Thomas Seeley’s fascinating Honeybee Democracy has received press in some unusual circles for a book about insect behavior. Everyone from homemade mead-makers to The New Republic has weighed in with glowing reviews on this study of honeybee swarms.
The reason for this broad appeal is simple: Seeley does an excellent job describing the how and why of honeybee group decision-making, and weaves a fascinating narrative of science along the way. Honeybee enthusiasts, sociologists, politicians and computer scientists will all find much to love, as will anyone who just enjoys a good tale of discovery.
What this isn’t is a book to make you a better beekeeper – except possibly if you are aiming to capture swarms. But it is a wonderful look at the complexity of honeybee life and behavior, half corporate organism and half social colony.
Perhaps the catchy title has something to do with the book’s popularity – with an election year ramping up and all – but the book barely ventures into democracy as we two-leggers think of it. You’ll have to look elsewhere for justification to vote for Ron Paul, abolish the Electoral College, implement single payer healthcare or whatnot. This is a book about bees – and about how bees make decisions – with a little bit about what lessons humans might learn from bee decision-making.
Most of the book takes the form of a narrative – Seeley’s progressively more subtle investigations into swarm behavior. These explorations begin crudely, almost 40 years ago, by gassing colonies and cutting down bee trees, something Seeley recounts with a blend of nostalgic enthusiasm and apologetic humility. But as time passes every exploration becomes more fascinating: how do scout bees evaluate the suitability of a potential nesting site…how do they communicate this opinion to the hive…how does the swarm at large come to agree on a destination…how does the swarm know when it is time to go…how does the swarm manage to find the nesting site?
The answers are fascinating. Honeybees debate.
The book reveals the multifaceted nature of bee communication, which goes far beyond the honey dance. It also reveals the dedication of Seeley and his fellow researchers to stare at swarms, paint colored dots on bees, risk assault by reclusive fishermen, and devise ever more ingenious tests for their teeny tiny research subjects.
The book is most successful at showcasing science in action. Seely’s efforts are an investigative process. He asks questions, finds partial answers, and refines his investigations to always probe more subtle layers of bee behavior.
There is a lot for the average gardener (or beekeeper) to learn from this process. It isn’t lab-coat-and-microscope stuff. The photos in the book are of sunburned graduate students staring at nesting sites, counting bees, logging behaviors. The equipment isn’t CSI high-tech, it’s plywood boxes, video cameras, and clipboards.
The research is half-experimental and half-observational, the sort of thing that all kids do when they flip a beetle upside down and watch to see how it rights itself. It’s what any of us can do if we have a question and half-an-idea for how that question might be answered. It is fun to try and answer those questions: which kale grows best? How does temperature affect germination? What companion plantings keep the aphids away? Honeybee Democracy shows inquisitive, process-based fun at a professional level.
As the tales of research and behavior wind up, the final chapters work to bring things together. Seeley analyzes swarms and colonies as cognitive entities – basically as distributed brains. When this stuff comes up it helps to think of the living bee unit as the hive, made up of individual bees the same way our human body is made up of cells. The science leans a bit more towards traditional biology and neuroscience here, and it gets a little more technical than the rest of the volume.
And at the very end, the implied connection to politics emerges as Seeley looks at the hive in relation to human societies, ultimately distilling the observations of his honeybee studies into lessons for human decision makers. A careful scientist, he is cautious about leaping from descriptive to the prescriptive, and does so only tentatively.
Seeley’s examples of honeybee-like decision-making – Vermont town meetings and his own academic faculty department – are, like beehives, probably too homogenous to offer exact solutions for more diverse and chaotic human affairs. Nonetheless, learning how a complex non-human society comes to consensus is riveting.
Honeybee Democracy is the most appreciative look at bees and one of the most compelling narratives of science in action that I’ve ever read. Strongly recommended.
Want to learn how to debate like a bee? To be entered to win a copy of Honeybee Democracy, leave a comment telling us: what is a non “how to” book that’s helped make you a better gardener, cook, homemaker or urban homesteader, and what did you learn from it?
Contest open until July 23rd, 8 pm PDT. US-readers only, please, due to shipping. This contest is sponsored by Homebrew Husband, who owns a hat with a bee on it and loves books as much I do.
