flowers are available. My personal favorite time is right now when the goldenrod is in bloom.
OK, so how do you establish the bee line? Well, step one is to know what a honey bee looks like. It looks like this-- pretty distinctive, big bee. And the second thing you have to do is you want to choose a location. It can be either rural or urban. Here's just a map of the Harvard Yard where I did a bee hunt many, many years ago. I caught bees off daffodils in front of the Memorial Church and discovered that they were nesting in the side of Emerson Hall just partway across the yard.
I've also done it in Central Park. I found a bee tree up on what's called the Ramble, the high area or the wooded area. So you can do it in cities, as well. It's most fun for, probably, most of us to go out into the woods and fields, though, to do it.
So, as I mentioned before, you start by capturing a bee in your box. Trap her in the rear compartment. Once you've got a bunch of bees trapped in the rear compartment, you put that comb filled with sugar water or sugar syrup in the front compartment. Raise the divider-- I forgot to do that-- so the bees can now come forward, find the comb, and load up. At this point, the bees feed up on the sugar syrup. And, after about five minutes, you let the bees out. Watch them fly away.
And when they first come out, if they're really interested in your food, they'll come out, turn around to start memorizing the appearance of the bee box, and then they will circle off home, flying home. And if you have good eyesight and with little practice, you can actually see which direction they go. But now comes an anxious moment. You're wondering whether the bees will, in fact, come back because this is a little bit of a weird situation for bees. In nature, they would only feed from a piece of comb if they were robbing from another colony's nest. And that's dangerous work for bees. But they do like sugar syrup, so generally they do come back.
And when you have a bee come back and she lands and puts her tongue in the comb, you can almost watch the neurons involved in learning firing. That bee is learning, learning, learning that this is a good food source. And they will, generally, recruit their nest mates. And so soon you have this whole bunch of bees piling on. And so you have a lot of traffic. And that makes it even easier to see which direction they're going.
Now, at this point, you want to make things personal, individual. So you next need to label some bees for individual identification. Use a little paint brush. The bees are intent on feeding, so they're not freaked out if they're touched lightly by a paintbrush. And you bring various colors. That bee was going to be green thorax. Another bee will be red thorax or blue thorax or yellow thorax. You can label up lots of bees.
Now, why do you want to do that? It's because, well, if you're a little bit obsessive compulsive like me, you really want to get data on individuals. You want to see what direction individuals are going and how long it takes individuals to make their time home and come back. Here's an example from my notebook. And I show this with a little bit of embarrassment because it reveals just how, well, I like to take data, I suppose you might say.
But here I've just kept in my notebook a column of individual bees. And, for each bee, I noted when she left the feeder and when she returned so I know how long she'd spent away. And, when possible, I would cite the bearing of her flight, her departure bearing. And you can see most of them were clustered here around 200 degrees. So that told me that all of these bees were going back in the same direction, almost certainly from the same tree. And I knew the direction now.
And by timing the bees-- how long it takes them to go home and come back-- that gives you a pretty good indication of the distance to their home. If it's only a couple of minutes, it's very close. The bee tree, their home might be within sight. If it's five to nine minutes, it's less than a mile away. If it's more than that, it's farther.
And, if you take data the way I've done it, you can pay attention to the bees that have the shortest away times. And you can convert that into an estimate of the distance because I've worked out this curve. For a given amount of time away, it's a pretty good indication of the distance to the home. So, in that case-- that example-- the time was about six minutes. So I estimated the distance was a little more than a 1/2 a mile away. And when I found the tree, it was 0.56 miles away.
So these techniques are actually pretty good. But you still need to follow the bees down the line. They're not good enough that they'll take you directly to the tree. I wouldn't go half a mile and start looking for the tree.
You might wonder, well, why do you focus on why the bees vary in their time away so you focus only on the shortest ones? Well, you focus on the bees with the shortest time because they're the ones that are just flying. Other bees will be spending more time in the nest doing things like, well, getting rid of their nectar.
