Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Biology of the Honey Bee PaperbackBiology of the Honey Bee Paperback by Mark L. Winston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The honey bee exhibits a combination of individual traits and social cooperation which is unparalleled in the animal kingdom."

One can't live on fiction alone: reading about nature helps keep one's mind in balance. A year ago I reviewed Sue Hubbell's A Book of Bees , a wonderful book about the practice of beekeeping. Dr. Mark L. Winston is one of the world's foremost experts on honey bees and his monograph "The Biology of the Honey Bee" (1987) summarizes well over a 100 years' worth of research into the Apis mellifera species. While the index contains almost 1,000 references to scientific articles and books on bees, the volume is easily accessible to nonspecialists in the field, to ordinary people curious about this fascinating animal, which provides such huge economic benefits to mankind. According to the government sources, in the United States economy "honey bees account for more than 15 billion dollars through their vital role in [crop pollination]". For me, personally, bees are important in yet another way - they are my favorite animal species.

Honey bees are in grave danger: all over the world bee populations are rapidly declining due to various factors, but mostly because of a recent phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder", characterized by "a rapid, unexpected, and catastrophic loss of bees in a hive." We need to try harder to save the bees. Pandas and dolphins are perhaps cuter, but bees are way more important!

The monograph, whose first sentence serves as an epigraph to this review, presents the evolutionary history of bees, the bee anatomy and resulting functions, the bee development cycle, the three bee castes (workers, queens, and drones), the nest architecture, the age-related activities of worker bees (there are well over twenty typical activities that bees are involved in), the collection of food, the world of bee pheromones (chemicals used for communication among members of a species), and the complicated system of mating. The two chapters that are by far the most interesting to me are dedicated to the language that bees use to communicate finding food sources and the phenomena of swarming and supersedure.

I do not think there exists a more fascinating marvel of nature than the dance language of the honey bee. Forager bees who have discovered a new source of food (nectar or pollen) come back to the hive and using several different types of dances, communicate to other bees the existence of the new source of food as well as its profitability, and provide exact directions to that source. Since the bee dance is performed in a vertical plane of the comb, and the directions need to be given in the horizontal plane of the terrain, the bees are able to translate the dance angle from the gravitational vertical into the solar angle (the azimuth of the sun when they exit the colony). Even more extraordinary is the bees' ability to compensate for the movement of sun during the day. They seem to be doing quite advanced computations!

Swarming is the way of bees (macro)reproduction. "In this type of colony division a majority of the workers and the old or the new queen leave the nest to search for a new home." Research into what exact factors cause swarming is still ongoing. Being a math person I am in awe of the fact that forager bees - when searching for a place to establish the new colony and estimating a cavity size - use a process similar to one applied in integral calculus. The precision with which bees build the hexagonal cells in the comb and the accuracy of comb spacing are stunning.

Everybody can and should read "The Biology of the Honey Bee", a serious yet easily accessible research monograph about humans' best friends in the animal world. And please help save the bees!

Four stars.

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