Inside the hive: Bee society more complicated, emotional than you might think

Inside the hive: Bee society more complicated, emotional than you might think

August 22nd, 2014 by Lynda Edwards in Life Entertainment

Diane Ravens points out the queen in a hive at Appalachian Bee in Ocoee, Tenn. Once an old queen has outlived her usefulness to the hive, she is killed and replaced by a new queen.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Diane Ravens removes combs to look for the queen in a hive at Appalachian Bee in Ocoee, Tenn.

Diane Ravens removes combs to look for the...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Diane Ravens sells different varieties of honey and beeswax-related items at Appalachian Bee.

Diane Ravens sells different varieties of honey and...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Diane Ravens rubs the dead queen bee's body across a small box to transfer her scent to the new queen waiting inside. She then places the box inside the hive to acclimate the male honeybees to the new queen.

Diane Ravens rubs the dead queen bee's body...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Honey and beeswax products are sold at Appalachian Bee.

Honey and beeswax products are sold at Appalachian...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Diane Ravens searches for the infertile queen in a colony so she can replace her with a new queen.

Diane Ravens searches for the infertile queen in...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.


Neurobiologist Thomas Seeley has spent decades studying how bees make decisions, a process so clever and fruitful, he wishes American bosses would be more bee-like. His tips for bosses who want a happy, humming workplace:

• Gather diversity of knowledge about available options.

• Make sure whoever is in charge of gathering workers' opinions in a survey does so in a way that is completely unbiased.

• Leaders must foster discussion rather than dominate it.

• The idea that wins in a competitive discussion should be the first to gather a "critical level or quorum of support."

Source: Honeybee Democracy

August is always the darkest time for this kingdom, a time of Borgia-like maneuvering and bloodletting.

This is the month when food supplies are low, yet the queen's former lovers have become fat, lazy freeloaders who do nothing but eat more than their share. The queen is behaving as if she were crazy, incapable of producing heirs or ruling.

Her increasingly aggressive workers - normally so loyal they will literally work themselves to death - may kill her themselves. Some of them chunk her ex-Lotharios to their deaths through round portals akin to the Eyrie's Moon Door in "Game of Thrones."

For the population to survive, the old queen must be executed and a new queen must be crowned and accepted.

Fortunately for one particular kingdom, a new queen with two female attendants has arrived in a tiny wooden box with a mesh window.

Yes, we're talking about bees.

The box with the queen is about the size of Appalachian Bee owner Diane Ravens' thumb. One wall is made entirely of candy, and Ravens will tuck the box into the hive so the males can sniff the new queen's pheromones and reassure themselves that she is worthy. By the time she finishes eating her candy wall to free herself from the box, the guys will be spellbound, lustful and eager for sex.

"That's the power of a true queen's perfume," Ravens says. "I bought the new queens for my hive from a queen breeder I trust."

Before Ravens installed the new queen, the old one ducked through the round portals of the honeycomb as if she sensed her end had come. Ravens caught and squashed her - a clean, quick death.

"It would be nice if she could fly off to fairyland, but an old queen who has outlived her usefulness still refuses to step aside for a new queen; the two queens will fight to the death over who rules the hive," she explains, carefully placing the new queen's box in the hive, which immediately attracts a cluster of intrigued male bees.

The debate over whether honeybees possess what humans would call emotions, decision-making ability, sanity or the ability to go insane took on an extra urgency when the frightening colony collapse disorder spread globally. CCD is the term used for a mysterious disorder in which honeybees, who normally are willing to die to protect and stay with the hive, abandon it and vanish. Since farmers need bees to pollinate their crops, CCD sent shockwaves throughout agriculture.

On Oct. 2, Vanderbilt University will fuel the debate when it presents world-renowned Cornell University neurobiologist Thomas Seeley, the author of books that argue that honeybees experience, at the very least, the sort of "swarm intelligence" humans demonstrate in corporations and factories.

"Swarm intelligence is the solving of cognitive problems by a group of individuals who pool their knowledge and process it through social interactions," Seeley wrote on his Cornell web page.

In his book, "Honeybee Democracy," Seeley champions an idea that sounds a bit too much like a case from "The X-Files" for some scientists. He says that, when homeless honeybees choose a new hive, "they do something truly amazing: They hold a democratic debate to choose their new living quarters."

