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Why Study Bees on an Island?

Two weeks ago, getting on the R.V. John M. Kingsbury in Portsmouth, N.H., and heading to Appledore Island, I thought I knew what to expect. I knew I’d be in for a couple of intense weeks on a small island six miles off the coast. I knew I’d be staying at Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island studying science communication skills. I knew I’d be surrounded by the cold, blue Gulf of Maine, the seabirds, and the gulls, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do laundry for my entire time there.

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Shoals Marine Lab is on an island, surrounded by ocean-y things, so why would I expect this island to have anything to do with bees? As soon as I got the island, the beekeeper in me started looking for bees. There was nothing. As far as I could tell, there were no bees on Appledore Island.

But then, about a week into my stay here, I was scrolling through the research page on Shoals Marine Lab’s website. The page describes Shoals’ students, interns, volunteers, faculty, and visiting researchers study things like “avian recording,” “seal colony surveys,” “subtidal community monitoring,” and “gull ecology.”

And then, I saw a project that completely blew my mind: “Honey Bee Behavior” by Dr. Tom Seeley.

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Now, let me explain. In the bee world, Tom Seeley is practically a celebrity; he’s one of the best-known bee scientists out there. His works, each a major contribution to its field, studies topics like how honey bees survive in the wild and how backyard beekeepers can better manage their hives. He’s also studied how thousands of buzzing bees who’ve left an overpopulated hive (a swarm) can be led to a new home by 50 or so scout bees who collectively decide on a new nest site. Wow. Let me just say this: A lot of what we know about bees comes from this man.

So when I came to Appledore Island only expecting to learn about marine things and science communication, I was stunned to learn that Seeley’s revolutionary work had happened right here, on Appledore Island.

So, as a curious and fascinated beekeeper, I had to learn more. But, why did Tom Seeley need an island to do his research on honeybee swarming?

Digging deeper into the literature, I found that Appledore Island provided a unique “natural laboratory” for Seeley’s work. In one experiment, Seeley and his colleague Dr. Kirk Visscher wanted to understand if all the scout bees in a swarm, or just a simple majority of them, had to agree before they guided the swarm to their new home.

A view inside a honey bee hive – including worker bees and the queen.

To answer this question, Seeley and Visscher had to watch scout bees in a swarm waggle dancing in favor of potential nest sites. (Scout bees essentially dance-off to “vote” on a new nesting location.) They also needed to know which nest sites the scouts were dancing for, and how many scouts from each site were dancing.

But there’s something unique about Appledore Island. Since there are no preferred places for bees to nest on Appledore, Seeley and Visscher knew that their swarm’s scout bees would only visit the empty nest boxes they’d scattered around the island. This would make it easy to tell which nesting site the scouts were voting for, and how many of them were voting for each site. Essentially, Appledore Island made this entire experiment possible.

A clustering swarm of bees resting on a tree branch.

Through their research, Seeley and Visscher found that scout bees will lead the swarm off to its permanent home only after they’ve come to a near-consensus position. This was another significant discovery.

Seeley wrote how it’s fascinating that bees make these important decisions on their own. It’s not the queen bee who authoritatively decides to nest: it’s the scout bees and the rest of the hive, working together, seeking out consensuses. When they work together, the bees stress common, not opposing interests.

As I continued to explore the research happening on at Shoals Marine Lab, I learned that other projects gained from being on an Island. For example, the Appledore Island Migration Station bands songbirds to understand their thousands of mile long migrations each summer and fall. The program takes advantage of the island being a natural resting place for birds on their journeys over the sea. Furthermore, because there are no mammal predators on Appledore, the island’s a haven for birds.

So, through this all, I’ve learned that, because it’s an island, Shoals Marine Lab has been a unique place for many diverse forms of research. And I expect it will be a thriving field research station for many years into the future.