Contest now closed. Congrats to our winner, Rachel. Rachel, check your email for directions on how to claim your book. Thanks to everyone who entered!0
Best non ‘how-to’ book on gardening, for me, would be Michael Pollan’s “Second Nature.” It’s filled with wonderful philosophical and anthropological exploration of the role of gardening in nature and society, as well as quirky stories of failure and fumbling. He also spends a lot of time fighting his inner-Thoreau as he wrestles with the ethics of weeding, fencing, and generally separating the “natural” wild from the cultivated culture of his garden.
Anyway, as one who stumbled into gardening, preserving, homesteading, etc. through an environmental ethics lens, “Second Nature” really resonated with some of the practical realities and ethical gray areas of trying to produce and preserve. A similar read to your earlier post, “The Homestead Hypocrite” (http://nwedible.com/2012/04/the-homesteading-hypocrite.html)
marion hornsby says
and I Love My B.2-K. Bee Honey in Jacksonville , Fl. !!!
Linda McHenry says
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson opened my eyes to all things environmental and sparked my interest in “living light” on this planet.
We currently have two backyard hives. This spring we had three swarms, one of which we were able to recover and start a new hive for our neighbor. Both hives are doing very well this year and we’ve expecting to harvest a lot of honey….planning a neighborhood extraction day over labor day weekend.
“The End of Oil” , “The End of Food” , “The Long Emergency” and “Organic Manifesto”. Total kick in the seat of the pants for me that our resources are precious, and most of the people on this planet are woefully unprepared for any drastic changes and aren’t even aware of the situation and how it could possibly deteriorate as time marches on. Big wake up call for me! Time to heal the land, and learn some self sufficiency, along with focus on the “simple life” to put it as a cliche.
M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of eating definitely made me such a better cook (it’s a collection of four books – Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, How To Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet for Gourmets). Her sheer joy in eating, sharing food, and keeping things simple still provides the pinnacle of food literature. She’s never fussy, never complicated, never gets upset over recipes, just celebrates such key moments as roasting an orange slice on a radiator and picking and eating fresh peas on a Swiss countryside.
Thanks for the book rec. I look for this one!
For me, Blink by Malcom Gladwell really helped me relax and listen to my intuition. Something I had been afraid to do. I had a huge aphid infestation in a beloved cherry tree. So bad, I was REALLY tempted to break out the poison. I took a deep breathe and tried to be patient and listen to my intuition which said WAIT. Pretty soon I realized that peonies I had planted nearby were attracting the ants, which were helping the aphids. So I moved them and after a year a noticed a lot more ladybugs and lacewings. The tree is now fine, not aphid free, but beautiful again.
The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Hecht (kind of misleading title) is a great book outlining the winding river of “how to be happy” you see in popular culture over the past several hundred years. Seeing it laid out like that , it makes it much easier to buck trends and be happy with your own path in life.
Rachel Hoff says
The Wisdom of the Radish taught me a lot about how one should view the holes in your lettuce and why hatcheries might not be the best place to get chicks. It was also a huge eye opener about starting a farm from scratch – especially if you’ve never grown a thing in your life.
My most inspiring “how-to”/non “how-to” book is Knitting Without Tears by Elizabeth Zimmermann. While she gives great instructions on how to make several different garments, she spends much of her writing encouraging people not to follow the pattern, but to do a little math and make it their own. Good advice in general.
Kaitlin Jenkins says
My favorite non how-to book is “Animal Vegetable Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. Its a great guide to eating seasonally as each chapter focuses on the next in season delicacy over the course of a year. I keep re-reading it year after year.
Tiffany A. says
“Athentic Happiness” by Martin Seligman taught me about happiness, from a logical scientific viewpoint. It opened up the ideas of positive psychology to me and taght me how to be a happier person 🙂
Anisa/The Lazy Homesteader says
I was planning on saying “Animal Vegetable Miracle” as well. I love the way they persevere in their goals of eating locally and the way it changes their family. It inspires you to plant asparagus, can tomatoes and make cheese.
Tammy L. says
Don’t laugh, but the Laura Ingalls Wilder books showed me that a simple, do-it-yourself, self-sustainability can lead to a happy life. In re-reading them recently I was amazed at the resourcefulness required of every member of the family.
Honestly the best non how to books that help me be a better “homesteader” are novels set back 100 years or more ago. Nothing like true homesteading to inspire!
We just got our first hive of honeybees 3 weeks ago and I can’t stop watching them and reading more books on anything honeybee related so I’ll be reading this book some way or another.
Think bee’s are fascinating creatures! Thanks for the referal to some more excellent reading material!