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga biologist Stylianos Chatzimanolis won some worldwide acclaim in entomology with his study of beetles. He remains skeptical of honeybee psychology.

"Honeybees, like most other social insects, remain loyal to the queen due to the 'police state' implemented by the queen," Chatzimanolis says. "The queen produces pheromones that suppress the ability of workers to reproduce, and the queen will kill any worker bees that reproduce or have eggs.

"Almost all bee behaviors are responses to biochemical signals (hormones) secreted by the queen," Chatzimanolis says.

Humans frequently project their own characteristics onto animals. American dog lovers surely felt vindicated when a study last year found that canines can experience the same emotions common in 2-year-old humans - love, joy, anger, fear, contentment. But there is a lively debate among all sorts of scientists about whether honeybees possess what humans would describe as emotions or the abilities to make conscious decisions.

British zoologist and Newcastle University animal behavioral science professor Melissa Bateson jumpstarted the debate two years ago with her study, published in Current Biology, that indicated that anxious honeybees make pessimistic decisions. Like a downhearted human who sees danger lurking in mundane activities, pessimistic bees become cautious to the point of self-sabotage. Bateson and researcher Jeri Wright measured chemicals in honeybees' seed-sized brains and found elevated levels of dopamine and octopamine, neurotransmitters associated with human depression.

Honeybee foragers need to be intrepid explorers who zoom among flowers and trees to find food, but honeybees that were periodically terrorized - in Bateson's experiment, this was done by shaking their hive hard - became anxious and pessimistic about the outside world. When shaken bees are confronted with an exotic, unfamiliar-yet-alluring odor, the depressed bees withdraw like "pessimists who interpreted the ambiguous odor as half-threatening rather than half-appetizing," wrote Juan Castro, a University of Pittsburgh Center for Neuroscience fellow, in Scientific American.

As Chatzimanolis notes, this spring a Harvard School of Public Health study buttressed other scientists who pointed to neonicotinoid pesticides as the cause of colony collapse disorder rather than bees with the blues. Ravens only allows her bees to pollinate the farms and orchards where she and the farmers have agreed on what pesticides are forbidden. She says she has never had a problem with CCD.

What's gratifying about honeybee psychological research is that all of it has been useful to beekeepers who want to maintain productive, contented hives. The bottom line of the studies is: Bees who are happy - or experience what seems like happiness - make lots of yummy honey. That's why Ravens does everything she can to make the re-queening less stressful for her bees.

"August is a tough month for honeybees because nectar is low and the queen is clearly not herself, so the bees can be quite aggressive," Ravens explains, then pauses to listen to a loud cracking sound as a large strip of oak bark peels from a nearby tree and tumbles to the ground.

Autumn is sneaking in, making small changes that Ravens is sure the bees notice enough to become unsettled. Nectar is more limited; the queen is no longer fertile; ground temperatures are cooling. But they do not attack Ravens as she strolls among the hives, charcoal smoke billowing from the small pot in her hand, as she kills old queens and places new queens into hives.

Rows of white boxy hives line the wide green lawn stretching from Old Federal Highway to her Ocoee honey house, a dark wooden building where she boxes chunks of honeycomb and bottles her pale yellow wildflower and deep amber sourwood honey. A pile of coppery honeycombs glitters on the porch surrounded by a cloud of honeybees snacking on the treat. When all the honey is extracted, the combs are translucent and ready to become candle ingredients.

Inside the hut, jars of lavender buds, tiny bottles of intoxicating rose essence and slabs of orange beeswax wait to be mixed into vats of soap and lip balm. She imports cinnamon from Vietnam to blend into jars of honey butter. A mound of what looks like black lava laced with golden bubbles sits in a bowl. It is propolis, an anti-bacterial resin created from floral sap that bees mix with their own enzymes then coat the hive walls with to protect themselves from disease. Ravens uses it for a beauty ingredient, and doctors in some countries find its antimicrobial properties useful in treating skin blemishes.

It almost seems as if the bees are working hard for her. Does she ever feel as if she really rules the hives?

She smiles for a moment at the thought then shakes her head.

"No, there's always only one queen for every hive," she replies, clearly content with being the power behind the thrones.

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfree or 423-757-6391.