Reviewed by E B Heath
If any living thing has been kicking around this planet since the Eocene epoch, some 45 million years, one can assume that its organisational abilities have been honed to perfection. And so it is with bees. Jürgen Tautz and Diedrich Steen, in their absorbing book The Honey Factory, give readers a detailed insight into the lives of honeybees and the art of bee keeping from a European perspective.
Diedrich has been a beekeeper for twenty years and Jürgen has a PhD in biology and is an internationally renowned bee researcher. So their book is a wonderful mix of practical knowledge backed up by hard-core bee research. The two accounts, practical experience and scientific research, have been differentiated by the use of dissimilar typefaces, so the reader can immediately recognise which author is writing.
In the introduction, Diedrich and Jürgen make clear that the object of The Honey Factory is to communicate an understanding of the honey bee colony, rather than an apiarist step-by-step manual. Readers will be fascinated to learn of the overall coherence and integration of the hive, and come to see it as a highly evolved super-organism.
Chapter one gives a comprehensive account of the history of man’s exploitation of bees for their delicious honey. Diedrich takes us from Stone Age methods, gleaned from cave drawings in Bicorp, Spain that provide a historical record of perilous efforts to retrieve honey, while dangling from vine ladders, to more evolved methods beginning in the 19th century. At this point removable frames in boxes were employed, which allowed the colony to keep productive rather than being destroyed. Modern day variations on this theme have continued. Then Jürgen informs the reader on the technology of comb building, the comb being at the heart of bee life as the site of egg laying, pupae nurture and food storage. The technology of the comb and its compound building materials will be a cause of wonder to the reader.
Chapter two concerns the annual rhythm of the hive. The uninitiated will learn that it is the winter bees that keep the hive ticking over through the cold weather. Unlike summer bees, living for only six to eight weeks, winter bees live for six or seven months. Jürgen describes hive life in winter and the survival strategies employed. As spring comes so the hive leaps into action and readers learn all about female power, the drones as ‘call boys for the queen’, the limited powers of the queen bee and the waggle dance. Jürgen explains why, from a biological perspective, the hive is thought of as a superorganism, known as the ‘Bien’, made up from individual bees rather than single cells. He then goes on to explain how bees see the world and bee intelligence concerning learning and planning.
Chapter three – ‘honey is not everything, but nothing runs without honey’ – prepare to be amazed. We all know that honey and wax are the valued products of the hive but that’s not the half of it. Apparently, breathing filtered air from the hive is a microbiological treatment for lung ailments, along with many other medicinal products being developed. The authors discuss: bee venom, royal jelly, history and uses of wax, propolis, pollen and bee bread, and of course, honey. To read this is to be educated on the wonders of the natural world.
Diedrich discusses practical aspects of the beekeeper’s contribution, including the health of the hive, separating and processing the honey and winter-feeding. Whereas, this is not a step-by-step instruction, it does outline the scope of knowledge necessary in beekeeping.
In Chapter four, ‘founding a daughter company – the swarm’, Diedrich writes of the mechanics of where and why bees swarm to create a sister hive.
The swarm drive is aroused when potential in the hive is blocked,
and this happens quickly when the honey factories run out of space.
(Not for the first time this seems reminiscent of human activity.) Jürgen explains swarm intelligence, the science of how bees move house, the role of scouts finding new locations for a hive and how they communicate to the swarm where to go. Fascinating reading! Diedrich carries on with what is happening in the old hive and how beekeepers control the swarm and the making of queen bees from worker larvae. These accounts read like science fiction at its best, only it isn’t fiction, it is wonderfully real.
Chapter 5, Industrial espionage, robberies and invaders – bees as aggressors, again this subject walks a parallel line with human behaviour, as the reader learns about hostile takeovers and how bees steal from one another. Also, sadly, bees are also victims of enemy destruction from other species. Here the authors inform readers about the, now well-known, Varroa mite spreading from Asia through Europe. The best solutions come from ants and knowledge of the behavioural tendency of the mite itself. Diedrich explains how the beekeeper can apply knowledge from bee research to protect bees from this infestation.
In the last chapter in this absorbing book: ‘Death of the queens? Bees and their struggle to survive’ – the scope ranges wide. Statistics for numbers of apiarists and yields of honey are given from 1956, along with influencing social factors. Then, without being overly alarmist, the how and why extinction remains a possibility. ‘Rediscovering old practices’ and ‘bees and forests: learning from their origins’ will be heartening for the reader, as it gives hope for the future, indicating a way forward.
The Epilogue is in a question and answer format, no doubt replying to questions that the authors have been asked many times.
This review was written from an uncorrected proof sent by the publishers. Within its 265 pages I have found The Honey Factory to be a most enthralling read, and I do hope that it will inspire a fresh batch of apiarists, because without bees we will be in deep trouble.
By Jürgen Tautz and Diedrich Steen
Black Books Inc.
Pp. 265; $32.99