Book review | The Bee: A Natural History

The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich. Princeton University Press, New Jersey. Copyright © 2014 by Noah Wilson-Rich/Ivy Press Limited. This review refers to the hardcover edition.

The popular interest in all things bee has resulted in a raft of books, some good, some not so much. But The Bee: A Natural History is one you shouldn’t miss. Although the book focuses heavily on the honey bee, it is not a beekeeping book. Instead it puts honey bees in the context of all bees and explains the relevance of those 20,000 species to our daily lives. The Princeton University press release states, “If you eat food, then you need to know about bees.” I couldn’t agree more.

The book is attractive even before you open it up. The cover features a full-color glossy photo of a honey bee along with eight silhouettes of other species. The remainder of the book echoes this promise: in-depth discussions of the honey bee and intriguing glimpses at the rest. By the end, the average reader will realize that honey bees do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a large community of similar creatures responsible for the look of our planet.

Beneath the cover, the pages are filled with stunning color images and complex drawings of beedom, from honeycombs to Varroa mites and from bumble bee nests to dance language. The book includes sections on bee evolution, anatomy, genetics, social behavior, and how bees and mankind have interacted through time. There is a section on beekeeping basics and detailed charts of honey bee disease symptoms and treatment options.

My favorite chapter is “A Directory of Bees” where the author introduces basic bee groups and then, one page at a time, profiles individual species such as Andrena florea, the bryony bee; Amegilla cingulata, the blue-banded bee; and Xylocopa violacea, the violet carpenter bee. Each bee is photographed, shown in silhouette, and described by forage preference, distribution, behavior, and life cycle.

The last chapter details modern challenges to these ancient creatures—predators, disease, climate change, habitat loss, urbanization, agricultural systems, and even the fear of bees as a threat to bees themselves. The author includes suggestions for helping bees, from becoming a beekeeper to merely planting flowers on your back deck.

The book is written in clean, easy-to-understand prose. You don’t have to be a scientist or even a beekeeper to understand the material or to grasp the importance of bees to our way of life. The author’s passion for his subject is obvious without being weighty, the diagrams are on point, and the photographs are a joy.

It has always been my contention that understanding bees generally—all of them—makes one a better beekeeper. Conversely, you don’t need to be a beekeeper to enjoy the fascinating pas de deux between flower and bee. The Bee: A Natural History illustrates the entire story in a quick but fascinating portrait. Be sure to put this one on your wish list.

Publication date: September 10, 2014. For sale only in the United States, its dependencies, and Canada.


Fall management of honey bees

The six weeks between Labor Day and Columbus Day are often considered the fall management window. Although southern beekeepers can wait longer, most North American beekeepers can use this rule of thumb with good results.

The objective of fall management

The purpose of fall management is to assure your colonies remain healthy throughout the winter so they can build up quickly in the spring. To remain healthy your colonies must be disease-free, well fed, and led by a robust and productive queen.

In the textbook Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (2013), Caron and Connor recommend that beekeepers make two fall inspections. The September 1 inspection is used to gather information on each hive and take corrective action. The mid-October inspection is the wrap-up when you see if your corrections worked and make any last-minute tweaks, if necessary.

Colony size and location in the hive

Colony size and location are both important for good overwintering. Although the location of the cluster is easy to fix, colony size can be more problematic. A colony of bees has its own plan for getting through the winter. To change that plan, the beekeeper has to manipulate conditions in the hive. This works for the most part, although there is always a colony that won’t comply no matter what you do.

Ideally, the cluster should be in the center of the lowest brood box. Adjacent to the cluster should be frames of pollen. Frames of honey should be against the outer walls of the lowest brood box and should fill the frames of the box overhead. To adjust the colony’s location, simply move the frames around as necessary without breaking up the nest.

Colonies can have size problems: they are either too big or too small. An overly large colony can eat through stores before the winter even begins, whereas a small colony may not have enough bee-power to keep itself warm and viable. So what is the right size? Like everything in beekeeping, it depends on where you live. Caron & Connor suggest that 30,000 bees is an average number for fall.

