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The Bee: A Natural History
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2014
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Reviewed by Mary Bowling
Gorgeous and fascinating, bees are insects that elicit strong feelings from whomever they come into contact. From schoolchildren (and teachers) who flail and shout, “A bee! A bee!” at any small winged creature within swatting distance, to researchers, protesters, and beekeepers who devote themselves to finding and alleviating a host of maladies affecting the beleaguered bugs, almost no one is indifferent. The Bee: A Natural History is an everyman’s guide to all things bee, definitely pretty enough to sit out on the coffee table, and very perusable.
Bees have been around for millions of years, and there are thousands of bee species, so for someone who’s interested, there’s a lot to know. Dr. Noah Wilson-Rich clearly knows a lot, and has created an interesting, visually stimulating book with a concise directory of the world’s bees and gobs of beautiful close-up photos. Also contributing with the book are Kelly Allin, Norman Carreck, and Andrea Quigley. At 213 pages, The Bee: A Natural History can sometimes feel like a brief introduction to about twenty or thirty other books that could be written about the almost impossibly broad subject of bees.
There are six chapters in the book that progress through the subjects of evolution and development, anatomy and biology, society and behavior, interactions with humans, beekeeping, and challenges facing bees, with one forty five page chapter being devoted to a pictorial directory. A few of the topics covered are different bee groups, senses, reproduction, navigation, defense, honey harvesting, and agrochemicals. With such a wide spectrum of topics and subtopics, there is only about one page devoted to each, which can feel cursory, but could also be an appetite-whetter as there is an abundance of research being done on bees now and interest seems to be at an all-time high. However, there should also be plenty of new information in the book to interest even the most devoted and longstanding beekeepers and bee-philes.
The information in Wilson-Rich’s book does in fact go much deeper than the day-to-day tips, facts, and methods needed to keep a beehive going, which is unfortunately the depth of knowledge of many hobby beekeepers. Fascinating ideas of genetics related to mating systems are discussed. Different social constructs are introduced, as not all bees live in hives. The different social orderings of bee life also necessarily dictate things like raising young, defense, and mating, and so each topic is discussed related to several different bee types. Some of the language does get technical, especially relating to genetics and biology, but visual aids abound in the form of diagrams, charts, and photos.
The section devoted to the directory is itself broken down into groups to show bees from four groups; solitary bees, bumble bees, stingless bees, and honey bees. Each page has a half-page-size photo of the bee in question, with a true-size outline, a worldwide distribution map for that bee, and a couple paragraphs of description and behavior. In this part as in the rest of the book, the information is not overwhelming, but the visuals are stunning. You can almost count the individual hairs on the bees’ legs.
Today’s bee enthusiasts tend to equate the word “bee” with Apis mellifera, or the Western Honey Bee, forgetting about the myriad other species around the world that are less domesticated, but that still contribute mightily to global ecosystems and economies. With all of the concern in the last couple years about the future of Apis mellifera, it may be a good time to not only do what many scientists are doing –studying them for every micron of information that can be gleaned that will lead to an end of tragic and sudden colony losses- but also to look outside the Langstroth hive box for more wild solutions to the problem of pollination. Wilson-Rich does a nice job of spreading the focus between the practical and the provoking. For example, there is as expected, good information about starting and caring for a hive of honey bees, but there are also ideas for how to keep, or at least provide homes for other kinds of bees like bumble bees and orchard bees. It is indeed refreshing to learn that there is a whole world of bees out there, and that all of our proverbial eggs don’t need to be kept in one hive.
The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich is fascinating, fun, and beautiful, a book that is accessible enough for anyone with a general interest, but interesting enough for those with longstanding bee fever. The writing and layout are straightforward and understandable, and the many beautiful pictures should definitely make the book, broad as it is, appealing to a broad audience.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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