Lauren Streets says
Going back to grade school probably the Boxcar Children, made me really interested in knowing what around was edible should I choose to go live in an abandoned train car in the woods. More recently tho would have to be Blink, it’s helped me be a better gardener by using my “inner gardener” and just deciding which seedlings & plants will do best, rather than begging each sprout to keep going just because its green.
Enslaved by Ducks- Absolutely hilarious and an easy read as each chapter is a little short story in itself, so you don’t have to have a lot of time to get trough it bit by bit. It showed me that the journey in itself is just as important if not more important than the goal itself. So, as I work toward self sufficiency- I’m reminded that I’ll get there with much more satisfaction and well being if I am be cognizant of the journey, laugh along the way, don’t get too serious.
My favorite non How to book is Independence Days by Sharon Astyk. She goes through all the whys of self sufficiency and living with a lighter footprint on the earth. She has a new book coming out soon that I’m anxiously awaiting.
+1 to this. I love Sharon Astyk.
Jen Teal says
The Earth Moved, by Amy Stewart, is still one of my favorites.
Homebrew Husband says
Picked this up from the library – now I just need to find time to read it!
Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal Vegetable Miracle” started it all for me, but have recently read Micheal Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “The Botany of Desire” (both good) and also really liked Joel Salatin’s “Folks, This Ain’t Normal.”
I saw an article about how the hive selections their new location when they are getting ready to split and it was awesome. I loved it.
I would have to say a book that inspired me to be a better garden without being a how to book would be, “My Secret Garden.” It told me that even when things look bleak if you start at the beginning, at the roots, and do a little bit at a time you will be fine. The garden knows what to do and the plants will be fine, you can’t really mess it up. It is also important to get everyone involved in the process. The more, the merrier. I have seen gardeners that worry about their kids coming into the process and “messing things up” and I know that the time and the sacrifice of an occasional flower vs a weed is okay. It’s all good. The benefits far exceed the losses. The love of a garden and plants will enrich all that get involved in the process.
Michelle W. says
I would have to say the one book that changed my life and still influences me strongly today is Scott and Helen Nearing’s first book, “Living the Good Life” published in 1954. I found it in 1989 when I was looking for a simpler lifestyle. Scott and Helen are the grandparents of the back to the earth movement, making a profound difference in the way thousands of people (if not more) have chosen to live their lives. The people who wrote the books you’re reading now were influenced directly or indirectly by the lives and works of the Nearings.
A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry. Heady novel with lots of wood chopping and meal preparation. (anything by Berry, really, drips with inspiration)
Mel at Pollo Loco says
I would have to say Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Goat Song both inspired me. AVM just in general, I was always a huge fan of her work and then I decided to read her crazy real life story and it changed my view…I knew I would have a farm one day too.
Goat Song inspired me to know I do want goats one day will have my own cheese cave as well. Would love to read Honeybee democracy, we plan to get a hive next year!
Many books I read as a child made me an easy target for this sort of lifestyle as an adult…Understood Betsy, the Little House books, The Secret Garden, Boxcar Children, The Mad Scientists’ Club…they all showed people (mostly children), taking initiative to take care of themselves and make something out of not-very-much. Perhaps the books that had the biggest effect on me were novels by Elizabeth Goudge (some for children and some for adults but read when I was a child). My favorite was The Blue Hills (or Henrietta’s House if published in England) and her most famous is The Little White Horse (a favorite of JK Rowlings’ and therefore back in print). The underlying theme of every single book by Elizabeth Goudge is essentially a romance story between the main character(s) and a house and garden that is just meant for them. The plot summaries won’t tell you this, but there is far more space devoted to descriptions of houses and gardens and how they feel to be in than to actual events. Those books instilled in me a strong need to find myself settled into a house and garden meant for me.
Kitchen Confidential, though very different than all the books mentioned above, changed the way I thought about cooking. It demystified the culinary world and taught me how to use a knife. Now every time I think of a knife, I think of Kitchen Confidential. I only cook for family and friends, but I have a different attitude than previously. I now take cooking much more seriously than I did before, but also consider it more accessible. He wrote about all sorts of thugs and people with convoluted personal lives and no formal training being able to produce amazing meals. So I guess I can too.
