It might be hard to think of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) as a forest creature. Most of us picture honey bees in the context of hives in wooden boxes, managed by beekeepers in heavy white jumpsuits. We don’t think of them living in trees. We don’t think of colonies thriving without human intervention. But forest-dwelling honey bee colonies do exist in the wild.
This is the most basic truth you’ll come to understand when reading Ingo Arndt and Jürgen Tautz’s “Wild Honey Bees,” a fascinating work on forest bees in Central Europe. Yet, it’s not the only thing you’ll learn. Arndt and Tautz have produced a book that will change the way you think about bees forever.
That sounds like a bold claim. Even the book jacket makes it, promising to show us the “fascinating secret world of wild honey bees.” Some of us have read a zillion bee books over the years, and we are jaded. We think we’ve seen it all. We’re wrong.
The authors’ mission was to observe and photograph forest honey bee behavior and uncover any hidden insights about how these insects live. The lives of domesticated bees are well documented. Are wild bees doing anything differently?
You couldn’t be in better hands in pursuit of answers. Arndt is one of the world’s leading nature photographers. Tautz is a gifted behavioral scientist and bee expert.
Forest bee life is centered on the nest. A bee nest is a fortress filled with valuable resources — namely, honey — as well as great numbers of plump larvae and pupae, all of which could make a convenient and protein-rich snack for some hungry animal. Think Winnie the Pooh; A.A. Milne wasn’t so far off the mark. That’s why it is imperative that bees choose wisely when looking for a place to build their forest home. It can’t be too big. The bees must regulate the nest’s climate by heating and cooling it. And the nest can’t be too small. There must be room for the colony to grow. The nest must offer protection from the elements and must be out of reach of predators.
Hollow trees offer ideal environments for forest bees. The bees cannot create tree cavities themselves, so they rely on others. Arndt and Tautz devote an entire chapter to chronicling how a forest bee swarm can convert a woodpecker nest into a bee nest — a process that takes more than a year. The bees painstakingly build honeycomb, one tiny wax scale at a time. Comb serves “as production facilities and storage space for honey, a repository for pollen, a nursery for larvae and pupae, and a ‘phone network’ for communication.”
As the bees establish their home, they face some threats. Beekeepers typically view anything other than honeybees in the hive as a threat. And certainly, this is true for the deadly Varroa mite. The parasitic tracheal mite is no more welcome to a hive. Nor are the comb-eating wax moths or the small hive beetles that gobble pollen, honey and brood. Without the presence of an ever-vigilant beekeeper, how do wild honey bees fare against these foes?
Here is where we begin to see what Arndt and Tautz see — that forest honey bees are part of an ecosystem of closely interlinked organisms. “Bees in the forest have helpers” to do battle against some of their more pressing threats. One such helper not normally found in artificial hives is the book scorpion. Book scorpions are so small, they can hitch rides on the backs of bees. They don’t need to be large to be mighty, though. Book scorpions are voracious eaters of Varroa mites. Their presence is more than welcome.
This is one small example of how the bees are helped. But how do bees become a natural part of a healthy forest? Consider that a healthy forest provides a constant supply of plants in all seasons. But forest honey does not primarily come from forest flowers. It’s based on the secretions of aphids and scale insects — which, as the authors tell us, “is actually not as disgusting as it first sounds.”
Aphids tap into trees by sinking their mouthparts just below the surface of the bark, seeking amino acids and nitrogen-rich compounds. In the process, they also suck up a lot of sugars that they don’t need. So, they must excrete this substance, known as honeydew. Honeydew is not good for a forest. It coats tree needles and leaves. If left unchecked, this sticky residue can lead to black fungus and mildew. Bees, however, lap up the honeydew and bring it back to their nest to process into honey.
Arndt and Tautz show in many ways how bees depend on the forest and how the forest depends on bees. Their book tells an important story, but it is the photos that make this story come alive. Arndt shot more than 74,000 pictures over an eight-month period to capture these secret lives. He shows the bees at all stages of life — from the tiny eggs glued to the bottom of their cells to the fat larvae they later become to the ghostly-white pupae they transform into as they await adulthood. From his images, we learn to discern the flat-capped brood cells that signify gestating worker bees from the domed-capped cells that foretell the arrival of drone, or male, bees. We see emerging adult bees gnawing open the caps to their cells. We see the bees collecting and carrying pollen back to their nest. The pollen is pressed tightly into open cells, stored for later use. Each image is crisp and detailed, a wonder to look at and study.
If you are a beekeeper, you will recognize many of these essential moments, which are a part of the daily rhythm of a living hive. Arndt’s photos are extraordinary, yet there is one image that transcends them all. He presents us with a breathtaking photo of a queen bee surrounded by her entourage as she lays a single egg into an empty cell — an almost sacred act, given that it ensures the survival of the colony by providing a future generation of bees. To have captured this intimate moment is a stunning achievement.
As a professional photographer, Arndt has many high-powered tools at his disposal, including a high-resolution, 50-megapixel single-lens reflex camera. Various macro and magnifying lenses were employed to create images that would fill the page.
To gain access to the tree-dwelling bees’ nest entrances, he hung from a rope 66 feet off the ground. He built special observation tents and flight tunnels equipped with photoelectric sensors to capture the bees moving at high speed. He says, “Working with honey bees requires a certain capacity for suffering.” And an image of himself with a swollen eye helps you imagine what some of this suffering might have entailed.
It is to our great benefit that Arndt suffered so and that Tautz supplied his observations on the wild bees’ behaviors. This record of their work is likely to have lasting implications for our understanding of bees, their roles in ecosystems and the future of apiculture.
Brenna Maloney is an editor for the National Geographic Society and the author of the forthcoming book “Buzzkill: Fighting Insect Extinction From the Ground Up.”
An Intimate Portrait
By Ingo Arndt and Jürgen Tautz
Princeton. 189 pp. $29.95
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