Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: The Bee: A Natural History

Honey bees.

Bumble bees.

Sweat bees.

Queens, drones, pollination, waggle dances.

I'm not sure, but that list might have been about 90% of what I knew about bees.

Add that I'm allergic to bee stings** and we're up to 95%.

**When I get stung, the affected area tends to swell up. I once got stung on the hand while on the south shore of Lake Itasca helping Kendra with vegetation surveys. My hand swelled up pretty severely, but luckily it froze into a claw shape and I could paddle back to our cabin on the north shore. Another time I got stung in the lip while in South Africa after taking a sip of a soda. Apparently a bee had climbed into the can while I wasn't looking. I remember wearing a bandana for 2 days because my face looked so hideous.

After reading Noah Wilson-Rich's The Bee (Princeton University Press), I think my previous knowledge set on bees is much larger.

First, the book is rich in pictorials. Almost to the level of a DK Eyewitness book, but with more text and more information.

The visual jewel of the book is the section "A Directory of Bees". The section has half page enlargements of  forty of so bees from around the world. Solitary bees such as the 2mm Perdita minima to the 40 mm Wallace's Giant Bee. Each bee has a description and a section on behavior and its life cycle.

Other sections include the evolution of bees, their anatomy, their societies, and the history of bees and people.

Reading the book reminds me of the immense effort it takes to understand biodiversity.

Not biodiversity abstracted to an index, but each defining detail of every organism. Organisms have a long evolutionary history and a complex ecology. Multiply that by the 20,000 species of bees that exist and it's a life's work to just to start to understand it.

For bees, it is their evolution from wasps a hundred million years ago. The immense floral radiation that they initiated. The eusociality of some bees is what sets them apart, but so many of them are solitary, which is fascinating in its own right. And how they produce honey, wax, royal jelly, propolis (!), and venom from a few food sources is equally fascinating. And the things that attack bees: Foulbrood, Chalbrood, Nosema, deformed wing viruses, mites, beetles, moths...

I really appreciated this book.

By the time I was done reading the book, I felt like I had superficial, but robust knowledge of bees.

And that was more than when I started.

Well done to the main author and the other authors that contributed.

May more natural historians be inspired to write similar volumes.

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