Five Books to Read in Honor of National Honey Bee Day

August 22nd is National Honey Bee Day and, in honor of the occasion, Princeton Nature would like to recommend five of our most recent titles that will get you buzzing about these vital bugs.

The Bee cover

Bees pollinate more than 130 fruit, vegetable, and seed crops that we rely on to survive. Bees are crucial to the reproduction and diversity of flowering plants, and the economic contributions of these irreplaceable insects measure in the tens of billions of dollars each year. Yet bees are dying at an alarming rate, threatening food supplies and ecosystems around the world. In The Bee, a richly illustrated natural history of the titular insect, Noah Wilson-Rich and his team of bee experts provide a window into the vitally important role that bees play in the life of our planet.

You can also check out Noah Wilson-Rich’s essay about the founding of his beekeeping company, The Best Bees Company, here.

Honeybees make decisions collectively–and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. A remarkable and richly illustrated account of scientific discovery, Honeybee Democracy brings together, for the first time, decades of Seeley’s pioneering research to tell the amazing story of house hunting and democratic debate among the honeybees.

You can read our Q+A with author Thomas Seeley here.

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

You can read this op-ed about the importance of fireflies by author Sara Lewis here

Following the Wild Bees is a delightful foray into the pastime of bee hunting, an exhilarating outdoor activity that used to be practiced widely but which few people know about today. Thomas Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, vividly describes the history and science behind this lost pastime and how anyone can do it. Following the Wild Bees is both a unique meditation on the pleasures of the natural world and a guide to the ingenious methods that compose the craft of the bee hunter.

Check out some photographs from one of Thomas Seeley’s bee hunts here

The Bees in Your Backyard provides an engaging introduction to the roughly 4,000 different bee species found in the United States and Canada, dispelling common myths about bees while offering essential tips for telling them apart in the field.

The book features more than 900 stunning color photos of the bees living all around us—in our gardens and parks, along nature trails, and in the wild spaces between. It describes their natural history, including where they live, how they gather food, their role as pollinators, and even how to attract them to your own backyard. Ideal for amateur naturalists and experts alike, it gives detailed accounts of every bee family and genus in North America, describing key identification features, distributions, diets, nesting habits, and more.

Check out our Q&A with authors Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril here.

Noah Wilson-Rich on The Best Bees Company

Author with beehive

Wilson-Rich on May 9, 2010, just six weeks after founding The Best Bees Company. Photo credit: Izzy Berdan

Pollinator decline is a grand challenge in the modern world. We are losing 40% of beehives annually nationwide, and more in places with tough winters, which are now at 50% or higher. Can you imagine if we lost half of our population each year? And if those we lost produced food for the rest of us? It’s untenable. I predict that at this rate, bees will be gone in 10 years. Furthermore, we will be without fruits and vegetables, causing global hunger, economic collapse, and a total moral crisis worldwide … if not for beekeepers, who replace those dead bees,

When I finished up my doctorate at Tufts University in honey bee immunology, I needed to find a laboratory, field sites, data points, and funding! It was 2009, in the deepest throws of the recession, so grant funding was more competitive for less resources, and the job market for academia was just as scarce. So I set up a laboratory of my own in the living room of my apartment in Boston, and started a Facebook page offering to install beehives at people’s home gardens and business rooftops in exchange for research funding. I’d volunteer my time to manage the beehives, they’d get all the honey, and I’d get the data.

And so our de factocitizen science journey began. We’d created a new way to engage the general public to own these little living data factories, pollinating gardens and farms, allowing everyone to participate in research.

When I told my apartment landlord in Boston that I’d set up a bee research lab in my living room, I was admittedly nervous. I must have caught him on a good day. He replied not with an eviction notice, but with a big smile and said, “Let’s put those bees in the back alley!” I was shocked. To all of our delight, that little data factory produced more honey that first year than any other beehive I’d ever worked. Over 100 lbs.! We were filling up pickle jars with the stuff! Since honey never goes bad, some of the tenants are still sharing it with their loved ones and the greater community.

The Bee coverThat beehive and this citizen science approach, shifted my research question forever. It moved me away from why bees were dying, as so many researchers ask, and toward what is it about this beehive – this urban beehive – that’s allowing these bees to live and thrive?

