A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings
Simon & Schuster, $35
It is common wisdom that more books have been written about the honeybee than any other insect.
This abundant literature stems in part from the great dependence humans have upon the hive as a pollinator of food crops and as a source of food itself. It also reflects the fascination that humans have nurtured over centuries of using the wealth that bees provide in the form of honey, wax, propolis and other products.
In the first instance, humans simply robbed the nests of wild bees in tree hollows and caves. The colonies were destroyed in the process. Early beekeeping followed a similar pattern. At the end of summer, the bees were killed and the contents of the old-style wicker skeps or containers fashioned from pottery or logs extracted.
The invention of the leaf hive and removable frames in the 19th century changed all that. Honey and other hive products could be extracted without killing the bees. Bee farming began in earnest. Humans harnessed bees, and became their “keepers”. Well, up to a point.
At the end of the day (or more often slap bang in the middle of it), bees will do as they please, behaving instinctively or according to stimuli that humans barely understand, even after centuries of domestic beekeeping.
Jürgen Tautz is a world-renowned bee expert, a professor emeritus at Würzburg University in Germany. His co-author, Diedrich Steen, is a publisher who comes from a family that has kept bees for a century. They have come together to write an insightful book drawing upon different experience. Their individual contributions are distinguished in the text by the interesting use of different typefaces for each author. Even so, the text flows seamlessly enough.
Tautz, who wrote a brilliant book a decade ago depicting bee colonies as a “superorganism”, returns to this theme. A bee is nothing without her colony, she will not survive and her (for bee colonies are overwhelmingly comprise of females) first and last duty is to the whole.
The honey factory – for that is what the modern beehive has most certainly become – is described in both its scientific and practical dimensions. Tautz and Steen have few illusions about what is going on. That is not to say they are without wonder but they are pragmatists who look at the science and practice to inform their account of the challenges that face the honeybee after centuries of mankind’s manipulation.
Modern bees face many challenges. Tautz has identified four threats to the wellbeing of the world’s honeybees. The first is diminished size of colonies; the second is hive hygiene. The third is the Varroa mite, a destructive pest of which Australia remains free for the moment (although it has reached every other continent and already made its way to New Zealand). The fourth is pesticides, neonicotinoids in particular, the use of which has been linked to colony collapse disorder (CCD) and the unexplained deaths of millions of bees in the Americas and Europe.
The industrialisation of honey production and its threat to bee populations (although Tautz and Steen point to economic factors being also to blame) has led to a renewed interest among hobbyist beekeepers world wide and a dramatic increase in the number of beekeepers, if not actual bee numbers. The celebrated invention in Australia of the flow hive has spurred this even further.
Beekeeping has become suddenly hip in towns and cities across the globe. Helen Jukes’ foray into bees has more to with her personal search for meaning against the backdrop of a stressful job and unfulfilled thirty-something life. A resuscitated interest in bees is her escape vehicle.
Jukes is attuned to many of the issues Tautz and Steen raise. She did her homework before acquiring a hive in suburban Oxford (even citing Tautz’s earlier work). In her quest for a more “natural” beekeeping experience, Jukes opted for a top bar hive, in which the bees are less constrained by the rigours of the conventional frame hive and their existence valued over and above the honey they produce.
There’s more than a little anthropomorphism at work here. Some beekeepers will find annoying her assertion that beekeeping is about “entering a relationship with a colony”. When Jukes talks about wanting to understand a bee’s “bodily experience – how it feels to be a bee going about in the world”, I suspect a few readers will completely tune out.
Let us be clear. Keeping bees in top bar, conventional or flow hives is hardly “natural”. One way or another, this is an exploitative relationship – with insects – for human benefit. At best it is about providing conditions in which the bees will prosper.
But there is much to learn from honeybees. In fact, there is always something new to discover. Steen notes that “for most beekeepers, beekeeping is not just a hobby it is a way of life, a way of seeing the world.” Bees certainly connect their keepers with the environment, in particular the weather and surrounding flora.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a newcomer, a lifetime beekeeper or an eminent entomologist, the bees never cease to surprise. Jukes learns this, Tautz and Steen know it too. That is the message of both these works.
John Schauble has been a hobbyist beekeeper for more than 20 years.