Backyard Beekeepers Abuzz Over Social Life of Hive

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 18, 2004
To appreciate the pleasures of beekeeping, just listen to Vivian Clayton, a hobbyist beekeeper in Walnut Creek, California, buzz about the insects in her hive.

"It's just the most incredible, delightful thing to watch," she said. "They know where the hive is, and as they get close, they slowly drop down on a landing board. It's such a gracious thing [to watch]. Do that for 15 minutes, and you are totally blissed out."

In the U.S. about hundred thousand hobbyists keep bees, according to Kim Flottum. Flottum is editor of Bee Culture magazine and chairman of the Eastern Apiculture Society, a noncommercial beekeeping club.

Hobbyist beekeepers tend their small backyard colonies for a variety of reasons, but mostly to help pollinate their gardens, to harvest honey and wax, or to study the insects' natural history.

By contrast, there are only about a thousand commercial beekeepers in the U.S., people who make a living harvesting and selling honey and wax and renting bees to farmers to pollinate their crops.

"Consider gardening and farming," Flottum said. "There are way more gardeners than farmers. It's easy to have two or three colonies in the backyard, very hard to have several thousand and make a living from it."

Organized Society

For Clayton, the attraction to beekeeping is mostly a scientific curiosity. She is fascinated by their highly organized, cooperative societies.

According to scientific descriptions, a honeybee colony consists of one queen, several thousand worker bees, and at certain times of the year, a few to several thousand drones, or male bees.

All of the hive-cleaning, maintenance, and foraging is done by the worker bees. The drones' only role is to impregnate a queen. Clayton said the behavior of the drones she has observed is as predictable as clockwork.

"If I get [to the hive] at one o'clock in the afternoon, that's when the drones fly out of the hives. They all fly out and literally hang out in a specific spot with all the drones of the neighborhood looking for queens to impregnate. Then at four o'clock they all come back," she said.

In the beehive, Clayton said, each age group of workers has a task, moving up the task ladder throughout their five- to six-week life span.

Young workers, which are from 1 to 12 days old, clean the cells, nurse the brood, and tend the queen. Middle-aged workers, from 12 to 28 days old, build the comb, store the nectar and pollen brought in by foragers, and ventilate the nests. Foragers are 28 days old and older. These older workers also serve as undertakers, keeping the hive clean of bee corpses.

According to Clayton, when one worker fails to show for its scheduled job, another worker from lower down the hierarchy will fill the vacancy. Scientific research also shows that the workers higher on the pecking order will move down to perform a lower task, if needed.

"It's just a … highly inter-cooperative society that is enviable to observe," Clayton said in an interview with the radio program Pulse of the Planet.

Enviable Cooperation?

Clayton said this coordination among the bees reminds of her the high level of cooperation among her colleagues at the medical center in Walnut Creek, where she works as a geriatric neuropsychologist.

"To see someone come in with a heart attack, everyone knows what to do. There's no need to talk or speak about it. You need to save that life, and everybody gets to work in like ten seconds," she said.

Clayton believes that such cooperation is rare among people and says bees outshine humans when it comes to working together to get a task accomplished.

But Joe Graham, editor of the American Bee Journal, said it is wise to exercise caution when praising honeybee behavior.

"Honeybees and their popularized industriousness, organization, and self-sacrifice have been praised by many different cultures," he said. "However, modern science has played the part of the spoiler."

Flottum, of the Eastern Apiculture Society, cites an example: Honeybee queens control the behavior of worker bees by releasing chemical substances known as pheromones.

His parting thought: "Do we as humans strive for success and advancement by cooperation [that is] managed, whether by power or chemicals? Or should we be less cooperative and a little more independent and more democratic?"

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