Dr.Thomas Dyer Seeley

by Stephen Fleming, Deputy Editor BeeCraft Magazine

If you’ve never heard Professor Tom Seeley speak about his bee research, you will almost certainly have heard it retold by other beekeepers. One of the most popular speakers at honey bee conventions, his findings have astonished and enriched the experiences of countless beekeepers.

I met Tom on late Saturday afternoon, as stands were being dismantled at the end of the National Honey Show, expecting him to be exhausted having given four lectures, hosting the Bees for Development quiz, and being stopped everywhere he went to answer questions from eager beekeepers. ‘There were very few parts of being at this Show that were hard work,’ he says. ‘It’s a pleasure to share this information. So much of what I and my students do not only reveals how colonies work; it also informs beekeeping practice and beekeepers – maybe not all – but those who are really interested in the bees' biology and how nature works.

It’s exciting to see so many people so appreciative. Not many academics experience this! ‘We’re trained as scientists to be critical and focus on the shortcomings of others' findings, but beekeepers don’t focus on that; they show real joy at what we have found. They look at the glass as being half-full, not half-empty.’ Unwrapping and sharing For Tom, communicating with beekeepers has been a relatively recent aspect of his work. As an academic, he says, the first half of a career is building a reputation to attract good students and the funding required and to climb the academic ladder. But he reached a point where that became less important to him than to communicate his findings.

Of his book, Honeybee Democracy, one of the most illuminating and popular books on honey bee behaviour, he says, ‘I wanted to write this book so that anyone could enjoy this story about the swarming bees. It's too good a story to have left buried in the scientific journals ... It was fun to dig it out and share it!’ Tom was almost lost to honey bee research -- but that would have been medicine’s gain. He has always been fascinated by how living things work.

“Before I discovered the bees [he uses the definite article: the bees], I put myself on a path towards medicine because I was fascinated about how the human body works.’ Although he had been first introduced to bees in a primary school classroom when a fellow pupil's father brought in a beehive and some comb honey, he stayed on the medicine track right through his undergraduate studies until he realised that it was the bees and how their colonies work that interested him the most-- even more than how the human body works.

The research path Brought up and still living in Ithaca, in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of New York State, Tom went away to Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, for undergraduate studies, and then to Harvard University, in Massachusetts, for graduate studies. It is, however, the environment around Ithaca, with its mixture of fields and forests, the latter dotted wild colonies of honey bees living in trees, that has influenced most strongly the direction of his work, especially since 1986, when he started work at Cornell University in Ithaca, where he is now the Horace White Professor in Biology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behaviour.

Tom’s research career can be traced through the books he writes every ten years or so to synthesise his discoveries and those others on particular topics : the natural ecology of the honey bee (Honeybee Ecology, 1985), the social organization of honey bee foraging (The Wisdom of the Hive, 1996), the collective intelligence of honey bee swarms (Honeybee Democracy, 2010), and how honey bees live in the wild (the book he is now writing; you can glimpse its direction by reading Following the Wild Bees, 2016).

Investigations of the signals whereby the worker bees in a colony integrate their activities are at the core of much of Tom’s work, especially their mechanical signals and acoustic signals. ‘These are the signals most accessible to us. We humans can eavesdrop on them easily and sometimes even play them back.’ Chemical signals are much more challenging, he says: ‘Usually, all we can do is characterise them and see their effects on the bees. So, I have dodged them! Monitoring, Identifying, and playing back signals is much harder for chemical signals than mechanical (sound or tactile) signals.’ Inspired by von Frisch’s unravelling of the waggle dance to indicate food sources, Tom was intrigued as to how that particular signal functions as part of a colony's whole social system of food collection. In studying the waggle dance, his attention was also caught by the tremble dance.

It had been observed already by von Frisch, but he never determined its meaning, and was so puzzled by it that he offered a prize to anyone who could decipher it. Tom did in 1991, but this was nine years after von Frisch’s death, so Tom didn't receive a prize from his scientific hero, he says with an expression that reveals disappointment.

Nonetheless, Tom is proud of his achievement of solving "The mystery of the tremble dancing bees," a piece of research that he finds particularly satisfying: ‘Honey bee colonies have been in existence for some 30 million years, as shown by the fossil record. Karl von Frisch deciphered the waggle dance, but I had the pleasure of being the first human being to understand what this trembling behaviour is about. Both dances (waggle and tremble) are recruitment signals produced by foragers, but whereas the waggle dance recruits more bees to the task of foraging when rich food sources become available., the tremble dance recruits more bees to the task of receiving the incoming nectar when a colony's nectar intake rate surges.

Just as a bank needs more tellers when the traffic of its customers increases, a colony needs more nectar receivers when the traffic of its nectar collectors increases, otherwise inefficiencies from unloading delays arise.’ The Sparkling Mystery Having investigated the collective intelligence of colonies in the context of foraging Tom thought that he could also study the mysteries of swarming as a problem of collective intelligence. Blessed with access to a treeless island where he could control the nest sites available to swarms, so he could conduct experiments to analyse how they choose their homes, he broke lots more new ground.

In some ways swarms are easier to study than foraging colonies, he says, but since colonies don't swarm every day, opportunities must be seized! He revealed lots of the secrets of swarms in the decade of the 2000s, and, because that period coincided with huge colony losses due to varroa in the USA, a new direction beckoned starting around 2010: how do some feral colonies manage to survive the dreaded mite?

So, since about 2010, the lives of colonies living in the wild has been the focus of his research. Of all the mysteries that Tom has encountered about the behaviour and social life of honey bees, he thinks that understanding how bees decide when to swarm is perhaps the toughest to solve, and will remain a mystery for his lifetime at least. ‘It’s such a basic part of the bees' biology. And it's clearly a hugely important form of collective decision-making. And it clear that it starts with a decision to rear queens. But our understanding of this piece of a colony's functioning remains very poor.’

There are lots of good working hypotheses about what bees are responding to that initiates the swarm impulse, he says, but to the best of my knowledge, no-one has conducted definitive experiment to identify the trigger or triggers. ‘It’s such a good question – a sparkling mystery!’ Landscapes and research.

The landscapes of New York and New England have provided Tom with special opportunities for research that Tom astutely identified and used to best advantage. In the British Isles it would be hard to find equivalents to the forested landscapes on his doorstep in Ithaca, the isolation of the Cranberry Lake Biological Station, and the treeless island in Maine where he could control the nest sites. So, what features in Britain would he have tried to exploit if his researches had been on these islands?

He imagines would have sought out the wild places in Britain, seeking the isolation (for both bees and researchers) that is needed for many experiments. But he homes in on one aspect that intrigues him: ‘I would probably have focused on Apis mellifera mellifera, your indigenous honey bee that has adapted over thousands of years to the climate and seasonal rhythms of the British Isles, and I'd have zoomed in on understanding the suite of adaptations that honey bees evolved for living here .

From talking to Scottish beekeepers, it seems that no-one has carefully surveyed the wilder places of Scotland, such the Cairngorms National Park, for wild colonies of honey bees. I bet colonies of the native honey bee still exist, and that they possess fascinating adaptations for living in northern Britain. Future gazing As to the future of honey bees in the USA, Tom has very mixed feelings. ‘Large scale beekeeping in the USA is very hard on the bees. Some of these beekeepers lose a large percentage—maybe close to 50%—of their colonies each year, so they are constantly rebuilding from their losses.

They know this is hellish for the bees, but they continue keeping colonies this way because the money from pollination contracts is good.’ Nonetheless, he is encouraged by the natural beekeeping movement whereby people try to work with the bees and not focus on maximising honey production to the point where it imperils the health of their colonies. ‘It's hard to see how those two approaches [commercial and natural] can be brought together because they are aiming for different things -- and means are dependent upon the aims.’ 

Seeking a new synthesis Given that Tom’s next book will relate to the natural lives of honey bees and to natural beekeeping, where might he deploy his energies next? That’s not an easy one for him to answer and, as throughout the interview, he pauses to think before he speaks.

There are lots of research topics that he would like to revisit to try to understand better what is happening. He even keeps a notebook of potential projects that must be a treasure trove for any aspiring honeybee researcher.

However, there is one enormous undertaking that tempts him, especially at this point in his career – to revisit and update CR Ribbands's book The Behaviour and Social Life of Honey Bees, which was published more than 60 years ago, in 1953. Even Mark Winston’s The Biology of the Honey Bee was published 30 years ago. ‘I'd love to write a new synthesis,’ he says. ‘The behaviour and social life of honey bees are at the heart of my investigations.

But whether I'll have the stamina and ability to do that …’ Let’s all hope he does!

words Copyright © 2017 by Stephen Fleming, permission for publication by BeeCraft Magazine, UK

Fotos : Copyright © 2018 Jan Michael, rucher école Villa le Bosquet