When it comes back with a load of your sugar syrup or nectar if she's coming back from flowers, she doesn't disgorge that nectar directly into the cells. She passes it off to a receiver bee who will then process the nectar and make it into honey and store in the cells. And sometimes it takes a forager a while to find one of these receiver bees. So that can make for an unusually long trip time away.
Or sometimes, bless them, some of the bees will go home, really like your food source, and perform waggle dances to advertise it to their nest mates. And that takes time, too. And that's critical. You want and need to do that because you want to have lots of bees coming to your little feeding station.
At this point, you make moves down the bee line because you've got a good sense of the direction, a pretty good sense of the distance, but you still need to zero in on the tree. So what do you do now? What you do now is you take the comb. Put it back in the box. The bees are a little disturbed by this because you've changed things, but they eventually pile onto the comb. Now you close up the box. And now you move down the line.
And here's a diagram that illustrates this moving process. This is one I did last April here on the Cornell campus. I started with the garden behind the AD White House. There were some nice flowers in bloom there in April. And I got the bee line going. The bees were flying. This is the Space Scientists Building. And some went this side of the Space Science Building, some went that side. So I wasn't sure which was the right direction.
So then my first move, once I had a good bunch of bees and I knew it was somewheres off in this direction, I jumped over here. And once I saw that it wasn't off in this direction or that direction, it was up in this direction, I then started moving, making jumps up in this direction. By the end of the afternoon, I had found the bee tree. And it's still there. It's along the gorge just below the pedestrian bridge there. It's an oak tree. The bees are up here.
It took four hours and 40 minutes. But that was much longer because I was working with a film crew. And they wanted to film each step of the process. I could have knocked it off in an hour or two working on my own.
If anybody's interested in seeing that bee tree, I'll be happy to show it to them. OK, so that's how you work your way down the bee line. Eventually, as they say, the time gets very short. So you know you're near the tree. And now you have the challenge of actually finding the tree. And sometimes it's easy, like if there's a lot of bees on the outside of the tree around the entrance there or here.
But sometimes it's hard because, the bees, they like to nest with the entrance high off the ground, probably for safety against bears. And sometimes it's not so hard to see the entrances, but sometimes it's terribly hard. But sometimes you get lucky and the entrance is low. And then you have the fun. That's what we saw in that little video, the bees buzzing around that white pine tree.
The last point I want to make is this pitch to not take up-- i.e. cut down-- the bee tree. And I can say this with some feeling because I did this in my 20s when I was a PhD student and I wanted to describe what the natural homes of the bees were like. I went out. Using these techniques, I found 21 bee trees and found an old timer who knew how to handle a chainsaw a lot better than I did. We cut down these trees. And we split open the nests so I could dissect them.
And here's me dissecting, collecting the pieces of one of the broken nests. So I did it, but I regret it. And so I discourage it. And why do I regret it? Well, of course, it kills the tree and a colony of bees. And it's an act of cruelty. I wouldn't encourage it as a way to get honey because there's not really that much honey in these nests. The average I found was 30 pounds.
But, most importantly, these honeybee colonies are a real genetic resource. I don't have time to talk about that today. It's the focus of my research, what's going on in the wild. They're a genetic resource because the bees are having trouble. Beekeepers, bless them, are blunting selection for resistance to the disease problems the bees are having. But they really are hampering the selection. Out in the wild, the bees are not being treated. They're evolving good resistance to the disease problems.
And there are much better ways. These wild honeybees are good bees. There's better ways to get them without chopping down their homes. It's a technique called bait hives. If you're interested, I'd be happy to talk with you about that.
So, to summarize, here's why I recommend bee hunting as a recreational activity. Well, first of all, it connects us all with the beauty and mysteries of nature. You're dealing with live animals, wild animals. But they're coming to you. And they're coming to you up close. And they're not freaked out by you because you're kind of just being very helpful to them, giving them food.
It's much like birdwatching. I don't know about you. I love birdwatching, but I always find it awkward to have to look through the binoculars. I can't get as close to the birds as I'd like to, generally, except out on Appledore Island where the gulls are.
