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05/22/2016

Column of Juergen Tautz: Observation hives – Windows into life inside a bee colony

The large majority of our honeybees’ lives takes place in secret. Bustling air traffic can be observed throughout the day at the entrance to their natural dwellings, dark tree trunks, but what goes on behind that doorway? This question has piqued human curiosity since times immemorial.  

Observation beehive, as fashioned by Karl von Frisch for his studies (Photo: Helga R. Heilmann, HOBOS Team)

Bees have been observed for centuries

It is said that Aristotle had windowpanes made of thinly cut mussel shells installed in the wall of clay pots that were used for beekeeping in the Middle East for thousands of years in order to reveal the secrets behind this society whose organizational structure he considered to be a paragon even for cohabitation among humans. Scholars speculate that this vista into a bee colony is what allowed him to observe the bees’ dances.  The first illustrations of structures in which bee colonies lived and could be observed through windows are from the 18th century.

A beehive made for browsing

Swiss bee researcher Francois Huber (1750 – 1831) was completely blind but still managed to make astonishing discoveries about the life of honeybees despite this major limitation. For example, he constructed a fold-out observation hive in which one could flip through the combs like the pages in a book. His wife and his servant, most likely the first research assistants in the field of bee research, described to him precisely what they saw.

A window into the world of bees

The most well-known user of an observation beehive was Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch (1886 – 1982 ), who received the Nobel Prize in part for his contribution to our knowledge on honeybees. Mr. von Frisch set up two hives perpendicularly one on top of the other and sealed the front and back sides with a glass disc or wire netting, thus making it possible to observe many activities, such as the dances of the bees, on a single plane. 

The bee sphere – new ways to observe bees

A cutting-edge bee shelter, the bee sphere developed by beekeeper and inventor Andreas Heidinger, provides the ideal solution to many problems posed by a traditional observation hive. In contrast to a traditional observation hive, a standard-sized bee colony resides in this dwelling, which the bees can arrange just as they would a tree trunk. The transparent dome provides a view of what is going on between the combs.

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05/22/2016

Column of Juergen Tautz: Observation hives – Windows into life inside a bee colony

The large majority of our honeybees’ lives takes place in secret. Bustling air traffic can be observed throughout the day at the...

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