The Biology of the Honey Bee by Mark L. Winston (Harvard University Press: $29.95; 281 pages, illustrated)
One of the mysteries of living brains is how they pack so much thinking power into so little space. This is certainly true of human beings, but it is also true of many other creatures.
Bees, for example. The things bees do are nearly unbelievable, even by the standards of social insects. "Honey bees stand out for their extraordinary communication and orientation abilities," writes Mark L. Winston in "The Biology of the Honey Bee," a lucid account of current knowledge and research.
"They not only possess one of the most intricate chemical communication systems in the social insects," Winston says, "but have also evolved a dance language unparalleled in its ability to communicate the location of food resources and nest sites. In addition, honey bees use visual, auditory and magnetic clues to round out their sensory impressions of the world, and they integrate all of these sensory abilities into rapid and effective colony-level responses to both danger and opportunities."
And that's not the half of it. Honey bees can sense tiny variations in temperature, and they use various strategies including beating their wings at a furious pace and adjusting the evaporation of water from nectar to maintain a constant temperature in their nests.
Marvels of Architecture
The nests themselves are amazing achievements in architecture. They contain hexagonal cells--the most efficient shape to maximize the number of cells in a given area--and all of the cells of a given type are virtually identical.
Some of this behavior of bees is instinctual, to be sure. Bees don't have to think about building hexagonal cells. It's apparently built into them. But other behavior implies an interaction with the world around them and some level of decision-making about how to respond to it.
Perhaps that's giving them too much credit. Perhaps their responses to their changing environment are completely determined and involve no "thought" at all. After all, Winston makes clear that much of honey bee behavior involves responses to a highly developed system of chemical stimuli.
But it is hard to give too much credit to insects about whom an author writes: "Scouts searching for nesting sites use a process akin to integral calculus to measure cavity sizes." This is without question one of the most startling sentences I can recall having read, and I wish Winston had explained exactly how bees do integral calculus.
Around for 30 Million Years
But that's about all that he doesn't explain. Starting with the evolution of bees (they have been around in their present form for at least 30 million years), Winston describes in detail the anatomy of bees; their diets and foraging techniques; how they develop as individuals and how individuals develop into colonies; the specialization of labor; and their strategies for reproduction.
Each of these topics underscores how special bees are, and the social organization of bees is the most eye-opening. These insects split themselves into castes--queens, workers, drones--and are able to communicate the changing needs of the colony to all of its members.
Worker bees are able to change their behaviors and adopt specific tasks depending on what needs to be done. There may be no more highly developed social structure anywhere in the animal kingdom.
To most people, bees mean bee stings, and even that unhappy characteristic of bees represents a subordination of an individual to the group. A bee that stings suffers massive anatomical damage to itself and dies shortly thereafter. For that matter, a drone bee, whose sole function in life is to impregnate the queen bee, also dies shortly after copulation.
Bees have been studied for hundreds of years, primarily because of their economic importance in producing honey, but more recently because of the interest of biologists in these unique creatures.
Where Knowledge Is Lacking
Winston, a biologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has drawn on a large number of sources in putting together this definitive book on honey bees, which also clearly points out the areas where knowledge is lacking and more work needs to be done.
The book is richly illustrated with drawings and diagrams that illuminate the accompanying text.
While the facts that Winston presents are fascinating, it should be noted that this is more of a scholarly book than a popular one. Saying this is to take nothing away from it. The explanations are clear, but they demand attention.
Readers who invest the time and interest will come away with new respect for these often-maligned insects. There is much more to them than the sting.