And I do want to stress there's no risk of being stung. You're not disturbing the bees. And, in fact, you're enticing the bees. You're giving them a nice meal. I want to stress, too, that this connects us with organisms that we cannot live without. These are our most important pollinator. It's nice to know who that is. And I think engaging with these bees helps motivate us to keep the world healthy for them.
But, most importantly, I recommend it because it's fascinating, it's challenging, and it's fun. So, well, on that last note, I just want to thank you for your interest and attention. It was my pleasure to give you this talk.
I was told we can do questions. So let's do questions. Yes, Drew?
DREW HARVELL: Is there a reason, Tom, why you-- does this work? Yes. Is there a reason why you bait them with sugar rather than honey?
TOM SEELEY: Yes. The reason I bait them with sugar syrup rather than honey is honey is very thick. And it takes the bees many minutes to load up with this thick, viscous honey. So you can use diluted honey, in fact. And that works really well, too. But yes, just thin it down so that, instead of taking, say, five minutes to load up, they only need like a minute. It's an important point I didn't make.
SPEAKER 2: When the bees hand off the syrup inside the hive, they can have longer wait times depending upon how attractive their load is. How does sugar syrup compare to the natural nectar sources during the various times of season?
TOM SEELEY: Thank you very much for that question. I didn't know how much detail to go into, so I'll answer that now. The sugar syrup that I use-- and I've played around with this-- is 60 parts sugar, 40 parts water. So it's primarily sugar. And that puts it in the range of the very best nectar in the world. So, yeah, I'm giving them really good stuff.
Plus, it's there in abundance. So if it were not in a comb and, thus, in the context of robbing, it would be, probably, absolutely tip top always. But because of the context, it's a little strange. But once they get home, these bees unload it happily because it's so good.
SPEAKER 3: Thank you. Is it important to think about the potential toxicity of the paint as, like, I don't know, potentially hormone disrupting or something like that? Like, would you recommend a specific kind of paint?
TOM SEELEY: Yeah, I recommend the little paint pens that have a water-based paint. Posca is the brand that I use. I also will use shellac-based paint. We'll get some natural shellac, which is based on alcohol and a little insect exoskeleton material, mix in a little ground artist's pigments. Those work well, too. Yes, here?
SPEAKER 4: Did older bees-- I mean, you get some sense of which ones are older by how worn they were-- make the trip faster than the younger bees?
TOM SEELEY: In my experience, the older bees-- which do have those tattered wings-- are a little slower in their flying. And it may not just be that their wings are tattered. They're looking a little tired, too. Once I even saw an elderly bee-- a very elderly bee-- who I'd been watching all day make trips. And every trip got slower and slower and slower.
She finally loaded up on her last trip and crashed. She just couldn't make it home. So, yeah. She should have retired and taken it easy.
SPEAKER 5: I'm just curious, are honeybees native to our area?
TOM SEELEY: No. Apis mellifera is not native. We used to have honeybees in North America, but that was about 30 million years ago. They died out. They were not introduced until the English and, perhaps, the Spanish settlers were here in the 1600s, maybe the Spaniards in the 1500s. They really took to the New World, though. They escaped from the English beekeeper's hives, got out in the woods. They shot across this continent a lot faster than the people did.
So like, when Lewis and Clark did their expedition out west, in their journals they record that their men went out and got bee trees, that they loaded up on honey. And that was when there weren't a lot of white men poking around out there, certainly no settlers-- no human settlers.
SPEAKER 6: Is there a prime time, so to speak, for the honeybees to collect nectar?
TOM SEELEY: Yeah. There's a number. Each summer, the nectar flows or nectar availabilities stop and start. And it all depends on when the big nectar sources are in bloom. We're coming into a big one right now with the goldenrod and then the asters. But earlier in the summer, we had the clover bloom and the black locust trees in bloom, the basswood trees. It stops and starts. It's episodic, and we're starting a big one right now.
SPEAKER 6: Thank you.
SPEAKER 7: How often will you get bees from more than one hive in your trap?
