The Lives Of Bees –
The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild;
by Thomas D. Seeley -
Book Review

This is a great book, and one I would recommend to be read by every single beekeeper – preferably before they even begin beekeeping, not to mention anyone with a fascination for this enigmatic, beautiful and amazing little bee.

It’s not just because Seeley (author of Honey Bee Democracy; Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University) is a renowned researcher and writer on the subject of honey bees.  This book is genuinely helpful and challenging in the way it compiles years of study and research into the genetics, health and natural nesting habits of beloved Apis mellifera.  From this considered compilation of research, Seeley makes supremely useful suggestions as to what beekeepers can learn and how they can adapt their practices and become better beekeepers. 

For long-time advocates of api-centric/natural/bee-friendly beekeeping, many of Seeley’s suggestions will not only ring true, they provide scientific backing for those ideas as well as more suggestions to boot. 

For instance, I have not previously seen anywhere a recommendation to roughen the inner surface of a hive, or build them from rough-sawn lumber (this stimulates colonies to cover the inside walls with propolis, so building anti-microbial shrouds around the combs) – although it’s true there are beekeepers who use sections of tree trunk.  

Indeed, it seemed so obvious that in the history of hive design, some-one would have thought to conduct a thorough scientific investigation of how bees naturally live in the wild, in order to design the best and most appropriate one (and there are those form whom ‘the best’ is only about the amount of honey, with little regard for colony health and longevity). 

Commercially available, traditional hives were not particularly designed with the longer term well-being of bees in mind, though I actually know for certain there are beekeepers who have indeed done what they can to pay attention to the natural needs and habits of honey bees (and already carrying out at least some of Seeley’s recommendations perhaps in addition to their own – natural beekeeping proponent, Phil Chandler and the brilliant Dr David Heaf to name just two).   

Seeley himself proposes a new term: 'Darwinian Beekeeping'.  It’s a great term when you read what he has to say, and also think about it.  Seeley neatly and succinctly compares standard practices in beekeeping, with natural behaviours of successful colonies in the wild, and you can’t miss the stark contrast.   

There is also space within this term to allow beekeeping to continue, this time with a focus on practices that enable the practice of beekeeping, whilst facilitating the optimum conditions for the healthiest bees to thrive – that includes allowing nature to take its course and bees to naturally evolve their defence mechanisms against Varroa.

Finally, I’m going to pinch a couple of review comments from the rear of the book jacket:

By Kim Flottum, editor of Bee culture magazine:

“This remarkable book eloquently explains how to be a better partner with honey bees, using nature as a guide.  Seeley draws on insight and wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of research and hard work – and provides plenty of instructions and illustrations.  The Lives Of Bees is for everyone who has, or wants to have, honey bees in their lives.”

By Marla Spivak, University of Minnesota:

“Using beautifully crafted arguments, Seeley challenges us to let bees be bees.  Drawing from his life study of colonies in the wild, Seeley provides a timely reminder of all the amazing strategies that honey bees have evolved to survive on their own.”

I’m not alone in my appreciation for this book.