26Sep Mark Collins | Projects

The Spirit of the Hive

For many years, bee researchers assumed that all worker bees behaved identically. We thought that the state of the hive permeated through the colony, affecting all worker bees in the same way. More recently, and thanks to some amazing research, this idea has changed completely.

As it turns out, there’s actually a huge difference in the way that individual bees respond to the stimuli that usually determines how much nectar and pollen gets collected. For instance, when pollen stocks in the hive are low, worker bees are driven to head out and collect enough to replenish them. Whereas before, we assumed that all workers reacted identically to this, it turns out that it actually affects them at different levels.

One of the foremost bee geneticists in the world, and author of The Spirit of the Hive, Professor Robert E Page Jr, conducted groundbreaking research into how individual bees (with differing genetic backgrounds) create flexibility in the colony to regulate tasks, including pollen, nectar and water collection, hive defense and the removal of dead bees from the nest — all in response to environmental conditions.

This research basically proves that bees act independently based on what the hive needs most. They pick up responsibilities of their own accord, to maintain a balanced system in the hive. This collective effort is on of the most poignant examples we have of how genetics, environment, nature and nurture all work together to create a balanced social system.

According to Prof. Page’s research, the bee’s genotype explains as little as 8–25% of behavioural variance – with that number usually being a bit closer to 8%. That means that even within one of nature’s most strictly organised social systems, behaviour is determined far more by nurture rather than by nature.

Although these kinds of findings have deeply significant implications on the way we see bee colonies living and thriving, it also demonstrates how improving the hive environment (a primary component of bee functionality) has a far-reaching and significant effect on the health and happiness of your honey bees.