TOM SEELEY: Often. And I've had up to two or three or, I should say, three or four. And what you do then is you just choose the one that you think is closest based on the trip times or might have the most direct route. If you have to head deep into heavy woods, that's challenging. So I tend to steer away from those unless I have to for the research projects. But yeah.
And that's not a problem, if you have multiple ones. The bees don't fight. And you just go with whichever one. It's your choice. And, as you start moving closer and closer to one, just naturally the other ones drop out. Yes?
SPEAKER 8: What features of the tree make it attractive to bees for a hive?
TOM SEELEY: Oh, we know a lot about that. Thank you for asking that. It's a number of things. It's about six traits make for the ideal home site for the bees. One I referred to was the height of the entrance for safety against bears. Another is they like the entrance quite small, only about like that, not quite even two inches in diameter if it's a knot hole.
They need the cavity to be sufficiently large to hold honey. That's their winter heating fuel, so they need something on the order of about 40 or 50 liters as their ideal but not too large. And they also like the entrance to face to the south. They have a preference for that-- probably, again, for the winter. It helps them make their winter cleansing flights on sunny days, so a lot of things.
And I'm glad you mentioned that because that gives you some guidance at the end of the hunt when you're looking, going from tree to tree, just checking. You know that you don't have to look for large openings like this. It's little ones like this. And you look first on the south side of the tree. And you tend to look up. Yeah, that's where the science as well as the craft comes in. Yes, Scott?
SPEAKER 9: What's the most exciting bee hunt that you've been on?
TOM SEELEY: Oh my goodness!
TOM SEELEY: Yeah. I think it was the bee hunt that took me three years. It was in the Arnot Forest. I started it one year, couldn't find it. I knew where the tree was. It was up on this steep hill with these tall pines and hemlocks that blocked my view. And I went back the second year, tried again.
The third try, I managed to do it because I knew I was in the right area. I knew I was on the right line but, with these incredibly big white pines and hemlocks with thick boughs, I just couldn't see up into it. And then an undergraduate-- bless him-- called me on my cell phone. And I was answering his question about his project. I was kind of standing there, you know, not looking around carefully. And I noticed. I was just in the very right spot.
It was about this big. You had to be right in that spot. If you were there, you could look up through the boughs and see the bees going in and out. So that's the one. That's the one, Scott, where I thought, I think I've used up my lifetime supply of bee hunting luck in that one. That one really sticks in my mind. So, yeah, I guess that's the most exciting.
There's a lot. It's like all forms of hunting. It takes you to places you wouldn't go doing things you wouldn't do and leaves you with very strong, powerful memories. So that's another part of the fun of it. Yes?
SPEAKER 10: Have you run into bears while you're hunting bees? And have they taught you anything about hunting bees?
TOM SEELEY: Indirectly, I've run into bears. I referred to the importance, the value to the bees of nesting high off the ground. And the bears demonstrated that to me very clearly in a couple of ways. One is that, these nests where I see the entrances high off the ground, I never see bear claw marks going up those trees out in the Arnot Forest.
But one tree was in a red oak. And the red oak fell over. The tree was still alive, but it broke off at the base. It fell over. And the bears were there. Now the entrance was no longer 35 feet up off the ground. It was like two feet off the ground. And the bears were all over that nest. But the bees were still safe because the tree was just so sturdy that the bears couldn't get into it.
So that told me that, yeah, I guess bears have a good sense of smell. But I guess they don't have great eyesight. And the bees are safe nesting high up. So I learned something from the bears in that way.
I've also learned that they must be really big because I've seen their footprints in the mud. Those are really big footprints. And I studied. I took a photograph of it, and I compared it. On the Cornell web page, they have that bear print as part of the Cornell logo. They've got it right. They've got it right. Yeah, it's just the right shape. Yes?
SPEAKER 11: So when a bee returns to the hive with a load of goodies, it passes some of that on to a receptor bee?
TOM SEELEY: Yes.
