Sure, I have been lectured about the birds and the bees, and yet I learned an awful lot more about the bees from Thor Hanson’s latest work Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees. Hanson has previously written popular works about feathers and seeds, and in Buzz he turns his attention to bees. Already this book has garnered a lot of positive press and was Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4. Most people associate bees with honey and therefore with the honeybee, Apis mellifera, but Hanson specifically wants to talk about all the other thousands of bee species, many of which are as interesting and as important, even though some of them are diminutive and hardly noticed.
Buzz showcases Hanson’s masterful storytelling, as he effortlessly darts from first-hand observations in the field and interviews with scientists while researching this book to accessible overviews of bee biology. Along the way, he covers evolution (likely they evolved from vegetarian wasps), fossils in amber, morphology, solitary nesting species, pollination, and bee-plant coevolution. The second half of the book is dedicated to our relationship with bees, from the ancient bond between birds and humans exemplified by the aptly named bird species Indicator indicator that guides people to wild bee hives, to their current underappreciated role as pollinators of commercial crops. The scale at which beehives are trucked around the US to assist in pollinating fruit trees and other crops was staggering to read. Several chapters are dedicated to the threats facing bees, including the still largely unresolved issue of Colony Collapse Disorder (likely a confluence of multiple stressors) and the threat of pesticides, including neonicotinoids. Hanson paints a nuanced picture of these issues, noting how they have rapidly become politicised and not a little bit mired in controversy.
“The scale at which beehives are trucked around the US to assist in pollinating fruit trees and other crops was staggering to read.”
Black-and-white photos and illustrations are scattered throughout the book, and a colour plate section showcases some of the marvellous macro photographs of bee species in the holdings of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (once you start down their photo collection on Flickr, it is hard to stop), though it unfortunately does not reproduce some of the black-and-white photos elsewhere in the book.
The book is well researched, calling first-hand on the expertise of authorities such as Charles D. Michener (author of The Bees of the World), Michael S. Engel (co-author of Evolution of the Insects), and Robbin W. Thorp (co-author of Bumble Bees of North America), and comes with a bibliography and glossary. Even so, the science is doled out lightly, gently incorporated into Hanson’s narrative. Whether its the iridescent chitin of a sweat bee of the genus Nomia Hanson falls in love with, or the grace of the 80+ year old bee curator Jerry Rozen as he teaches bee identification in the blistering August heat of the Arizona desert – Hanson portrays both the bees and the scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying them very sympathetically, revealing the passion evoked by these miraculous insects. This book is right up there with Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale, and is an enchanting piece of natural history writing that will be enjoyed by a wide readership.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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