With that, The Best Bees Company was born! As we grew, more people and companies got our research-based beekeeping services throughout urban, suburban, and rural towns alike. Meanwhile, the more data we got, the more accurate our maps became. Trends began to emerge for precisely where bees were thriving best.

Nine years later, The Best Bees Company and I oversee 1000 beehives, in 10 greater metro areas, with 65 beekeepers on our team in this little company that we made up. We’ve brought in 25 million pollinators nationwide, enhancing the properties of citizen scientists. That’s 10 million data points, this year alone, a sum of nearly 20 million data points since the first pickle jar beehive. For my team, that scale meant more accurate maps, which we now share with NASA and Google Earth. And now I can report what’s saving bees to you.

You, too, can be part a citizen scientist – If you have a balcony in your apartment, a backyard at your home, you can participate in stabilizing our food system! To become a citizen science client and purchase The Best Bees Company’s beekeeping services nationwide, visit www.BestBees.comor contact info@bestbees.comor (617) 445-2322.

 

Insect of the Week: the Bumble Bee

Adapted from pages 674-675 of Garden Insects of North America

Bumble bees are large, fuzzy bees brightly colored black with yellow and/or orange. Like honey bees, they are social insects that produce a colony, usually in an abandoned rodent or bird nest where there is insulating material they use to surround the nest. Bumble bee colonies are abandoned at the end of the year, however, and only new, large, fertilized queens survive the winter. The queen establishes a new colony in spring, conducting all chores of foraging, hive construction, and rearing. The first workers produced are usually quite small, but they assist the queen as the colony develops. As the colony grows, worker size tends to increase and some reproductive forms (queens, males) are produced toward the end of the season. 

A bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii). Photo credit: Whitney Cranshaw.

Bumble bees are native insects, with close to 50 species in North America. Many are important pollinators, and they have a unique method of acquiring pollen from some plants, known as buzz pollination, which shakes pollen from some kinds of flowers. The collected pollen is then packed into pollen baskets on the hind legs, in a manner similar to honey bees and others in the family Apidae. Bumble bees are used extensively to pollinate greenhouse-grown tomatoes, and many native plants are dependent on buzz pollination for seed set. Bumble bees sting readily in defense of their hive but are nonaggressive while foraging. The sting is painful, but the stinger is not left behind.

Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs
Second Edition
By Whitney Cranshaw & David Shetlar

This second edition of Garden Insects of North America solidifies its place as the most comprehensive guide to the common insects, mites, and other “bugs” found in the backyards and gardens of the United States and Canada. Featuring 3,300 full-color photos and concise, detailed text, this fully revised book covers the hundreds of species of insects and mites associated with fruits and vegetables, shade trees and shrubs, flowers and ornamental plants, and turfgrass—from aphids and bumble bees to leafhoppers and mealybugs to woollybears and yellowjacket wasps—and much more. This new edition also provides a greatly expanded treatment of common pollinators and flower visitors, the natural enemies of garden pests, and the earthworms, insects, and other arthropods that help with decomposing plant matter in the garden.

Designed to help you easily identify what you find in the garden, the book is organized by where insects are most likely to be seen—on leaves, shoots, flowers, roots, or soil. Photos are included throughout the book, next to detailed descriptions of the insects and their associated plants.

An indispensable guide to the natural microcosm in our backyards, Garden Insects of North America continues to be the definitive resource for amateur gardeners, insect lovers, and professional entomologists.

  • Revised and expanded edition covers most of the insects, mites, and other “bugs” one may find in yards or gardens in the United States and Canada—all in one handy volume
  • Features more than 3,300 full-color photos, more than twice the illustrations of the first edition
  • Concise, informative text organized to help you easily identify insects and the plant injuries that they may cause

 

Calling all bee hunters: Thomas Seeley on Following the Wild Bees

following the wild bees seeleyLooking for a new outdoor experience? Are you interested in honeybees but hesitant to invest in full-fledged beekeeping? Perhaps you should consider bee hunting. Once a popular pastime, it’s fair to say the practice has fallen into obscurity, but Thomas Seeley’s new book, Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting seeks to change all that. According to Seeley, (who has been enjoying the thrill of the chase for 40 years without a single sting), bee hunting is an exhilarating experience that can be practiced in the forest or the big city, by people of all ages. Read on for the inside scoop on the craft and science of bee hunting.

