Book Review: “The Buzz About Bees”

Jurgen Tautz’s The Buzz About Bees: Biology of a Superorganism is similar to The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum in that it’s full of detailed photographs that will help new beekeepers identify virtually everything that happens inside a honey bee hive.

But it’s not about beekeeping. It’s about the evolution and behaviour of honey bees. I learned much about the behaviour of honey bees from Mark L. Winston’s The Biology of the Honey Bee. That book had me spellbound. The Buzz About Bees (the book deserves a less cutesy title, by the way) goes over some of the same ground, explains a few extra things and presents another means of apprehending the behaviour of honey bees, that is, thinking of the honey bee colony as a single organism: the “superorganism.”

I don’t have time to write a detailed review of the book, but I’ll tell you what I got from reading it.

I was thinking about the evolution of honey bees while reading The Buzz About Bees. That’s probably because the last book I read before it was The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions by David Quammen, which opened my mind to evolution like nothing I’ve ever read before. Not that I’ve read much on the topic. I have, however, listened to “The Evolution of Charles Darwin” many times on the CBC Radio 1 program, Ideas. I saw the movie Creation, which I didn’t love but appreciated. The song and video, Charlie Darwin, by The Low Anthem is pretty darn nifty too. End of digression.

I’ve been feeling compelled to learn more about the processes of evolution these days because every time I notice something new in the behaviour of the bees in my backyard — every single time — I ask myself, “Now how did that evolve?” That simple question can place you in awe of the universe once it grabs hold of you, so look out. The Buzz About Bees certainly had me thinking about recurring patterns in the evolution of life on this planet, but I didn’t buy into the notion of a honey bee colony possessing “a cognitive ability that eclipses that of some vertebrates” (page 5). Cognitive implies knowing. A single honey bee or its colony doesn’t know anything. When someone says, “The bees know what they’re doing,” what they mean is that the bees have refined instincts and exceptionally well adapted reflexes. They are a marvel of evolution, but they don’t know squat. From page 268:

“In superorganisms, small elements of limited abilities that interact with their environment, and to which other similar elements belong, lead through these micro-actions to micro-patterns, forming the basis for the ‘artificial intelligence’ of machines, to which the special case of ‘swarm intelligence’ belongs.”

That’s as good as I get for a book review. The end. I read The Buzz About Bees while walking downtown to work and walking back home over a period of a few weeks, not reading it every day, but most days. (Reading while walking is a meditative thing for me. I love it.) Reading while walking kills any possibility of taking notes for the purposes of writing any kind of a review. So… I’ll skim through it one more time and see what jumps out at me:

— The population of a honey bee colony is about 50,000 in the summer and 20,000 in the winter. (Page 13.) When scientific books refer to a honey bee colony, do they mean a feral colony or one in an artificial hive? They never say. (Or do they?)
— I can tell this book was translated from German. Just saying.
— Chapter 2 explains everything that happens when a colony swarms. It also discusses the immorality of the honey bee colony.
— Honey bees sleep. (Page 64.) A sleeping bee will sit still with its antennae bent down. Worker bees usually sleep at night along the edges of the comb where ain’t much going on. I’ve seen this before but didn’t realize it was sleeping bees.
— We like to think the queen is in charge, but that’s not exactly how it works. The “decentralized, self-organizing distribution mechanism” of the colony is some seriously fascinating stuff. (Page 66.)
— Honeybees don’t have the greatest vision. They need to get within centimetres of a flower to make out the details. (Page 74.)
— Bees are colourblind when they fly fast over a field. Not until they slow down does their colour vision come back on. (Page 76.) Hurray! Being colourblind myself, I feel a kinship to any creature that sees the world a little bit differently like I do.
— Bees don’t have the biggest brains in the world, so it’s necessary for them to shut off certain brain functions while they focus on more important sensory data. (That’s me, not the book.)
— Bees see the world in slow motion. (Page 78.) Which is why sudden movements are more noticeable to them. Flowers that may not visually catch the attention of bees often move easily in the wind and are thus noticed by the bees.
— Bees notice patterns more than colours. Different coloured hives don’t mean a thing to the bees. (Page. 79.)
— Honey bees are big on pheromones. It seems like every behaviour is associated with a specific pheromone. Here’s a neat one: “Foragers that take the last drop of nectar mark the flower with a chemical ’empty’ signal. The chemical signal fades about as quickly as it takes the flower to replenish the nectar store. Bees that approach such flowers get the message before they land, and do not waste time trying to extract nectar from an empty flower.” (Page 87.) The book digs deep into this kind of thing, including detailed explanations of the various dances, how the bees send vibrations through the comb to get the attention of the other foragers (more on this in Chapter 7), how they interpret distances over various types of terrain. Too much to get into here, but much of it was new to me.
— Chapter 5 goes into the gruesome details of honey bee mating practices. The worker bees, by the way, determine the sex of the queen’s offspring, not the queen. (Page 134.)
— Chapter 6 explains the brood-rearing processes. Not much new information here — the would-be queens get the rich “royal jelly” food throughout their development whereas the rest only get the good stuff for the first few days, and so it goes — but the photos again are incredible.
— Chapter 8 talks a lot about “heater bees” that shove their heads down empty cells and burn up all their energy to give off heat so the brood nest temperature is just right. All you can see are their quickly expanding and contracting abdomens sticking out. They can stay that way for up to 30 minutes. Those are heater bees. (Page 214.)
— “Bees that are not actively heating form a living layer over the comb, and do their share of temperature regulation through passive insulation.” (Page 220.)
— Chapter 8 also describes how much energy the bees get from honey, how much they have to fill up their gas tank to fly certain distances, why they collect and store water to cool the hive, etc.
— Did you know that worker bees will eat the eggs that don’t come from their queen? (Page 243.) “That doesn’t smell like my mother. Eat ’em!” That’s why laying workers don’t get far in the hive most of the time.
— Queen bees have their reasons for peeping and beeping (that’s another story), but foragers will also peep at each other to say, “Hey, stop dancing about the food source. I just got back from there and it’s dried up. It’s no good. But I know another place with some primo nectar. Listen up!” Peep-peep! (Not an exact quote from page 257.)

The Buzz About Bees also delves into genetics and the intricate social relationships that make up the colony. The honey bee colony is one big self-regulating “superorganism,” a fantastic product of evolution that we’re just beginning to understand.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Buzz About Bees”

    • Just some quick peripheral notes. There’s considerably more going on in this book than I’ve hinted at here. I wish I’d taken notes while I was reading it so I could have stopped and written out my thoughts. By this time next week, I’ll have forgotten most of what I was thinking. And my profundity will be lost. Like tears in rain.

  1. So many people have recommended this book to me now. It’s on my Christmas wish list. I have Mark L. Winston’s The Biology of the Honey Bee, which I find very useful as a textbook when I’m trying to find the answer to something.

    • Some of the science in “The Buzz About Bees” seems solid, some of it is a bit fishy, and other philosophical aspects of the book, if you want to call them that, well, I just didn’t buy into all of it. It’s possible some of the nuances were lost in the translation from German to English. The photography, however, is exceptional. Just about everything I could imagine shows up at least once and in fine (and often gross) detail.

      The book is also not what I’d call cheap — I’d call it somewhat expensive. I borrowed it from someone. I’m not sure I would have bought it on my own. Not a bad gift though.

      I’d like to own the latest edition of “The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture,” but that’s not exactly cheap either.

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