Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The Quest for the Perfect Hive

Posted 07 Jun 2010 / 0

2010-06-07Gene Kritsky is a renowned bee biologist, so when I learned that he had written The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture, I rushed to get ahold of it. I am very interested in species that form superorganisms (bees, wasps, ants, naked mole-rats, humans), and I have been slowly trying to increase my understanding of the natural history of these species. Based on the title, I figured this would be a compelling story of how “bee culture” has evolved to better perfect the cooperative breeding unit that is a beehive. This impression was wrong, but my mistake was not tragic. While Kritsky has done a lot of seminal work on the biology of bees, this book focuses on his interest in the culture of beekeeping. Like many biologists, Kritsky was an enthusiast first and a scientist only after realizing that science offered an opportunity to spend the majority of his time pursuing his curiosity. In this very well-illustrated short volume, Kritsky demonstrates his skill as a historian of beekeeping technology, a skill honed by what seems like a lot of world travel.

The Quest for the Perfect Hive is a story of cultural evolution. Unlike many coevolutionary stories of domestication — where it is clear that humans exerted a very strong influence on another species through artificial selection — the history of beekeeping according to Kritsky is one of human adaptation to bee needs. Starting with primitive techniques that basically mimicked the natural conditions (empty logs, tree holes) that attract particular species of honey-producing bees, Kritsky delivers us along a journey of technological evolution culminating in the “science” of modern box hives.

What is striking about Kritsky’s account is how little scientific knowledge seems to play a role in how the culture of beekeeping evolved. Rather than carefully studying what factors influence the honey yield or survival of bees, the beekeepers of the last three centuries seemed to be locked in a fairly uninformed debate about the merits of different hive designs. Much of what Kritsky documents suggests that “style” rather than “substance” dominated much of the discussion over what hive design to use. In fact, it seems as though only one scientific discovery (that of the 3/8” beespace that allows for controlling the formation of honeycomb) ever really drove the design of beehives. The rationale behind most historical beehive design tweaks seems to be pretty unscientific.

Beekeeping may be one of those cultures that came along at just the perfect time: developments were late enough to leave a recorded history, but not so late as to be exposed to the intensity of modern scientific inquiry. From Kritsky’s account we can see two interesting patterns that suggest that scientific knowledge may not always have the power to produce culture. The early history of beekeeping seems to be a drunken walk driven predominantly by random trial-and-error; while the designs that eventually survived were the ones that worked better, the process of cultural evolution was almost as devoid of intelligent design as the processes that drive biological evolution. And once the modern industry associated with beekeeping begins to standardize beehives in the interest of capitalizing on economies of scale, we see an immediate stagnation in the evolution of the hive: hives have changed little in the last one hundred years. As interesting as this all is, it is a little disheartening for any scientist who hopes that the knowledge he generates would be put to some good use.

Beyond offering great insights into the way that a technological culture interacts (or doesn’t) with science, The Quest for the Perfect Hive manages to make a fairly technical topic interesting, at least for a biologist like me. The booked has inspired in me a curiosity not just about bees but also about beekeeping.

Animal Domestication, Books, Coevolution, Cultural Evolution, Reviews, Superorganisms

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