Seaweed and Honey Bees

Each fall, the Northern Woodlands Conference brings together people with diverse backgrounds for a weekend of boundary-spanning workshops and conversation. While forests provide a setting and theme for the event, discussions range freely across fields of science, writing, and art. This year’s gathering will feature two presenters who have been talking to each other about such topics since 1976, when they met as students at the Shoals Marine Laboratory, on Appledore Island, Maine.

Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley is a senior research associate at Cornell University whose studies of coastal marine ecosystems reveal parallels between the management of underwater seaweed forests and the management of terrestrial forests. When not conducting research, she works internationally to educate the public about the importance of conserving seaweed habitats. She will lead a workshop titled “Protecting Maine’s Underwater Seaweed Forest” at our conference. Robin’s husband, Dr. Thomas D. Seeley, is the Horace White Professor in Biology, based in Cornell’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. He teaches courses on animal behavior and does research on the behavior, ecology, and social life of honey bees. His work is summarized in three books: Honeybee Ecology (1985), The Wisdom of the Hive (1995), and Honeybee Democracy (2010). His article, “Honeybee House Hunting,” appeared in the 2011 Summer edition of Northern Woodlands magazine. In addition to leading a workshop on the craft of bee hunting, Tom will offer a plenary address titled “How Bees Choose a Home in the Woods.”

Tom and Robin recently agreed to answer some questions about their work and how it relates to forests.

Q. What motivated you to sign on as presenters at this gathering of woodsy people? Don’t you normally work out in the open, among honey bee colonies or in the intertidal zone?

Tom: As a forest owner and biologist, I greatly enjoy reading Northern Woodlands magazine, so I figured that it would be great fun to meet the folks who produce it and other folks who, like me, consume it. Also, I'd like to support the Center for Northern Woodlands Education, for I endorse wholeheartedly its mission of boosting our understanding and appreciation of our northern forests. Plus, I expect that I will learn a lot!

Robin: It’s always great to meet people who care about the woods (streams, fields, mountains) and exchange ideas and stories. Besides, half of each year I live in the middle of a 100-acre forest in central New York!

Q. Robin, your focus is underwater rockweed forests. What's the connection between this work and terrestrial forests?

Robin: Rachel Carson was the first to describe Maine’s intertidal seaweed beds of rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum) as an underwater forest (The Edge of the Sea, 1955). These forests grow between high and low tide levels on the shore and can be 150 years old. The rockweed “trees” have a canopy, like the terrestrial forest, and more than a hundred species of birds, fish, shellfish, and small invertebrates call this forest home. At low tide, the rockweed forest protects marine creatures from heat in the summer, bitter cold in the winter, and desiccation. It also provides shelter at high tide.

Q. You’ve each gained very specialized knowledge in different fields of biology. What experiences encouraged you to focus on bees and seaweeds, respectively?

Tom: My fascination with honey bees was sparked in third grade when a beekeeper visited our class, showed us how a bee hive works, and let us eat some comb honey. Soon after, I found a neighbor's bee hive and began to closely watch the bees flying in and out. Most mysterious!

Robin: As a kid, I spent a lot of time sitting on Maine seaweed, getting my pants wet. As a college student, I learned that one can make a career out of studying ecosystems, and it seemed perfectly natural to study the place I love, the Maine coast. The intertidal seaweed forests play a major role in that ecosystem.

Q. If you could clone yourselves, what would you each choose as a second career?

Tom: Hmm. Interesting question. I think I'd choose the same career (biologist at a research university) but would avoid the excursion into chemistry as an undergrad and go straight into biology.

Robin: I would not change my first career, but I would add a career as an archaeologist. Fortunately, in retirement, I am combining those two careers by studying ecological history on Maine islands.

Q. How has the study of bees and seaweeds changed over the course of your research? What practical and logistical challenges have you encountered and how have those difficulties changed over the years?

Tom: There has been a big shift to investigating the problems of honey bee health, rather than the wonders of their behavior and social life. Life for the bees is much harder now than it was 20 years ago, due to introductions of parasites and pathogens, and to deterioration of the environment (less bee forage, more bee poisons, etc.).

Robin: There is more pressure now than ever to cut the rockweed forest as the global demand for seaweed products, like fertilizers, increases. Last fall, I arrived at a field site I’ve been studying for about seventeen years to find that the seaweed cutters had been there. As a result I can no longer study the natural functioning of rockweed beds at that site. To protect the rockweed forest habitat, I’ve had to add to my toolbox new tools, such as storytelling, videography, public speaking, and eating from convenience stores throughout New England!

