Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees by Thor Hanson

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of BeesBuzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees by Thor Hanson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was given an advanced review e-copy of uncorrected page proofs from the publisher through NetGalley. I’d love to see the final book because all of the images were in gray-scale. That and I’d like to share it. Lately I have too many books to read – assigned and by choice – but I read this over the entire weekend.

If asked to reduce this love affair to one word, I would choose habitat. Mr. Hanson repeats that theme/concept/perspective multiple many times throughout his book, but gently, as part of the story, and not in-your-face. It needs to be in our faces, though, because we are destroying the habitats of so many species that are vital. “Ideal habitat”, “perfect habitat”, “limited habitat”, “diversity of habitats”, “nesting habitats”… “habit […] eroding”…

Hanson is quick to inform that while honeybees are the widest known, and are in the news the most for their decline, they are only some species of the more than 20,000 identified species in the world. Not generally known, even by agriculturists who stand to benefit from the knowledge, is the relationships of the particular bees species that best serve fertilization of particular crops, and the habitats necessary to sustain a symbiotic bonds. Worse, with our increased production, we run risks (I’ll risk a quote myself, noting this isn’t the final copy of the book):

When farmers and orchards devote hundreds or thousands of acres to a single crop, it creates a brief and intense flowering period that often overwhelms local bee populations, particularly in highly cultivated landscapes with limited nesting habitat.

So, a stopgap solution is a cottage industry of pollination services…mobile hives for rent. The problems with this should be obvious: transportation can be harmful to the health of bees; not all bees are adapted to general pollination – many need specific habitats and food sources. Now, the purveyors do tend to ship around the kinds of bees that can pollinate different crops, but that is still not a sustainable solution (hint: native bee populations is a solution.)

Among the abundance of information here, I found this nugget interesting (okay, I found lots of nuggets): when researching the history of bee/human relationship, Hanson describes research into how it might tie to human evolution – how Australopithecus, with a massive jaw and molars could lead to Homo, with smaller jaws and teeth and a greater brain capacity. Common theories point to tools development and hunting richer foods, but some anthropologist are linking honey – incredibly energy-rich – to that brain explosion. New analysis techniques “can pinpoint lingering chemical fingerprints from even the tiniest stains and residues.” Anthropologists used to wash tooth specimens for display but now know that fossil plaque contains “a surprising amount of information about ancient diets, and it can even hint at social behavior.” Science helps science!

The story of bees cannot avoid the hard truth of Colony Collapse Disorder, sudden and too often evidence-less, though seemingly decreasing in frequency, crisis in mass die-offs of hives. Finding reasons for the bee population declines lead to what are called the “four Ps”: parasites, poor nutrition, pesticides, and pathogens. Of those four threats, poor nutrition is probably the least obvious, but as one researcher says: “People look across a park or a golf course and think it;s green and lush, but to a bee it’s like a desert or petrified forest – there’s nothing to survive on.” Telling. To those four, though, must also be added N for nesting habitat (there’s that word again), I for invasive species, and CC…the danger with so many complications: climate change. An oversimplified example is plants flowering earlier before bees emerge from nests, too late for the preferred food.

I knew some of bees, enough to want to read more though clearly not enough having read this. Hanson does a beautiful job explaining in accessible terms the histories of bees, some on different species, the biology/anatomy, the interaction, and the decline and loss. This is a story, and it is Hanson’s, but it is also all of ours. It is wonderfully told, not academic though bursting with obviously deeply researched information.

A note on the notes: I am not a fan of end notes not referenced directly in the text. I know that is increasingly done so as to not interrupt the reading flow or make the book seem academic, but I find it irritating to find them at the end and then have to flip back and find the reference on a page. And if I happen to check before starting, it is even more annoying to know there are cites, but flipping back and forth “just in case” disrupts more than a simple superscript. But that’s me. Some books don’t even provide citations, so there’s a win. And I’m not dinging the format…this is excellent.

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