The Honey Bee

James L. Gould + Carol Grant Gould

Scientific American Library 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
That honey bees "dance" to communicate the distance and direction of food is common knowledge, but the details are rarely explained even in textbooks. In The Honey Bee James and Carol Gould cover this, along with other fascinating aspects of bee senses and behaviour. Their presentation is pitched at a general audience, but manages to convey something of the workings of real science.

The Goulds begin with a chapter on the history of bee-keeping, from prehistoric times to the invention of the movable-frame hive. The ecological specialisation of honey bees is in nectar collection and perennial colonies, which give them "the capacity to outcompete other pollinators for a few crucial weeks" in spring and early summer. Rapid expansion before and during the warm months is followed by swarming — division into multiple hives — and slow decline during the winter months.

After describing the anatomy and senses of bees, the Goulds turn to bee communication, to chemical signalling and the workings of the dance, where the angle and length danced indicate the direction and distance of food. They cover the classic experiments of von Frisch that revealed the dance, as well as the debate over the existence of a dance language starting in the late 1960s.

This is followed by chapters on the economics and energetics of honey bee foraging, the evolution of the dance, the details of bee navigation, and the use of odor, colour, and shape in flower learning. Two final chapters consider programmed learning and insight and intelligence, looking at bees in comparison to birds, primates and other animals.

The Honey Bee is popular science: it assumes no background knowledge and is clearly presented, with diagrams used to good effect. But it is serious popular science: it doesn't restrict itself to history, applications, exciting stories, and simple descriptions, but manages to convey something of the experimental methodology of animal behaviour studies, of the ways in which hypotheses are formulated and tested. It's a great read for anyone curious about bees and their behaviour.

Note: The Honey Bee focuses on the Western Honey Bee Apis mellifera. For the biology of the other honey bees, see Asian Honey Bees.

August 2004

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%T The Honey Bee
%A Gould, James L.
%A Gould, Carol Grant
%I Scientific American Library
%D 1995
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 071676010X
%P 239pp