“What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.”
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI
One of the things I enjoy most about being a librarian is that I have the opportunity to assist people with research on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes the best part is what I unearth during the quest– even though these oddities are rarely useful to the patron, they often get me thinking.
I found one such item yesterday while I was pulling some books about pollinating insects for one of the students in the Academy’s Summer Systematics Institute. Behold, one of the items found whilst prowling through the stacks:
Kidder’s Guide to Apiarian Science by K.P. Kidder (1858). California Academy of Sciences Library, SF523 .K46
One could be forgiven for thinking this is a charmingly-illustrated beekeeping manual from the 19th century (which it is). But only after I brought it out from the stacks and into the light of day did I notice the cover illustration:
That, my friends, is no ordinary beard, but rather a beard of bees.
I’ve seen people with bee beards before, at county fairs and beekeeping demonstrations, but I never gave much thought to the history of the practice. I can’t find agreement in the literature about who popularized it (several sources give credit to Ukrainian apiarist Peter Prokopovitch, but I have not been able to confirm this. You can read about his proven achievements here).
Did you know that the Academy has beehives on the Living Roof? I checked with one of the keepers, and so far, no one has worn the Academy’s bees as a beard, so I had to do some of my own research.
A beard of honeybees is a manipulation of natural swarming behavior. Bees swarm for different reasons, and can be induced to do so by a variety of means. One type of swarming is what bees do when they need to find a new place to live. After reproducing and raising young in a colony, the nest site can become overcrowded. The established queen leaves the colony to her strongest daughter, takes about half the workers, and leaves to find a new nest elsewhere. In the swarm, honeybees don’t really operate as independent creatures, but for the good of the whole. Some bees look for a new nest and recruit others, some go follow to check it out, others assess different sites, and eventually some pilot the swarm toward their new home. Individual actions eventually add up to a collective decision about a new home. It is essential that the bees operate this way or the breakaway group could die.
Bees can be induced to swarm if you move the queen. A queen can be captured and held, inducing her workers to swarm and cluster around her, as if preparing to move the colony. Wear the queen in a little cage around your neck, and voilà, you have a beard of bees!
I am not a beekeeper, nor am I a bee expert. I know some folks disapprove of bee beards, on the grounds that it can be stressful and potentially harmful (or fatal) to the bees involved. Ethics aside, bee beards illustrate something that makes bees particularly interesting. As a swarm, the beard demonstrates how a colony, which integrates individuals by means of communication, cooperation, and division of labor, functions as a “superorganism.” The colony as a whole can be thought of as one creature. In other words, the lone honeybee doesn’t survive; it’s all about the group.
Or, what is good for the swarm is good for the bee.