The Bee: A Natural History

By Noah Wilson-Rich, Kelly Allin, Norman Carreck and Andrea Quigley
Book review by Patricia Cleveland-Peck

As I flicked thought this book my first thought was that it was worth buying for the illustrations alone. The photography is quite simply magnificent; full page shots of bees up close and personal, looking so real you feel you could touch their fur, intimate images of bees mating and close- ups of the honey cells, are but some of the delights. There are also interesting line drawings of historical and modern hives, equipment and historic figures associated with bees.

When I began to read however, I realised that the text more than lives up to the images. Firstly, it manages that tricky task of using authentic scientific data so that it is accessible to the reader unfamiliar with the subject. Secondly, it covers an enormous range; the scope is not restricted to honey bees although they play a large part. In fact one thing I particularly liked was the inclusion of a Directory of 40 of the world’s bees, all of which are important pollinators. These are depicted in large clear photographs which aid identification with a smaller (in some cases much smaller) ‘actual size’ image beside it. I gathered some fascinating facts such as that the fur on the Teddy Bear Bee’s body becomes worn on older specimens…

The book begins however, with the scientific background of bee evolution, biology and behaviour and from these short sections I learned a lot including the fact that bees descend from carnivorous wasps but developed longer tongues adapted to the various flowers which evolved co-dependently alongside them. Then comes a section dealing with the anatomy, biology and genetics of the bee “which shares our world but experiences it quite differently”, all explained simply but accurately and clearly illustrated.

I learned that the social life of bees covers a wide spectrum; some bees are solitary, some live in family groups and some, including honey bees are what is known as eusocial which means that individuals forego reproduction to serve one dominant queen who is the only one which breeds. In fact a sort of communal breeding occurs to a lesser extent in other bees and can be seen as a step towards this eusocialism. In honey bee colonies the queen, who is larger than the others and who during her life can lay several thousand eggs, can live for several years. The remainder of the bees consist of the adult worker bees incapable of sexual reproduction, who do the housework and go foraging; these are females and live for only a month or so and the drones, or males, who work much less and can live for three months – or until they mate at which time they die because when they ejaculate their penis implodes, is ripped off and stays within the queen… Soon after hatching the queen flies up to where the drones congregate on her first mating flight – a queen bee mates in fact, with more males than any other creature on earth. The mystery of why she develops and her sisters don’t turns out to simply be one of diet – she is fed on Royal Jelly which they are not.

Further sections explore the language of the bees, their dances, their skills at navigation, their forging behaviour, the way they regulate the temperature of their hives or nests and their methods of defence – bees attacked by the ruthless Japanese giant hornet for example, have learned to surround the predator in a tight ball so that it dies in the heat generated.

Nowadays there has been a renewed focus on the value of bees as pollinators. We have all heard that bees, not only honey bees but others too, are apparently dying at an alarming rate and that the result to mankind will be catastrophic unless something is done. In this book reasons for this decline and initiatives to help bees are discussed rationally. One of the major strategies in assisting bees and stemming the decline is to become a good and careful bee-keeper and more and people in the countryside and in cities here and abroad are responding to this call. A generous portion of this book contains advice and information on bee-keeping which will be useful to them and there is a further ‘useful resources’ section.

Lastly this volume is itself a rare example of a declining species; the really well produced book. The design, quality of paper, images and the smart arlin quarter-binding set it apart and make it excellent value. It will neatly solve the problem of what to put in many a bee keeper’s Christmas stocking while at the same time being the ideal way of introducing new enthusiasts to this absorbing subject.

The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich
Published by Ivy Press @ £19.99