6 September 2019

We speak about honey bee colonies as a superorganism. It’s something I explain very often in my work. One of my standard sentences is: “A colony is more than the sum of the number of adult bees and brood cells!”. That seems difficult to understand. It’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in the welfare of honey bees. Not only “bee health”. The concepts are similar, but not the same. In fact, I’m thinking about this for many years already. But it got this name in my head only when I began to research for a lesson I was asked to give some years ago.

The term “superorganism” isn’t easy to define. As far as I know, Hölldobler and Wilson introduced it to describe why social insects are special and fascinating. Why we have to see the colony as a whole, not the individual bees (or ants or any other social insect). A superorganism, in very poor words, is a self-organising entity. The queen and drones have the monopole on reproduction but need the workers for brood rearing, foraging, cleaning etc. A single bee doesn’t display the whole range of behaviour of the species and it’s not able to survive without the colony.

Superorganism and welfare – unifying two concepts

The welfare concept, on the other hand, usually deals with vertebrate animals. Mammals and birds mainly, but the OIE lately also introduced an aquatic code, dealing with fish. Insects aren’t considered, though some of them are managed and I already claimed to include them in the One Health concept. For honey bees, the discussion is often limited to varroa treatments and pesticide applications. In the recently published book “The Welfare of Invertebrate Animals“, my colleague Antonio Nanetti and I tried to unify the concepts of superorganism and welfare.

Health is already more than the absence of diseases, and welfare deals with more than only health. It includes “five freedoms”:

You see that the freedom of diseases is only a little part of the whole concept. In addition, for most honey bees diseases, there are no treatments or at least preventive measures available. There are treatments against the varroa mite and some food supplements to prevent Nosema ceranae (a gut parasite). Nothing else. This doesn’t even take into account honey bee health as a whole. The discussion on negative effects of pesticides on honey bees (as managed animals) may touch welfare aspects, but usually, it uses the term “bee health”. However, all the other aspects don’t enter the debate.

Nutrition is an overarching factor

Earlier this year, I already wrote about how the little variety of flowers in farmland affects honey bee welfare. It apparently becomes more probable that honey bees feed on flowers with toxic pesticides when there isn’t much choice. But nutrition affects much more when we consider the welfare of the superorganism. First of all, of course, it touches the first “freedom”, the freedom of hunger, malnutrition and thirst. Besides the obvious need to eat on the individual basis, we also have the nutrition of the colony (i.e. the superorganism). The pollen and honey provisions of a colony make them survive cold winters or periods with bad weather. The amount of brood varies with the availability of pollen and nectar (hence the brood stop in winter). There are feedbacks between the nutritional state of nurse bees, the larvae and the health of the colony in the following generation.

bee nutrition, superorganism, honey bee welfare
Field margins, meadows and road verges with diverse flowers are good food sources for honey bees and other insects. Especially for pollen, honey bees need variety for healthy colonies.

A “healthy diet” for bees (managed and non-managed) is diverse. If a honey bee colony can feed on various different pollen sources, they show better winter survival and are more resistant to diseases and even to varroa mites. In this aspect, bees aren’t that different to us: nutrition is the foundation for good health.

Management and its challenges

Unfortunately, our landscapes get more and more homogeneous, diversity is difficult to find in some areas. The superorganism honey bee colony is quite forgiving, it can adapt quickly to suboptimal conditions. But together with other factors, it adds up. There comes the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. We are in such a situation at this moment: we stand in front of honey bee colony losses, insect decline, pollination crisis and whatever. Now, we have to address the problem as a whole and not focus only on this last straw.

agriculture, bees, pesticides, superorganism, nutrition
Poor nutrition affects honey bee colonies – and other insects – but doesn’t get the attention like pesticides. For healthy bees, we need to see the whole picture, not only single details.

Welfare, in contrast to the One Health concept I presented already, deals with managed animals. Management brings additional challenges, especially with honey bees. Insects don’t show their well-being, fear or stress in a way that’s easy to understand for us. Another sentence I say quite often is “Honey bees, not honey machines” when talking with beekeepers. It often is a matter of experience and the willingness to learn and see the signs.

Management means taking away their food provisions (honey), breaking up the nest during the controls, putting combs in different positions, stressing the bees by too much smoke or by not taking care of crushing bees. Beekeeping is more about the beekeeper’s needs than the bees’ ones. In my opinion, beekeepers would profit from looking more after the bees’ needs as well. Managed animals never compare to feral ones, by definition they serve a “purpose” (honey harvest, pollination services etc.). But, we can do this by treating honey bees like the living beings they are, not honey machines.

Beekeeping is contrary to the needs of the honey bee colony in some aspects. But we can do it in better ways than in this picture, respecting good practices.

Good practices for superorganism welfare

All this is called good practices. And it’s time that they get established in beekeeping with a more solid foundation. There are great beekeepers, I’d say many. But there are also those who don’t care at all. This is mainly an educational problem, the missing knowledge transfer from science to beekeepers and also the very human tendency to focus on the most obvious. However, I think it’s most important to address the issues faced by honey bees and beekeepers in a more holistic approach.

Beekeeping is very diverse around the world. However, I think that we should develop a basic toolbox of what good beekeeping practices are, that can be adapted to the different conditions. This includes also talking to farmers, veterinarians and those who want to “save the bees”. It’s about communicating the complexity and finding common solutions. Honey bees (and also other managed bee species) need to be included in the global strategy of the OIE.

I’m presenting a poster on this topic on Apimondia next week. So, if anybody of my readers is there, I’ll be happy to discuss this subject with you in person.


  • One thing that distresses me is seeing bee yards sitting in the middle of a field in the blazing sun without shade being provided. I think it is cruel.

    • Hi Judy, thank you for your comment. You’re right, chosing the right site for the apiary is very important. Leaving them exposed to the sun like this absolutely doesn’t respect bee biology – they’re forest animals after all. Their natural caves would protect them from direct sun. This is also something that’s quite easy to respect. As I mention in my post, I think it’s mainly an educational issue. People see insects as little automats, but we have more and more evidence that this is not true. Let’s spread the word!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *