In the earliest pages of Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees, Thor Hanson laments the way that most people seem to be more aware of the plight of bees than of the bees themselves. Furthermore, when people think of bees, they tend to think of honeybees, a domesticated species, different from wild bee species in the way that an owls and hummingbirds are different from chickens. Hanson’s interest in is the 19,000+ species of wild bees which inhabit every continent on the planet except Antarctica.
Buzz is a hypnotic ride through the lives and habits of bees, the people who study them, and how knowledge of bees resonates with other aspects of human understanding. Hanson’s essays convey the experience of observing, studying, and appreciating wild bees.
Somewhere in evolutionary time, as the story goes, certain carnivorous wasps responded to some kind of dietary pressure by becoming vegetarian. These proto-bees adopted lifestyles and nutrition habits that centered not on prey, but on flowers, nectar, and pollen. Cause-and-effect in that faraway time is a bit murky, but flowers and bees are believed to have co-evolved. Bee species are as varied as flowers and the interlocking specializations of bees and flowers are jaw-dropping.
Given the bees’ complicated reproductive habits and patterns of heredity, and in some habitats, the ability to produce multiple generations per season, scientists have been unable to construct an evolutionary tree where bee species coherently branch off from one another and produce the thousands of different bees identified today. Behaviors and physical characteristics seem to have emerged and disappeared multiple times in various genetic lines. Over the course of only a few generations, some bees have even been observed shifting back and forth between social and solitary lifestyles, a characteristic one might have considered a bedrock difference in evolutionary lines.
Hanson discusses bee senses—how and what they see, hear, smell and remember. He looks for and finds bees that nest in the ground, in stems, in rotting wood, or on branches. As they build nests, he watches bees that work with paper, cement, wax, cloth, and mud.
Every time Hanson runs off to a patch of wildflowers to see which bees might be visiting it, I want to get out there on my own hands and knees and pay more attention. Eric Grissel’s Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in the Garden is an inspiring guide for doing that.
Grissell’s gaze is wider than Hanson’s. It takes in all of the bees, wasps and ants that make up the order known as Hymenoptera.
Grissell assures his readers that although specific identification at the species level often requires a microscope, a person can still probably find at least one of every kind of bee, wasp, and ant in the average garden. All of them have better things to do than bite, sting or annoy humans. Some pollinate, of course. Others recycle nutrients, disperse seeds, feed on other insects, and provide food for all sorts of wildlife.
This book, a serviceable reference for the beginning observer, is a dense, fact-filled plea for people to appreciate these creatures. The photographs, of which there are many, are stunning. Looking at these colorful, exquisite bodies, you can see why an entomologist might find “bugs” more compelling than people.