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Life Science


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Honey Bee

The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz, H.R. Heilmann, and D.C. Sandeman (Springer) With spectacularly beautiful colour photographs and an easy understandable text The Buzz about Bees tells the story of honeybees in a new perspective. Based on the latest data, notably from his own research group, Jurgen Tautz provides a wonderful insight into the realms of bees.

In contrast to the view of bee colonies as perfect societies of selfless individuals ruled by a queen, Tautz introduces them as a "super-organism", a self organizing and complex adaptive system based on a network of communication; a fascinating result of evolution -a mammal in several bodies.

The entire range of astonishing bee activities is described. Remarkable action photographs never shown before present bees busy with cell cleaning, caring for the brood, serving in the queen's court, visiting flowers, receiving nectar, producing honey, comb building, entrance guarding, heating and cooling. Spotlights include bees grooming, swarming, fighting, telephoning, sleeping and communicating by high-toned beeping, scents and dances.

Jürgen Tautz is a professor at the Institute of Behavioural Physiology and Sociobiology of the University of Würzburg where he heads the BEEgroup. He and his team have two major goals: basic research on the biology of honeybees and the communication of knowledge about bees to a broad audience. During the last 15 years, Jurgen Tautz has contributed a significant number of discoveries that have considerably changed our view of honeybee biology. Published in top scientific journals (Proceedings of the National Academy of the USA, cover-stories in Science and in Nature) his contributions have earned him the ranking of the fifth most frequently cited behavioural biologist. It is nevertheless his didactic abilities that have brought him his highest accolades. Able to make the most complex principles understandable to all, his university lectures are remembered by students long after their studies, and his public lectures, of which he has given a large number, are always packed with enthusiastic audiences. His writing and popular lectures on organismic biology have been honoured by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) twice, in 2005 and 2007. He was singled out as one of the best scientific communicators in Europe.

A gifted communicator and leading scientist, Jurgen Tautz has much in common with Carl Sagan, Richard P. Feynman, Konrad Lorenz, Vince Dethier and others famous for their work in popularizing science and making it accessible to all.

Honeybees have fascinated mankind since the beginning of recorded history, and probably much longer. Bees have long been prized for their honey, and beeswax was recognized early on as a natural product of significant importance. The ordered communal lives of the thousands of bees in colonies, and the impressively regular geometry of their honeycombs have intrigued generations of observers. For modern man, bees serve not only as essential coworkers in agriculture, but also as indicators of the state of the environment, and witnesses of an intact association between mankind and nature.

Down through time, and for all cultures knowing them, honeybees are symbols of positive and desirable qualities such as harmony, hard work, and selflessness. Modern research exposes some details of the honeybee nature that may deprive them of this somewhat mythical status, but concurrently affords us with deep insights into the lives of one of the most amazing life forms we know.

This book aims to convey some of the fascination of honeybees, and at the same time to couple new perceptions with existing knowledge. It must be made clear, however, that we are a long way from knowing everything that there is to know about honeybees, and there are still many exciting discoveries to be made.

A dominant theme that runs through this book is that honeybee colonies share a set of characteristics with a highly developed group of organisms, namely, the mammals, but have combined these with the immortality of unicellular organisms. In this way, bee colonies have joined the survival strategies of both the multicellular and unicellular organisms, and hence occupy a special place among the living.

Pictures often say more than lengthy written descriptions, particularly in the Life Sciences; for this reason, we decided at the very beginning of this project to design a book with a strong emphasis on the alternation between text and figures.

We have purposely, with few exceptions, avoided references to the scientific literature, authors, and researchers. Instead, we have prepared an accompanying website for interested readers (http://www.beegroup.de), containing important additions and background material for each chapter, be these references to the literature, Internet links, photographs, video clips, sound files, or similar material. We will update this website at intervals, in order to maintain the state of the art that this book represents.

