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A charming new game educates as players compete to stave off honey bee colony collapse

Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer

Matthew Shoemaker
Hit 'Em With a Shoe
2019
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Could you survive a year in the life of a queen bee? A new tabletop board game challenges players to do just that, providing a surprisingly educational experience along the way. Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer was designed by beekeeper and librarian Matthew Shoemaker and pointedly avoids cartoonish depictions of the beloved pollinators. Its earnest attempt to portray realistic hive dynamics will delight players as they attempt to weather the challenges faced by bee colonies season after season.

“Hive management” is a simple summary of the strategy involved in this otherwise complex game. As the queen of a small hive at the start of spring, you must determine how best to use your few worker bees to expand and care for your hive before the onset of winter. Beyond scouting and foraging for nectar, worker bees (charmingly termed “beeples,” a pun on the humanoid board gaming pieces commonly known as “meeples”) also enlarge the hive, provide resources for developing brood, and clean out hive parasites known as varroa mites.

Each player assumes a special queen identity. Delightfully, these behavioral types are based on real-life strains of honey bees. Aggressive queens, modeled after Africanized bees, are better hive raiders and defenders. Nomadic queens, based on a Russian bee strain, swarm more frequently, whereas prolific queens mimic an Italian bee variety that produces brood quickly.

Your hive’s priorities are dictated by the season. Game play primarily occurs during the “productive months,” from March to November. Weather-related events take place each month that affect resource availability and bee behaviors. A cold spike in the spring reduces nectar availability, for instance, whereas unseasonable warmth in the fall overheats bees and spawns rival wild hives.

Different vegetation types that comprise the main game board yield varying amounts of resources by season, with nectar flow patterns peaking in the spring and autumn. A brief nectar dearth in the summertime marks the beginning of the bee wars, with intraspecific competition driving the main source of the game’s conflict.

The twist of Bee Lives is that as your workers multiply, your hive is at greater and greater risk of a swarm. This mimics natural swarming conditions, which are triggered when a hive cannot support all of its inhabitants. When it occurs in the game, the queen leaves with half her workers to begin a new wild hive.

Wild hives operate like extra players at the table, playing turns by following an action priority chart that includes claiming prized foraging locations, overcoming defender bees in other hives, and raiding other hives for precious honey. Swarming early and often in the game will earn you the precious points needed for victory but also creates more opportunities for future competition and conflict for everyone.

Although it is tempting to bask in the bounty of spring and summer, the onset of fall portends winter’s arrival. As natural resources wane, players are incentivized to raid each other’s hives for honey. Much of the final score depends on the number of surviving beeples and the amount of remaining honey after winter, and it is not uncommon for inexperienced players to see their entire year’s efforts wiped out as their colony collapses from starvation and disease.

Given the degree of detail it strives to incorporate into game play, Bee Lives comes with a relatively steep learning curve. It is not intended as light fare but rather the main course of an evening. The game occasionally feels bogged down by the rules governing hive raids, but the dizzying array of showdowns between players and wild swarms has an undeniable thrill to it.

A big strength of Bee Lives is in its replay value. No two games will ever be the same because players create a different game board from the placement of randomly drawn vegetation tiles and draw random event cards. Notably, the game can also be played in solo mode and in campaign mode. Given the interactions with wild swarms, solitary play provides a surprisingly fulfilling experience.

With increasing reports of pollinator declines (1) and global losses in insects (2), we are paying more attention to bees than ever before. For bee experts and novices alike, Bee Lives animates honey bee colony life and reminds us of their daily struggle for existence.

REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. S. Kluser, P. Peduzzi, Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators (UNEP/GRID Europe, 2007).
2. F. Sánchez-Bayo, K.A. Wyckhuys, Biologic. Conserv. 232, 8 (2019).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Psychology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA.