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Biologist Thomas Seeley says animals other than bees use swarm intelligence—including, sometimes, people. (Peter Essick / Aurora Photos)

The Secret Life of Bees

The world's leading expert on bee behavior discovers the secrets of decision-making in a swarm

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On the front porch of an old Coast Guard station on Appledore Island, seven miles off the southern coast of Maine, Thomas Seeley and I sat next to 6,000 quietly buzzing bees. Seeley wore a giant pair of silver headphones over a beige baseball cap, a wild fringe of hair blowing out the back; next to him was a video camera mounted on a tripod. In his right hand, Seeley held a branch with a lapel microphone taped to the end. He was recording the honeybee swarm huddling inches away on a board nailed to the top of a post.

Seeley, a biologist from Cornell University, had cut a notch out of the center of the board and inserted a tiny screened box called a queen cage. It housed a single honeybee queen, along with a few attendants. Her royal scent acted like a magnet on the swarm.

If I had come across this swarm spread across my back door, I would have panicked. But here, sitting next to Seeley, I felt a strange calm. The insects thrummed with their own business. They flew past our faces. They got caught in our hair, pulled themselves free and kept flying. They didn’t even mind when Seeley gently swept away the top layer of bees to inspect the ones underneath. He softly recited a poem by William Butler Yeats:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, 
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

A walkie-talkie on the porch rail chirped.

“Pink bee headed your way,” said Kirk Visscher, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside. Seeley, his gaze fixed on the swarm, found the walkie-talkie with his left hand and brought it to his mouth.

“We wait with bated breath,” he said.

“Sorry?” Visscher said.

“Breath. Bated. Over.” Seeley set the walkie-talkie back on the rail without taking his eyes off the bees.

A few minutes later, a honeybee scout flew onto the porch and alighted on the swarm. She (all scouts are female) wore a pink dot on her back.

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