SPEAKER 11: And then with how many other bees are the goodies shared? And what's sort of the volume or the weight of the goodies?
TOM SEELEY: Oh, thank you for asking those questions. I'll start at the end there. What's the volume or weight? It's about 50 microliters. And it weighs about-- because it's a dense solution-- 80 milligrams, 60 milligrams, or 70. But I know it's 80% of the bee's empty body weight. So it's a big payload that these bees are hauling home, which is impressive.
And that helps the bee hunter because, when that bee takes off, it's like taking off from an aircraft carrier. It doesn't have a high flight speed. And it takes a while to climb and zoom away.
When she unloads her payload, she transfers it, generally, just to one or two other bees. Now, where it goes then depends on how much nectar's coming in. If the colony's well nourished and there's been a lot of food coming in, nobody will really want her food. And the bee will just take it up and put it in the honeycombs in the top of the nest. But if the colony hasn't been bringing in much food lately, the bee that receives the nectar will be met by other bees who will beg food from her. And then it can be widely dispersed. So it depends on the conditions in the nest.
Thank you for those questions. That's, again, where the science of bee hunting comes in. Yeah?
SPEAKER 12: So how long does a colony use a particular tree? And is the end when the colony moves somewhere or some other disaster has occurred and ended the county?
TOM SEELEY: Yeah. I've been following bee trees in the Ithaca area for about 40 years now, since the mid '70s-- so, yeah, 40 years. I know of a couple of bee trees that are still being used by the bees for that time. Most of the trees, though, have died and fallen over in that time period. So the trees do die off. After some decades, they tend to.
Even before that happens, though, the colonies themselves are, of course, not immortal. And I'm finding an average lifespan of the wild colonies of about three years. Some are living out to six or eight years. But they do die out. Winter's a tough time to be a honeybee colony.
But, interestingly, their survivorship-- it's about a probability of 0.8 survival each winter-- is really a little better than what the beekeepers are achieving now even with the medications, the pharmaceuticals that they administer to the bees. And that's part of the interesting story about why we're so interested in these wild colonies of bees.
SPEAKER 13: When you're bee hunting, do you come across bee trees that are fairly close together? Or do bees usually find trees that are farther apart?
TOM SEELEY: It looks random. So sometimes you do find two trees that are close together. I think the closest I've found them is maybe 150 meters apart. The average separation is 850 meters, so they are widely spaced. And that works out to about a little bit more than one per square kilometer or two and 1/2, approximately, per square mile.
They're out there quite abundant. And, remarkably, they're as abundant now as they were back in the 1970s when I first mapped them out in the Arnot Forest, which was one of the curious tip offs that something different is happening out in the wild. Yes?
SPEAKER 14: There are a lot of pesky little creatures, something like bees, that are kind of putting around outdoor dining venues. What are they?
TOM SEELEY: The ones that are probably bugging you the most are various flies, mosquitoes, things like that. It's a whole different class of insect-- the diptera, not the beautiful hymenoptera-- because the bees are vegetarians. They don't want our hamburgers and things like that. They do like your Coke in your Coke can, however. So they're going for sugar water and pollen. So the bees are not the pestiferous ones, generally.
SPEAKER 15: I've heard of another method of hunting bees where you get a bee. And you put a little bit of wax on the back. And then you have, like, a red piece of yarn. And, like, it's a visual guide and also like kind of weighs the bee down so that it's flying slow enough that you can actually just follow that one bee all the way back. Have you ever done anything like that?
TOM SEELEY: I haven't done that, but I have read about it. And I bet it works well. I've heard people use a little bit of red yarn or white string or something. I haven't done it because I was worried about what would happen to the bee when she got back in the hive, whether she'd get stuck or caught or something like that.
And the other technique but a similar technique that I have used, which uses the same logic, is you dust the bee with flour. She's white. And, against a dark tree line, she really stands out. Yeah, there's a lot of additional techniques.
SPEAKER 16: Do they ever make beehives somewhere else instead of a tree?
