Briefly Noted: The Secret Lives of Bees


People tend to project familiar institutions onto almost anything alien, making misleading metaphors that sometimes get frozen into our language. So it is with the "queen bee," that fat mama bug who does not, in fact, rule anybody. In Honeybee Democracy (Princeton), the biologist and beekeeper Thomas Seeley reminds us that the queen "is oblivious of her colony's ever-changing labor needs…to which the colony's staff of worker bees steadily adapts itself." Honeybee society, he writes, is a spontaneous order with "no all-knowing central planner" and "an enviable harmony of labor without supervision."

There's a risk of falling into another sort of projection here, and in a chapter on "what lessons we humans can learn from honeybees" Seeley does just that. But that's a brief lapse in a book that regards honeybee self-government as merely one of several useful metaphors. The result is an engaging tour of these insects' social lives—and an enjoyable memoir of the experiments that uncovered the bees' secrets. —Jesse Walker