Q. Could you describe an especially surprising or proud moment in your quest to satisfy your curiosity about nature?

Tom: Sure. Solving the seventy-year-old mystery of the function of an eye-catching behavior of honey bees called the "tremble dance." I discovered that bees perform tremble dances to recruit more bees to the task of processing fresh nectar when it suddenly becomes plentiful at the start of a "honey flow."

Robin: Yes! My proudest moment came when I discovered that the rapid evolution of a seaweed-living snail over the past 120 years in New England was a response to an invasive predator crab.

Q. What writers or teachers have influenced your efforts to communicate your understanding of the natural world?

Tom: Edward O. Wilson, Tom Eisner, Bernd Heinrich, Karl von Frisch, Candace Savage, Wendell Berry, and Robert Frost, plus many others.

Robin: Rachel Carson, Celia Laighton Thaxter, Sarah Orne Jewett, Tom Seeley, and Bernd Heinrich.

Q. What kind of response has your research and writing evoked from the audiences that you address? How has the response changed over time?

Tom: At first, I wrote just for fellow biologists, and they told me that they liked how my research papers "tell a story." Now I write for general readers too, and they thank me sharing with them cool, new discoveries, especially about the bees.

Robin: At first, I only wrote for scientific colleagues and spoke at scientific meetings. Now I do a lot more public speaking to audiences in libraries, town halls, and living rooms. Audiences seem eager to learn more about ecology underwater, on the shore, and what role the public can play in protecting these special places.

Q. Your careers exemplify how the natural sciences have enriched the human experience. How have the humanities enriched your scientific endeavors?

Robin: The humanities have enriched my work immensely. I have recently been more focused on marine ecological history in order to extend a data record that will allow us to investigate climate change in New England. For this work, I rely on letters and manuscripts going back to the 1700s. I am also planning to use art created in the nineteenth century to look for evidence of sea level rise on islands, especially islands where there were few people taking photographs in the 1800s, or where they weren’t taking photographs in the right places to allow comparison.

Q. What can scientists do to communicate more effectively with the general public?

Tom: Read the book by Randy Olson called Don't Be Such a Scientist. In it, he explains the value of being a good storyteller, while also being the voice of science.

Robin: Deal with uncertainty and be honest with your audiences about uncertainty while explaining key messages that emerge from environmental noise. I also rely heavily on video to tell stories of environmental quality underwater. Once an audience sees the rockweed forests as they are underwater, it’s not difficult to explain why this flat, slippery stuff that one can walk on at low tide is really important to marine life.

Q. Do you ever help each other in your work?

Tom: Let's see. Probably the most helpful thing I've done for Robin is to take the lead on building a snug, little house in Pembroke, Maine, so she has a good base for her seaweed conservation work.

Robin: I started off married life with eight months in the jungles of Thailand, helping Tom with a study of the giant honey bee, Apis dorsata. And I am proud to say that I have taken my turn at many feeding stations when bees needed to be lined back to their bee-tree homes.

Q. If people were to apply lessons from bee behavior to the stewardship of coastal marine habitats, what might we expect to see change in terms of the decision-making process and management outcomes?

Tom: I would hope that the management outcomes reflect the power of collective intelligence, that is the power of seeking diverse possible solutions from all interested parties, having an open (but non-hostile) discussion of the pros and cons of each proposal, and then allowing each person to indicate by secret ballot which of the proposed solutions he or she prefers. The bees show us the power of this method.

Robin: I would hope that management outcomes would reflect a more democratic process, as Tom indicates. We are actually working on that now in a group outside of the state regulatory framework, and I believe all parties believe the process is working well.

Q. Finally, what is coming next in your research?

Tom: My next research topic is "Darwinian Beekeeping." This is an approach to beekeeping that seeks to foster colony health by letting the bees live as naturally as possible, so they can use the toolkit of adaptations that they have evolved over the last 30 million years. Exactly how we do so is not 100% clear.

Robin: I am starting a project on the ecological history of particular Maine islands. I’ll be spending time in libraries and historical societies during the winter, but sitting (with those wet pants of my youth) in my beloved seaweed forests during the summer!

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  1. Ken Ross → in Ann Arbor MI; Robbinston ME
    May 28, 2017

    How refreshing to hear voices of reason amidst the destructive nonsense so prevalent nowadays.  While millions busily strive to disassemble the ecosystem for fun, profit, and power while ignoring or denying what science and education try to tell them, the Seeleys patiently work to patch up the Old Globe for its grandchildren and other inhabitants.  It would be more than interesting to know the outcome of this fateful contest.

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