How Bees Learn from Each Other


Prof Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at QMUL and one of the world’s foremost experts on bee behaviour, has kindly agreed to deliver a talk at LSE next week. Prof Chittka’s papers have been published in Nature, Science and other leading journals, and is regularly featured in the media (the Guardian, BBC and the New York Times, to name just a few).

This is no surprise because his research is truly fascinating. Prof Chittka and his team have variously tracked bees with radar, studied whether bumblebees have ‘personalities’ and even investigated whether caffeine boosts bees’ memories.

Next week’s talk will draw on a recent paper published in PLoS Biology, where the researchers discovered (SPOILER ALERT!) that bees can learn how to pull a string for food just by observing other bees, and can in turn pass this information to other bees in the colony. They argue that the way bees use simple mechanisms to achieve complex behaviours may help uncover the basic cognitive elements required for culture.

So join us next week to learn more about bees and their fascinating (and frankly adorable) behaviour. And maybe get some ideas on how humans can learn from each other!

Event details
Date: Wednesday 1 March 2017
Time: 5:00-6:00 pm
Venue: LSE Clement House, CLM 3.04
This is a free event, open to LSE staff and students only.


Beekeeping 101 and Bee Library

Last week was Reading Week at LSE, so what better time to inaugurate our all-new bee library!


We also had a Beekeeping 101 talk by Luke Dixon, a professional beekeeper who helps us look after our rooftop hives (bonus points if you can spot his book in the pic above!)

The audience ranged from people who have kept bees for years to new members who have never even seen a beehive in real life (something which will hopefully change at our next hive visit!) Despite the wide variation, Luke – who in addition to being very knowledgeable about bees, is also a highly entertaining speaker – had everyone engrossed from start to finish.


Bee Educated


Curious about bees? Next week we are hosting a talk by Dr Luke Dixon, our professional beekeeper, who also looks after the Natural History Museum beehive and is the author of three books about bees. The talk is free to attend for all LSE students and staff. Luke will talk about life inside the hive, the importance of bees, and beekeeping in London and around the world.

We will also inaugurate (and you’ll have the chance to browse) our all-new Bee Library!

If you’re on Facebook, please indicate your interest on our event page so that we have an idea about numbers. See you soon!

Event details
Date: Thursday 16 Feb
Time: 5-6 pm
Venue: Clement House CLM.2.05

First Hive Visit of the New Year

…was on January 24. Much to our surprise, the bees were buzzing about like it’s springtime! Luke said these are the first active bees he has seen this year – a sign of the good health of the colony.


The spider in the cedar hive is still around, though she scurried away into the depths of the hive before we could take a photo. The nuc box unfortunately had some dead bees. Luke pointed out how they are noticeably larger than summer bees (because they store protein and other nutrients inside their bodies). They also have a longer lifespan (~6 months) compared to summer bees who only live around 6 weeks. If you want to know more about winter bees and what they do, HoneyBeeSuite has a great post about them.

LSE Bees Goes to School (to run a Bee Workshop!)

Over the years we’ve done a number of outreach events and enjoyed them all, but none so much as the one we did last month. Fairley House, a school for children with learning difficulties, recently invited us to run a workshop about Bees and the Environment. About 40 children aged 7-9 (Years 3 and 4) participated in the workshop: a very different target audience from what we usually have in our outreach events which are mostly for LSE students and staff.

We started with a short talk and Q&A session. The children were especially fascinated by the beekeeping equipment (smock, gloves, hive tools, smoker, some frames with real honeycomb) and had loads of questions, as you can see from all the raised hands in the photo below.


They asked the most unexpected and amusing questions we’ve ever encountered in a bee workshop: “My mum killed a bee, is that bad?” “There’s a bees’ nest on our balcony, what should we do??” and – an interesting non sequitur – “Have you ever seen a tarantula?”

After the talk, the children split up into groups and participated in a carousel of three activities (developed in collaboration with the school’s Geography teacher, Ms Longmore-Reid). The activities consisted of a quiz, a sequencing activity, and – the most popular one of all – a honey-tasting session.

The children appeared to enjoy the workshop as much as we did, and Ms Longmore-Reid wrote to us recently saying, “Even during parents evening this week, the parents mentioned how excited their children still are about the workshop. It was a real success!”

So a huge vote of thanks to her and the rest of the staff at Fairley House for the most enjoyable bee workshop we have ever done!

For those who missed the last hive visit of Michaelmas Term (Dec 8), here’s a quick summary:

  • The painted hive is doing well: Luke showed us dark granules on the bottom board which are discarded bits of wax from the bees’ refurbishment activities
  • The cedar hive has a resident spider! (No photos unfortunately but we will try to take one next time if she’s still around.)  She doesn’t pose a threat to the bees because she has somehow built her web in the insulating space between the double walls of our WBC hive. The hive has the beginnings of a varroa problem, so we gave it a light dose of treatment.
  • The white hive, which we treated for varroa last month, was very quiet even by winter standards. We gave it another light round of treatment and put the crown board right on top of the brood box, rather than over the super where it previously was, to reduce the size of the hive (if you’re not familiar with these terms, check out this diagram).
  • The nuc we built in the summer is doing really well (fingers crossed!) In all four hives, the bees have barely eaten any of the fondant, which is a good sign because it shows there’s enough of their own honey to go around.

Happy holidays, and see you in the new year!

Two Wonderful Podcasts

Winter is a quiet season for beekeepers, so what better time to make yourself a steaming mug of cocoa and settle down to two great podcasts about bees!

The first podcast is a public discussion held at LSE by the Forum for European Philosophy, titled Hive Minds: Collective Intelligence in Humans and Other Animals. The panelists are Christian List (philosopher, LSE), Elli Leadbeater (social insect biologist, Royal Holloway), and Larissa Conradt (evolutionary theorist, Max Planck Institute for Human Development).


A swarm of bees (Image credit: Nilfanion, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Leadbeater opens the discussion brilliantly, asking us to picture a swarm of honey bees who have just left a hive. So now they are clustering on a tree branch, with about three days to find a new home before they run out of food. Scout bees fly off in all directions looking for nesting sites with certain desirable features – large but not too large, protected from the elements, free of ants, and so on. These bees fly back and report their findings through the famous waggle dance, and other scouts fly off to verify their findings. Gradually a consensus emerges. In this way, thousands of bees with no central decision-making authority prove to be surprisingly effective in choosing an optimal nest.

This paves the way to discuss broader questions, such as, is there collective intelligence in bees and other social insects? If so, what is the evidence for it, and what form does it take? Do we also find forms of collective intelligence in humans? And what can humans learn from bees about the best ways to make collective decisions? The discussion encompasses philosophical questions (the nature of intelligence), historical anecdotes (Galton’s ox) and current developments (Brexit, Donald Trump).

The second podcast (just 12 days left to listen!) is a BBC Radio 4 feature called Spirit of the Beehive.  A lilting Nina Perry soundtrack (Oli Langford on violin) sets the tune for an exploration of vastly different worlds, including a Sussex University lab studying the waggle dance, a Parisian artist community called La Ruche (‘the beehive’), and a social enterprise in Hackney which is training disadvantaged youths in small-scale commercial beekeeping.

The narrative gently segues back and forth between these diverse domains, and while they all present a unique perspective on our relationship with bees, the part about the Hackney beekeepers is the most memorable. It has been suggested that urban beekeeping may be a ‘middle class guilt trip’, a form of ‘nostalgie de la boue – a French term for a kind of rustic-fancying inverted snobbery which literally means “nostalgia for the mud”.’ But hearing the Hackney youths describe their experience with beekeeping quickly dispels any such notion. Some of the interviews are really quite moving:

Starting September I’m going to be working with the bank called Nomura doing beekeeping, so it allows me to interact with various different people and see various different environments. It’s going to be an exciting experience. I’m going to be meeting people that work in a bank, just very high class. It makes you feel different…

Or another guy, after describing the gang violence and shootings that are a feature of everyday life:

The bees are more or less, apart from the… the um, the playground, are more or less the only things that are good around here. Like, en-enlightened… enlightenment, sorry.