The buzz around bees (and flowers)

There is a lot of talk about bees at the moment. And a lot of words, to which I'll add a few hundred in praise of Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees, a new book by Thor Hanson.

Published today, Buzz is a frenetic read, packed with quirky facts, obsessive scientists and crusty collectors. I don't mind that. The breathless pace is something I aspire to myself, but in a slightly more mannered and measured way, as we do in Australia; Hanson is American.

Some of the revelations aren't so revelatory, but it gets you thinking anew. For example we all know bees eat pollen. So unlike today's wasps, and their wasp-like ancestors, they are vegetarian. It's also what links them to flowering plants of course. Hairy and flower-loving, bees have been nicknamed 'hippie wasps' by some.

How bees began, in an evolutionary sense, is still uncertain. What we do know is that bees and flowers evolved together, more or less, and after wasps had already been around for awhile devising cunning ways to torture their prey.

Somehow, wasps of yesteryear brought pollen into the nest, perhaps brushing against it when catching insects in the newly evolved flowers or while 'fueling up on nectar'. That pollen eventually became a regular part of the diet of wasp larvae, with pollen-loving wasps visiting flowers deliberately.

Pollen gathering is inherently safer than insect hunting so these bee ancestors were more likely to live long and breed more. Hence we get bees with the various adaptations to make flower visiting and pollen collecting more efficient.

Bees and plants then begin a merry dance that over time selects the shapes, colours and perfumes of flowers, albeit with other creatures such as birds, mammals and other insects joining in to consume the plant's nectar, disperse its pollen and so sway its evolution.

There is a lot to take in. Among the 22,000 species of bee some have stings and some don't (and many that have stings hardly use them), some are colonial and some are solitary (and many of the solitary bees are quite gregarious, while the sociability of Sweat Bees depends on the weather) and one in five are parasitic (in that they steal food from another species; the best known is the Cuckoo Bee, which lays eggs in the nests of other bee species).

I was reminded that bees see things differently to us, including colour. No red and no purple, but plenty of ultraviolet allowing them to see patterns in petals that are invisible to us. The so-called 'bee purple' is a combination of yellow and ultraviolet.

In 216 pages, plus extra pages devoted to bee classification and intriguing asides that didn't suit the pace of the book, there are plenty more insights and inspiring stories. Hanson wants to ignite a curiosity about bees in those of us who if they think about bees at all, think about Honeybees or maybe occasionally a Bumblebee.

I also knew there were different kinds of bees and bee lifestyles but hadn't cottoned on to how many. In North America alone there are 4,000 or so native bee species, 1300 of them from Arizona where Hanson finds them feeding off cactus and other flowers in mid-summer. We learn about Alkali Bees, Mason Bees, Leafcutter Bees, Digger Bees and bees without fancy common names. [In Australia there are about 2000 species, with 400 or so yet to be formally named and described, and more likely to be discovered.]

Hanson makes this point about diversity in part to explain why the book isn't all about Honeybees, which are just one species. As Hanson re-quotes, asking a melittologist (one who studies bees) about Honeybees is like 'asking an ornithologist a question about chickens'. Perhaps we could add a botanical equivalent, like 'asking a botanist a question about your lawn' or a 'phycologist (one who studies algae) about the slimy stuff in their swimming pool...'. In any case, Honeybees have hairy eyes!

The book ends with a gloomy prognosis for Honeybees, and their ilk, as most of us know. While some of the same threats (and more, such as loss of nesting habitat, invasive bees and plants, and climate change) are putting pressure on the other bee species Hanson concludes that 'to say all bees are in decline would be going too far'. That said, there are cautionary tales. From my wider reading I gather Honeybees can pass on pathogens to other bees even as they start to recover and adapt themselves.

In Australia (above), as almost everywhere on Earth, our plants and we depend to varying degrees on bees (and other animal pollinators). For our indigenous flora that bee is almost always not the Honeybee. Hanson's canvas is North America, with a splash of South Africa and elsewhere, but the same is true there outside agriculture and those few places where Honeybees have lived for longer times than humans.

As a whole the book works, well. A few road trip scenes might be little self indulgent, and some arguments a little partial, but that's personal taste. For me the deconstruction of a Big Mac into bee-free ingredients (the beef patties and bun) and (at last partially) bee-reliant ingredients (the rest) was a bit laboured, and the story about how much effort it takes to pollinate date palms by hand didn't really add to my appreciation of the bee contribution to plant pollination. As to the (potentially) pivotal role honey may have played in human evolution, I remain to be convinced.

Still I did learn lots of good stuff and I recommend this book highly. As Hanson says right at the start, this book is not (primarily) about Honeybees. It's about the unsung heroes of the bee world, those thousands of bee species that fly under the radar. That's partly because many bees are small, often only half a centimetre or less long. That includes the 20 million year-old ones stuck in amber as well as those buzzing around today. They have been buzzing for millions of years, yet sometimes we need be reminded to listen, and to look.

1. Front cover of the book Buzz
2. Trichocolletes venustus (a native Australian species which like the Honeybee has hairy eyes) with a Diuris (orchid) pollen-sack stuck to its front end; photographed by James Indsto
3. Honeybee covered in pollen while visiting a Lavatera flower at Kew Gardens (photographed by Steve Hopper)
4. Bumblebee visiting an Australian Rutaceae at Kew Gardens, London
5a,b. Population and close-up of the Golden Cowslip Orchid, Diuris (something like) behrii, at Dunkeld near the Grampians in Victoria, a species (complex) pollinated by native bees in at least in part of its range.
6a,b. Population and close-up of the Candy Spider Orchid, Caladenia versicolor, from Lake Fyans, near the Grampians in Victoria, a species pollinated by nectar-foraging, male colletid bees (confirmed by Noushka Reiter).

This weekly post was held over a day, to Wednesday 25 July, to meet the release date for this book published by Allen and Unwin. You can now purchase a copy from your favourite store or website!