I finished reading Jürgen Tautz’s book The Buzz about Bees, Biology of a Superorganism. A number of sources touted this as an excellent book, and I was not disappointed. The book presents the case for treating the entire colony as an organism. Center to Tautz’s argument is that a bee on its own cannot reproduce; the unit of reproduction is the colony itself via swarming and requires the workers, the drones, as well as the queen.
The book starts with evolution basics, the idea that early hereditary material (some sort of genome) evolved better and better ways to propagate and reproduce across the planet. From this early material evolved single cells to hold the genome, and eventually multi-celled organisms to carry the hereditary material from parent to offspring in what we now call DNA. From there Tautz presents the idea of a superorganism, one where individual organisms (in our case, bees) have gathered together to propagate the genome at the level of multiple organisms working together a a colony, where the whole is greater than any single bee.
The pictures alone might be worth the price of the book. Photographer Helga R. Heilmann has packed the book with detailed pictures showing bees in and out of the hive. The picture here is taken from the Bee Group page for the organization behind the book, which appears to no longer active as of earlier this year.
Orginally written in German, the book has been well translated by David C. Sandeman. The language is very readable, if a bit scientific at times. One particularly interesting section discussed the so-called orientation flights bees often take in the afternoon. According to Tautz, the bees in these flights are composed of both new and old bees and only occur in hives that have a queen present. He seems to think these flights are aimed at protecting any queens that might go out mating during the peak of the day, rather than to orient new bees to the hive.
If you don’t mind the science and are interested in learning about bee and colony behavior, this book is definitely worth the price.
As for my three superorganisms, they are buzzing along. I removed the mite-away strip from our top bar hive Venus on a particularly warm Wednesday this week, and these bees are hopefully a little more mite-free. I took advantage of the weather to do a full inspection of our two Langstroth hives as well. They both seem to have roughly 10 medium frames of honey stored, with little or no brood present. None of the hives seemed very happy to have me look inside, and they were definitely a-buzz while I worked.
The lack of brood in the two Russian hives worried me, so I sent a note to our local Russian bee breeder, Chris Hewitt. The deep frames in both hives were pretty empty. Mars (the left one) had no brood, while Jupiter (the middle one) had a very tiny amount on a single frame, so I expressed my surprise at this. Chris responded with, and I quote, “Yep. Very challenging to find any brood by mid October. They’ll ‘eat’ any brood left once the night temps are consistently below 50 or 45.” That seems to be where we are, this past week included freezing nighttime temperatures and our first frost. What a difference from the Italians, where I had seen a good amount of open and capped brood a week earlier.
All three hives seem a little short on honey stores. Apparently a medium frame is around 3.5 pounds of honey, so the Langstroth hives have maybe 35 pounds available. Russians are noted for surviving on much lower stores than Italians, but I’d be more comfortable with a little more supplies for the winter. I am feeding sugar water while I can, as our daytime temperatures have been relatively warm. Today the bees were flying and bringing in pollen and perhaps a little bit of nectar as well.
Our title, of course, comes from the book reviewed as part of the post. The Buzz about Bees, Biology of a Superorganism was first published in Germany in 2007, where it was very well received, and translated into English the following year. This should not be confused with the award-winning children’s book Buzz about Bees published in 2013, which I know nothing about.