The honeybee is, for us, a "phenomenon" in the purest sense. The original Greek word, (fenomeno), means something that shows itself, or appears, and we believe this term to be a perfect characterization of this so-called superorganism, its nature repeatedly exhibiting the characteristics of a "phenomenon". The steps we take toward unveiling this "superorganism", which so cautiously surrenders its secrets, are small. But what one can learn from the study of honeybees is so rewarding that it is worth every effort.

The more we are able to penetrate the hidden lives of the honeybee, the greater our amazement, and also the deeper our ambition to explore this wonder world. Karl von Frisch, grand old master of honeybee research, made the fitting comment that "The honeybee colony is like a magic well; the more one removes from it, the stronger it flows".

If, after reading this book, readers were to observe the next honeybee they came across for a little longer than usual, and perhaps remember one or other of the remarkable aspects of her life, then we have achieved a great deal.

We thank the members of the BEEgroup in Wiirzburg, and the team from Elsevier/Spektrum Akademischer Verlag for their support during the preparation and publication of this book.

This book, already translated into ten languages, may at first sight appear to be just about honeybees and their biology. It contains, however, a number of deeper messages related to some of the most basic and important principles of modern biology. The bees are merely the actors that take us into the realm of physiology, genetics, reproduction, biophysics and learning, and that introduce us to the principles of natural selection underlying the evolution of simple to complex life forms. The book destroys the cute notion of bees as anthropomorphic icons of busy self-sacrificing individuals and presents us with the reality of the colony as an integrated and independent being—a "superorganism"—with its own, almost eerie, emergent group intelligence. We are surprised to learn that no single bee, from queen through drone to sterile worker, has the oversight or control over the colony. Instead, through a network of integrated control systems and feedbacks, and communication between individuals, the colony arrives at consensus decisions from the bottom up through a type of "swarm intelligence". Indeed, there are remarkable parallels between the functional organization of a swarming honeybee colony and vertebrate brains.

The Buzz about Bees will appeal to many; natural historians will enjoy the exquisite photographs; students considering studying biology should read this book as a primer to appreciate the principles upon which the biological sciences are based, and to get a small taste of the fascination and complexity of biological systems. Apiarists will find here the underlying scientific principles of much of the behavior that they already know, and some basic information that may lead to a reconsideration of some traditional practices. Teachers will find easily understood, practical illustrations of basic biological principles, and an example of how understanding biological systems requires an integration of all scientific disciplines. Professional biologists will enjoy the restatement of evolutionary principles, the introduction of the bee colony as a superorganism, and the consequences of kin selection and natural selection for such systems. Those still persuaded by the creationist arguments and intelligent design may pause to think about the emergent properties of self-organizing and adaptive complex systems.

We are all becoming increasingly conscious of climatic change that is occurring in our world. Climate change brings home to us an awareness of which organisms are living at the edge. Highly specialized for their niches to which they have been adapted, even a very small environmental change over a relatively short time span spells the end for these living forms. Unable to complete enough generations in this time to take advantage of small genetic variation that may allow them to escape their niche, they die and join the long list of beings registered forever in the time capsule of the fossil world, or more recently, in the sobering records kept by mankind. It may be thought that organisms, like mankind and the honeybees, that can exert some measure of control over their immediate environment, would be advantaged. Highly mobile, we are able to move to where it is comfortable, and where it is not, to construct enclosures in which we live, that are. This is an encouraging but unfortunately oversimplified and misleading thought, because there is a great deal more to the interwoven web of life that includes us and on which we depend. We are all in this together and the greatest threat is our own staggering ignorance and cavalier treatment of the natural world to which we belong.

Our exploitation of natural systems without understanding them and their vulnerabilities in detail, has disturbed fine balances, established over thousands of years. Left alone, a new natural balance will, in time, be established, but this is often not to our advantage. Honeybees are important to us. No honeybees means no pollination of most of our crops. No pollination means no fruit, no seed—that simple. If honey bees are in trouble, so are we. And there is more than a little to suggest that honeybees are in trouble. We would do well to understand them, and through them gain a broader appreciation of the enormous complexity of the natural world. This book is a good place to start.


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