Born to Bee Wild

A new photo book looks at the secret lives of wild honeybees

Photographs by Ingo Arndt

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A single bee hovers in the center of a circle of sunlight, surrounded by other bees clinging to the interior of a dark tree cavern.

A forager bee hovers at the entrance of a newly occupied tree cavity, while other bees gather and fan their wings in order to keep the hive ventilated. 

Honeybees flying in the direction of a tree cavity. Some have arrived at the cavity and are crawling inside.

Left: A swarm of bees arrives at a tree cavity that will become their new home. Right: Honeybees cluster into a tightly packed sphere during their first night in the hive. 

A honeybee reaches with its mandibles for the scales of white semi-translucent beeswax protruding from the wax glands of another honeybee.

A construction bee reaching for the beeswax scales protruding from the wax glands of a fellow hive member.

A team of honeybees forms a ball around a murder-minded hornet, heating the air around it until it dies of hyperthermia and asphyxiation.

A team of honeybees forms a ball around a murder-minded hornet that has entered the hive, heating the air around it until it dies of hyperthermia and asphyxiation.

A small book scorpion walks past a honeybee, which is easily eight times its size.

Book scorpions like the one above are frequent housemates to forest honeybees and predate on honeybee parasites like varroa mites. They have been observed clinging to bees departing a hive in a swarm—thus accompanying a new hive right from the start. Their lifestyle is incompatible with modern honeybee hives, but in communities that kept honeybees in straw hives, they were highly valued by beekeepers.

A single bee fanning its wings stands at the center of a cluster of stationary bees, against a backdrop of honeycomb.

A forager bee performs a waggle dance in order to broadcast the location of a new foraging site to other foragers in the hive.

One honeybee grooms another one for parasites, which looks sort of like a honeybee giving a honeybee a backrub.

One honeybee grooms another for parasites. Honeybees that groom one another often spend less time searching for and making honey, so these traits can be less common in commercially raised honeybee colonies.

The butt of a honeybee drone pokes out from an empty brood comb, in a field of golden sealed brood chambers.

A worker honeybee in the process of either cleaning or napping in a section of empty brood comb. 

Honeybee dusted with yellow pollen standing in the middle of a spiky white flower

Honeybees' ability to communicate helps them find and collect vast quantities of pollen and nectar during the brief period that each plant near the hive comes into bloom. Here, a honeybee rests on a blackberry blossom.

A piece of log fashioned into something that looks like a giant bird house, hanging on a tree in a green forest.

A hanging log hive, built by a honey hunter in a forest in Poland. While these are also attractive to swarming bees in search of a home, local honeybees still prefer to nest in cavities in living trees.

A collection of tools lying in the green grass: among them a small pickaxe, several handmade ropes, and a smoker.

Tools used by honey hunters in eastern Europe to hollow cavities in trees and tend to wild bee colonies.

A gray-haired man in loose, comfortable green clothing is strapped to a tree with several ropes, standing on a small platform next to a beehive.

Left: Honey hunter Andrzej Pazura visits a honeybee colony occupying a tree that he modified in order to attract a honeybee swarm. Right: A tree cavity created by a honey hunter, which has been continuously occupied by the same swarm for several years. 

A series of cryptic symbols carved into the bark of a tree.

Each honey hunter marks the trees they visit with a personal emblem—a method of marking that has been used since the Middle Ages.

A human figure in full beekeeping hood holds a massive digital camera up to a hole in a tree that has bees flying out of it.

Ingo Arndt photographs a former woodpecker nest occupied by a honeybee colony.

Photographer Ingo Arndt had just spent seven months in Patagonia, documenting the elusive puma—a.k.a. “the ghost of the Andes”—for National Geographic. The experience had been tedious, scary, freezing cold, and miraculous. He wasn’t sure how he was ever going to top the challenge. Then he remembered bees. 

Several years earlier, Arndt had collaborated with biologist Jurgen Tautz on a book about animal architecture. Tautz had begun his career studying the biology of communication in frogs, electric fish, crayfish, and ants, but after receiving a hive as a gift at the age of 45, he became fascinated by honeybees. “At the time,” reports Tautz, “I only knew that they make honey and that they can sting. I was afraid of the 50,000 stings in that colony. However, once you have a first look into honeybees, you stay bound to them.”

Tautz was advising a group of PhD students studying wild honeybees in the forests of Eastern Europe. Arndt began following them, shadowing Andrzej Pazura, a local practitioner of the ancient craft of honey hunting. Figuring out how to light and photograph the day-to-day lives of these tiny, feral tree-dwellers was an entirely new challenge. He built elaborate blinds and platforms that allowed him to stake out a hive for hours at a time. “Nowadays we have the impression that everything that can be observed in nature has already been photographed,” reports Arndt. “In most cases this is true. But there are still exceptions.” 

Image of a honey bee hovering at the entrance of a tree trunk.

The result of this collaboration is the photo book Wild Honeybees: An Intimate Portrait, published this month by Princeton University Press, photographed by Arndt, written by Tautz. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an ancient way of life—both that of the honeybees (which originally evolved their complex social structure to better take advantage of the complicated snack bar that is the forest) and that of the honey hunters (who, by foraging honey from wild hives, are keeping alive a tradition that dates back—at the very least—to the Upper Paleolithic, 13,000 years ago). 

Traditional hunters collect less honey per colony than do commercial beekeepers, but the colonies they return to (and in some cases build homes for, by carving alluring cavities in trees) are much more robust and resistant to the parasites and diseases that frequently devastate commercial beekeeping operations. In the book, Tautz hypothesizes that the ecosystem of a tree hive—in particular, the other insect species that share the hive with honeybees—keeps would-be parasites in check.

As far as wild honeybees are concerned, not every forest will do. In Europe, many forests are managed for wood production. Only the old-growth forests of Eastern Europe have the biodiversity (and hence, the smorgasbord of nectar and pollen) that brings all the honeybees to the yard. Tautz agrees with Arndt that there is still much more to be discovered. One of the myths about the honeybee that most annoys Tautz is that the famous waggle dance that honeybees perform in order to direct others in the colony to a particularly good food source only happens in the hive. More current research, he writes, shows that the dance is an ongoing process. Honeybees are not perfect automatons of insect order: Even out in the field, they are continuously dancing, guiding, and correcting one another.