How to manipulate colony size

Overly large colonies (often the result of new or Italian queens) can sometimes be thwarted by feeding large quantities of heavy syrup. The bees store this in or near the brood nest, which has the effect of shrinking it. Large colonies can also be diminished by restricting the queen to the lowest brood box until cold weather sets in.

Raising the population of small colonies is more difficult. Beekeepers have reported success by feeding a light syrup of 1:1 or even 1:2 (one part sugar to two parts water) in small daily increments (so it is used and not stored). Often this feeding is combined with replacing a few honey-filled frames near the brood nest with empty drawn frames, giving the queen a place to lay. A good supply of pollen is also necessary for brood rearing. If pollen is scarce in the environment, give supplemental pollen in small doses (small so it is used up before attracting beetles).

If you are lucky enough to have both types of colonies—overly large and way too small—you can equalize. This is the technique I like best. First I evaluate all the colonies for size, and then I take frames of brood from the overly large colonies and give them to the small ones. I brush them free of adults (to avoid fighting) and then simply place the frames of brood alongside the existing small brood nest.

Now, three caveats about equalizing:

  • To avoid spreading disease, don’t equalize unless the colonies are disease free.
  • Do not add more brood than the nurse bees can cover. Brood that is not covered will be abandoned and the dead bees become a burden to the colony. You may be able to add brood in increments: give a small frame of brood, wait for it to partially hatch, and then add another. Make sure your bees have honey and pollen.
  • Equalization can be disrupting to a colony that has different plans for winter. I like to complete all equalization during the first inspection (early September) so the colony can sort itself out before winter sets in. If a situation drastically changes between the two inspections, I may equalize then, although I try to avoid it.

Combining colonies is an alternative strategy that is especially fitting when you have a tiny colony, or if you don’t have enough brood frames to equalize or enough nurses to cover. Always combine a weak colony with a strong one. Nearly always, a weak colony added to a weak colony produces a weak colony, and chances are slim it will see spring.

Other items for the first inspection

  • Check for honey stores: Feed any colony that is short on honey or pollen, or make note of those that will need supplemental frames of honey.
  • Evaluate your mite load: If you haven’t already assessed your mite numbers, do it now. If your mite count warrants intervention, use your preferred method of control. Mites are probably the number one cause of winter loss, so they can’t be ignored.
  • Look for other diseases. While you are evaluating your colony for size, be alert for signs of other disease and take corrective measures if necessary.
  • Reduce entrances. Besides helping to stop robbing bees and wasps, smaller entrances discourage mice and other furries from taking up residence in the hive. Reducers are especially important if you are feeding wet frames.

The second and final inspection

  • Check colony size: this is your last chance to correct for colony size. Any management item that didn’t work should be obvious by now.
  • Inspect honey stores: Continue to feed colonies that are light or provide frames of honey from storage.
  • Add winter insulation and ventilation systems: If you will be using hive wraps, moisture boards, quilts, hay bales, rain roofs, or whatever, now is the time to put them in place. Winter is just around the corner.


How many bees is enough? Pixabay photo by PollyDot.
How many bees is enough? Pixabay photo by PollyDot.


Strung out on pollen

Now here is something you don’t see every day. This amazing photo taken by beekeeper Morris Ostrofsky of southern Oregon shows a honey bee carrying a thread of evening primrose pollen.

The genus Oenothera contains about 145 species of flowering plants, many of which have pollen grains that are strung together by viscin threads. Viscin is a clear, tasteless, sticky substance made from sap. The grains of pollen are loosely joined in wispy, cobweb-like strands which stick to visiting pollinators.

Some botanists theorize that plants evolved this complex structure so the pollen would stick onto insects that aren’t necessarily designed to carry pollen—nearly hairless creatures such as beetles and moths.

Other plants in the family Onagraceae also have viscin threads, although some—like those from fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium—are too small to see without magnification.

Thanks, Morris. I don’t see how you did it.


Update: Morris sent us some more information.

The variety of primrose is Hooker’s primrose.  Perennial and self seeds readily.  I found it while on a bike ride some years ago. One of the really amazing things about this plant can be seen around sunset.  Just as the sun goes down the ripe flower buds open at an astonishing speed.  They go from being completely closed to fully open in a mater of two to three minutes!   They have entertained many garden visitors.  That’s not all.

This grand opening is often followed quickly by the occasional Sphinx moth getting a snack and pollinating also.  The following morning when it gets warm and light enough for the bees to fly the flowers are then visited by honey bees some of which carry long threads of pollen back to the hives.  When they arrive  on the landing board it is quite obvious which plants those bees have been pollinating.  As it warms up further the flowers collapse never to repeat this choreographed dance again.   Although the flowers live for less than a day there are many more to take center stage every day until the first frosts.

A honey bee about to pollinate an evening primrose flower. Photo © Morris Ostrofsky.
The same bee, up close. Photo © Morris Ostrofsky.

Do honey bees eat fruit?

The short answer is yes. Honey bees, especially in a nectar dearth, find ripe fruit very much to their liking. They have been known to feast on plums, peaches, grapes, apples, figs, and pears. But the issue that causes all the disagreement among beekeepers is whether honey bees will actually drill a hole in a fruit or if they simply use pre-existing breaks in the skin created by a wasp, stink bug, beetle, bird, or some other creature.

I have followed long threads on BeeSource, GardenWeb, and some other forums containing heated debates on whether honey bees are even capable of breaking the skin of fruits. Some beekeepers have placed grapes in a hive, or smeared them with honey, only to find the grapes still intact once the honey was gone. One person found the grapes propolized to the frames.

Certainly honey bees like their fruit very ripe. Fruit is sweet when slightly overripe, but more important in the bee world, it emits a fragrance that the bees can find. With an odor to follow, it is easier for honey bees to pinpoint a source of food, especially one that doesn’t look like a flower. Along with the aroma, however, comes a disintegration of the skin. It certainly isn’t difficult to puncture an overripe peach or pear, although grapes can be trickier due to a tougher exterior.

This subject occurred to me yesterday as I was picking mulberries. Our summer dearth is deep this year, and the bees are everywhere searching and scavenging. The mulberry tree has lots of fruit, some of it overripe, and the honey bees where circling above it and through it, no doubt following the odor. Later in the day, I discovered honey bees slurping overripe blackberries.

What I found amusing in the the forum posts was the existence of two distinct camps. The orchard keepers were saying honey bees drilled the fruit and beekeepers were (as usual) defending their little charges saying they are not even capable of breaching the skin of fruits.

As much as I like to defend honey bees, I find this a little hard to believe. Shown below is a photo of an entrance reducer that was an obvious inconvenience to my bees. When I put it in, it was new and freshly painted. About two months later, when I heard skritching inside the hive, I removed the reducer to find it virtually destroyed. Now tell me that bees that can decommission a piece of wood can’t get through an overripe plum.

Furthermore, we know that honey bees bite when an enemy is too small to sting. Certainly if they can penetrate the cuticle of a wax moth larva, they can also bite through a tender overripe fruit skin.

Then too, we have all seen robbing honey bees tear roughly through capped honey combs, leaving ragged edges and piles of debris. Honey bees aren’t nearly as delicate as some would like us to believe. Although I personally have not seen a honey bee puncture a fruit, I do not doubt those who say they have.


Munched away, paint and all.
Tougher than fruit skin.

What’s in there?

This is one of those photos I didn’t know I had until I was reviewing the day’s pics on the computer. I love the way the bee, a European wool carder, is standing on a leaf and seems to be opening the flower and peering inside. Of course, I think she was just doing what bees do and all this is in my imagination, but I love it anyway.

Wool carder bee examining a lemon balm flower. © Rusty Burlew.
Wool carder bee examining a lemon balm flower. © Rusty Burlew.