The Queen Must Die

Queen Must DieWe had a warm day yesterday, partly sunny and 64 F. The bees went crazy, flying circles around the yard and coming to and fro in the entrances. Hauling out corpses, relieving waste, and generally getting their bee houses in order. I looked in the observation window of the top bar hive, which has shown only comb for a good month or so, and bees were everywhere. There were definitely clustering away from the window, as I mentioned in a prior post.

In the meantime, I finished up my winter reading, and thought I would share a summary of this rather interesting book.

Published In 1985, The Queen Must Die: and Other Affairs of Bees and Men is not a beekeeping book, nor is it a biology book. Rather it a philosophical text on the life of bees and humans.

The author, William Longgood, obviously loves bees their keeping. Divided into 86 chapters, the book starts with bees flying when it is too cold outside for flight. This is a common theme for Longgood, how bees have their own thoughts about what is and is not appropriate. What we call instinct Longgood calls intelligence, and he wonders repeatedly who or what tells the bee to perform her varied actions with little or no training.

The discussion carries through the year and ends in the winter with thoughts on what first prompted bees to cluster when most insects hibernate. “The bee is domesticated but not tamed,” Longgood says, and in an “island of asphalt and tall buildings,” the bee comes “to city parks, exposed roof gardens, and exposed house plants…, one of nature’s last emissaries.” (p 230)

There are two aspects that really endear this book to me: the metaphors and the history. On the first, Longgood has a knack for anthropomorphizing the bee in just the right way. In his discussion of how bees are constantly preparing for winter, storing food they will never use, Longgood says “The bee’s today is made up of anticipating tomorrow, like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt who devoted their lives to building great tombs and seaworthy galleons for the journey into eternity.” (p 62)

When talking of mice invading hives in the winter, he calls this “a mouse equivalent of going to Florida for the cold months.” (p 191)

Of the laying worker (a female bee that starts laying drone eggs when the queen unexpectedly perishes), he laments the fact that such a hive is almost impossible to recover. The laying worker “may be so intoxicated by her assumed role that the rest of the colony is beguiled into sharing her delusion, a happenstance common enough in human societies where demented or psychopathic leaders with enough charisma and conviction attract followers of fanatical loyalty.” (p 151) How could you not love this?

The other aspect is the history this book represents, at perhaps the end of the golden years of beekeeping. Shortly after this book was published in 1985 the tracheal mite and then the dreaded varroa mite appeared in America, after which beekeeping was never quite the same. The worst pest Longgood describes is the bee louse, a pest that still exists but is not of much concern.

The beginnings of current thoughts on foraging and clustering are also present in the text. If you have read popular books from Tom Seeley and other researchers then you will see the roots of today’s thinking about these topics.

I also enjoyed the discussions of pheromones, a topic fairly recent in Longgood’s day. He discusses “queen substance” with a certain amount of wonder. (Bees share this secretion from the queen throughout the hive, with one result that the bees know a queen is present). “How many other secretions, or signals, do bees generate that also regulate or determine hive functions?” (p 149)

Mr. Longgood lived in Cape Code and died on August 9, 2000 at the age of 82. May he rest in peace.


I don’t recall where I first heard of this book, though I do remember that the title alone made me want to read it. After enjoying the book, I thought it would make a rather provocative blog title.

I managed to find the obituary for Mr. Longgood. In an August 18, 2000 obit from Cape Cod Times, Mr. Longgood “wrote many books, including the first major work on food chemicals, “The Poisons in Your Food,” published by Simon and Schuster in 1960. His two last books, “The Queen Must Die and Other Affairs of Bees and Men” and “Voices from the Earth – a Year in the Life of the Garden,” reflect his love of nature and his strong involvement in these two areas.”

 

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5 thoughts on “The Queen Must Die

  1. So glad to find out this post’s title was taken from a book and not the result of some horrible incident! Sounds like a wonderful read. It must be very hard for longtime beeks who really love bees not to anthropomorphize bees. I agree with him that bees do have an intelligence that goes beyond mere instinct. If you look on YouTube, there is an interesting video of a German researcher who discovers that in the hive, foragers can have directions to forage in completely different directions at Point A (a bowl of sugar water) and Point B. They can then go to A and, discovering the sugar water gone, go directly to Point B without returning to the hive first. Somehow, they can figure out the route. Very smart!

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  2. Each year longer I keep bees the more I notice different behaviours and characteristics that I can’t help but compare some to human or other animal habits and motivations. There is so much to learn about these amazing creatures and their society, for me it’s not anthropomorphizing but giving bees the credit their intelligence is due. Longgood sounds like many of the elder beekeepers at our apiary, he must have loved his bees. I love his description of a laying worker, although I’ve found hive combining usually solves even the worst case of this problem caused by queenlessness. What a wonderful read, I must get a copy. Thank you for a great review.

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  3. Yes I agree with him, even if combined with a sister colony that individual hive is lost. So far Emily and I have always had success with hive combining and it’s always heartening to see a box of unhappy bees transformed in temper the following week when they’re accepted by a new queen and her workers. Even nicer to see the queen walking across a frame to welcome her adopted daughters. But I do wonder what happens to those laying workers whether they stop or a swiftly dealt with to keep the new peace. I really must get a copy of his book, it sounds just my cup of tea!

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