TOM SEELEY: Yeah. Occasionally-- occasionally, very rarely-- you'll find them in the ground. And certainly they go into buildings. A lot of old farmhouses around here have honeybee colonies living in the walls. In the desert southwest they're in caves where there aren't trees or in cacti. So anything where they can find a good, snug hollow cavity they can make as a home.
SPEAKER 16: I think I've seen one-- and I'm not sure-- in a big cactus--
TOM SEELEY: Saguaro, yeah.
SPEAKER 16: --in Baja when I lived there. And there was a beehive. I think it was a beehive.
TOM SEELEY: Definitely, definitely. Yeah. And there are the various owls who will excavate the cavities. And bees move in. Yes?
SPEAKER 17: In the Arnot Forest, what variety of bees are you finding there?
TOM SEELEY: It's all the species apis mellifera. But from our genetic analysis, we can parse that into what subspecies composition those bees are. And it's very interesting. If I recall the diagram correctly, it's about 60% ligustica and carnica, so from Southern Europe. But then there's the Western Asia group, caucasica. There's some of that, about 10%.
But the really interesting thing is there's about 30% of apis mellifera mellifera, the Northern European black bee. Their genes are still heavily represented in the wild colonies. How we doing for time, OK? We can keep going, I guess.
KELEE PACION: I think two more questions.
TOM SEELEY: OK, sounds good.
SPEAKER 18: You showed a picture earlier of the pygmies harvesting honey from up high in the trees. I was curious if that destroys the colonies that they harvest the honey from and if there's any way to harvest honey from a tree without destroying the colony.
TOM SEELEY: Yeah. First of all, with respect to the pygmies, it destroys the nest for sure. But the bees abscond and can move on. So the colonies tend not to be killed.
And, yes, you can harvest honey from bee trees without necessarily killing the colony. And it's called doing a takeout. You can open up the cavity, cut out the combs, transfer the combs. You string them with rubber bands. You put them in those standard wooden frames that are in a beehive and have the bees move into that new home. And, on the side, you take away some of the honey.
So that is another approach to doing it. It does certainly set the bees back, though. But, on the other hand, you could feed them and give back what they took.
SPEAKER 19: You talked a little bit about beekeeping as hindering the genetic diversity available. And so would you kind of recommend bait hives? Could you talk a little bit about what bait hives are and if that, like, would be more responsible beekeeping?
TOM SEELEY: Yeah. Let me clarify one point on that. When we-- and that includes me as a beekeeper-- treat our colonies against, specifically, the varroa mites, what we're doing is we're blunting the selection for the bees' resistance to those mites. And those mites are damaging to the bees because they're a very good vector of viruses, particularly a virus called the deformed wing virus.
I do like to get as many of my bees as possible by using bait hives. And I can give you detailed information about this, if you like. But what I use is a six-frame nuke box. I make a small entrance. I put it up on my barn, for example. I just caught a swarm two days ago in my bait hive on my barn. So if you've got the right size box, you've got it off the ground-- in that case, it was about 12 feet up-- you've got a little entrance, face it south, and you put combs into it, that'll make it very attractive.
And this year I put up 11 bait hives, and I've caught nine swarms. This was a good year for swarms, I should say, though. But it's a good way to get bees. If you put them up in remote places, you're tapping stock that's been able to live on its own. And they're beautiful bees. I mean, they're not real nasty bees. So it's a good way to do it.
You know, it's like all forms of trapping. You have to not overdo it. I put out one bait hive, maybe, every square mile or something or a couple of square miles. Thank you very much for your attention. I appreciate it.
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In his book, "Following the Wild Bees" (Princeton University Press), biologist Thomas Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, vividly describes the history and science behind a lost pastime: bee hunting. Once practiced widely but little known today, the tradition involves capturing and feeding honey bees, then releasing and following them back to their secret residences in hollow trees, old buildings or abandoned hives.
In a book talk given at Mann Library Sep. 1, 2016, Seeley takes his audience along on a bee hunt, providing both practical tips and new insights into the remarkable behavior of bees living in the wild. He is the Horace White Professor in Biology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell.