I Bee M

Bumble-Bee Economics

by Bernd Heinrich
Harvard University Press, 245 pp., $17.50

The marvels of the societies of honey bees and their communications by dancing are widely known but probably few people realize that these are only the most sophisticated of the many less developed types of bee communities. There are 20,000 different species with all sorts of different cultures, making up the poorer. Third World of bees. Each species has developed a distinct pattern of organization in the long process of evolution since they first diverged from their carnivorous wasp ancestors when the flowering plants appeared over 100 million years ago.

The bumble bees, also called humble bees, are specially adapted to live in environments of bogs and tundra in temperate regions, where of course there are no flowers for much of the year. Honey bees on the other hand are descended from ancestors living in the tropics where individual trees and shrubs burst into flower at all seasons. As each source of abundant pollen and honey appears a worker honey bee that has found the tree in flower can call all the others to it by her dance on the honeycomb. This is also why honey bees are such useful “commensals”—i.e., organisms with whom association can bring mutual benefits—for human begins who plant crops like fruits and clover that all flower together.

But for the humble bees in the bogs there are no such masses of blooms to be visited. They have evolved a very different strategy whose economics depend upon exploiting the honey and pollen of the scattered flowers that appear throughout the spring and summer. Bernd Heinrich, an entomologist at Berkeley, gives a delightful account of how they do it. As he follows the bees on their foraging he also opens our senses to the sights, sounds, and smells of summer in the country where they live. This is a book about bogs as well as bees, and should appeal to everyone who loves to be in the country, whether he is an entomologist or not.

The bumble bees live in temperate climates and their first problem is survival through the winter. For them there is no cosy hive provided by people, and in fact each colony lasts only for one summer. It ends by producing males and many queens. The latter, after being fertilized by the males, have to weather the winter in a torpid state, buried underground. In the spring a queen that has managed to survive emerges and lays eggs to found a new colony.

At first she has to do all the work herself, gathering honey and pollen to feed the larvae. But she cuts off their supplies before they are fully grown and they become sterile workers who help her by feeding her later progeny. The bumble bees thus pose the question that worries biologists: how can altruistic behavior have evolved? Success in evolution depends upon one’s having some structure or activity that ensures that the next generation contains more creatures like oneself than like others of the …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.