“Eat Here: Rediscovering Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket” changed the entire way I looked at food, which is probably what set me on the path to actually learning to cook…
I pick The Continuum Concept by Jeanne Ludlow. It remains one of the most influential books I have read to date, essentially encouraging me to live as close to my primate nature as possible. Partly this means eating lots of plants and getting my hands in the dirt. It also reminds me of the importance of including my kids in everything involving gardening and farming that we do. It’s not work. It’s life. And it’s fun. And it’s necessary for our survival. And trying to separate all these things is really an unnatural thing for humans. As much as we can combine them all into our everyday lives, the healthier we are.
“Food Revolution” did a lot for my perspective on the global food supply. Really opened my eyes!
Parsnip Love says
William Alexander’s reflections on his futile attempts to protect his apple crop from thieving squirrels in his book ” The $64 Tomato” changed my whole perspective on gardening and dealing with pests. Hubby and I used to get so frustrated trying to thwart all out garden enemies–which any gardener knows is always an uphill battle, esp in an organic garden–but now we just chuckle and repeat Mr. Alexander’s observation which is our new mantra: “You may be smarter [than the pests] but they have more time.” Instead of getting frustrated at things we can’t change we try to work smarter not harder when we can by protecting some things with a row cover but other things we have learned to let go. Thanks to him we have the perspective now to garden with humor.
I read Losing the Garden by Laura Waterman, which is a beautiful story of marriage, homesteading, and dealing with manic depression. The book is peppered with vignettes on homesteading and time efficiency, but gets to the reality of living with depression within a loving relationship. It made me feel grateful for the ease of my own relationship, AND want to move to New Hampshire to homestead! I recommend this book as often, and as much, as possible and hopefully someone out there in the ether will pick it up…..
Dayna Burgeson says
I agree with the first comment. Long before Michael Pollan became famous for “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” I picked up Second Nature, by an author I had never heard of, and after reading it tried to get everyone I knew who loved to garden to read it also. Hopefully since he has become famous it has received the audience it always deserved. He speaks to the trials and tribulations of gardening so well. Another recent great read is “The Dirty Life” by Kimball. Oh, the challenges of gardening and farming!
Katie W says
I was going to say Sue Hubbell’s A Book of Bees, but the new edition seems to be called “A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them” which kinda makes it a How-to book. So maybe we’ll go with John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, mostly for the inspiring line, “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”
i have really been inspired by Ashely English’s homemade living series. after reading, we felt confident enough to keep bees and chickens. and we are really enjoying it!
Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal Vegetable Miracle” has been loaned out from my little bookpile several times, and I always tell the borrower to return it so I can give someone else the chance to be awakened. So far, it has always come back, usually with the comment that they bought their own copy for re-reading. It is a bit dog-eared now, just adds to its charm, I think.
Beth C. says
Probably “Animal Vegetable Mineral” by Kingsolver. While it’s a fascinating reading book, it is also incredibly inspiring and chock full of knowledge!
Amy N-K says
Barn at the End of the World by Mary Rose O’Reilly intertwined sheep care, buddhism, and mindful living in a way that was eye-opening for me. It was not a how-to book by any means, except perhaps how to live in a way that is consistent with deep spiritual values that can transcend so many different areas of life.
Barbara Kingsolver, Joel Salatin, Wendell Berry, Joan Gussow, Frances Lappe Moore, to name a few who helped on my journey to go back to the land my grandfathers farmed. We now have cattle, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks and bees to come soon. This book will be in good company on our shelves.
I am in my second year of beekeeping and the more I learn, the less I know, if that makes any sense. The bees are amazing, and know so much more about being a bee than we will ever know about keeping them. Theyare enthralling to watch.
There are two books that appeared in my life that really changed me. One is “Honeybee, Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper” by C. Marina Marchese – I already had the idea, and coming across this book at Costco one day cemented my desire to keep bees, which came out of nowhere, it seems, like a freight train! The other is “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer – reading this on the heels of “Rightous Pork Chop” by Nicolette Hahn (and having read “Omnivore’s Dilemma” years ago), I realized that I could no longer avoid this. I am NOT a vegetarian, though I don’t eat a lot of meat (and stopped eating pork years ago due to the hideous practices of factory farming hogs), but knew I could no longer eat factory farmed meat and be okay with it. I eat even less meat than before, but when I do, it’s humanely raised and slaughtered. I won’t even feed factory farmed meat to my pets (which used to be my “head in the sand” issue with factory farming) now.
Noel Perrin’s First Person Rural, a collection of essays on life in rural Vermont captured my imagination as an adolescent, as did its similarly-named sequels. Part memoir, part guidebook.