What exactly is bee hunting?

TS: Bee hunting is a fascinating outdoor sport in which you locate a wild colony of honey bees living in a hollow tree, old building, or abandoned bee hive. It is a form of treasure hunting. What makes it so intriguing? It involves closely observing a small group of foraging bees and using simple but clever techniques to trail them to their home. You start by catching honey bees from flowers, providing them with sugar syrup in a small square of beeswax comb, and labeling them with dots of paint. Once you have a bunch of bees “hooked” on your free lunch and labeled for individual identification, you determine the direction to their home from the compass bearings of their homeward flights. You also estimate the distance to their home by seeing how many minutes individual bees need to fly home, unload their valuable cargoes, and zip back to your feeder. Next, you move your sugar-syrup feeder and the bees in a series of steps down their flight line home, each time updating the information about direction and distance. Once you know you are close to the bees’ home address, you examine every tree or structure in the area, and eventually you spy your bees diving into their nest’s entrance opening. Success!!! Sometimes the bees’ dwelling place is close to where you started and the hunt takes only an hour or so, but other times it is farther away (a half mile or more) and then the hunt is longer and more challenging. Either way, you will have great fun with these wonderful little creatures as you work with them to discover their secret residence.

What is the appeal of bee hunting?

TS: The allure of bee hunting lies in the “chase”, not in a “kill”. But this is new. For thousands of years, humans living in hunter-gatherer groups hunted wild colonies of honey bees and robbed them of brood and honey for food, as some hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa and Asia still do. Bee/honey hunting was also practiced in Europe and North America for centuries. However, I urge my readers to not pursue bee hunting to get honey because this involves stealing from the bees and usually destroying their nest. I explain that the attraction of bee hunting these days is that it is a lovely way to observe honey bees close up as they feed on your sugar syrup bait and perform flights to and from your feeder comb. The bee hunter learns so much about how these marvelous little creatures behave while gathering food: how they orient to your feeder, land there, imbibe your food, tolerate being bumped by nest mates, groom themselves before taking off, and finally launch into flight and steer a course home. Furthermore, while watching how these little wonders work harmoniously at the feeder and recruit their nest mates to the site, you are struck by how these bees cooperate closely to acquire food for their colony. So for many who go bee hunting, the greatest reward will be that it causes them to stop, watch, and ponder the marvelous six-legged beauties that help keep our planet flowering and fruitful. For others, the greatest appeal of bee hunting will be that it is a great way to get outdoors and enjoy the natural world. I should also mention that finding the one tree among the thousands in a forest that is the bees’ home is a huge thrill! I always feel soaring feelings of success, even triumph, when I discover the home of a wild colony of honey bees.

Do you need a forest or other wild place to go bee hunting?

TS: No. You don’t need a forest. You can even do it in a city. For example, this summer, I will lead a bee hunt in Central Park to begin to map out the wild colonies living in the heart of New York City. Central Park covers 843 acres, and much of it is wooded, so I am sure that there are bees living in it. Some years ago I had fun conducting an urban bee hunt in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Harvard Yard. One April, I noticed bees collecting pollen from crocuses in front of Memorial Church, and I wondered where these bees were living. I was keen to determine their “home address.” Using my bee hunting skills, I found that these bees were from a colony living right in Harvard Yard, in the west wall of Emerson Hall. So you can see, you can have fun bee hunting essentially anywhere: city, suburb, or wild area. Wherever you can find honey bees on flowers, you can have fun following these bees to their home.

Is bee hunting a sport that’s equally enjoyable for everyone, even kids?

TS: Yes, definitely! Throughout my book, and in this interview, I refer to the bee hunter as “he,” but this is done merely for simplicity. Every “he” and “him” also encompasses a “she” and “her.” Older children fascinated by nature will definitely enjoy this open-air activity, especially if they have an iPhone that they can use to plot their location, record the bees’ flight directions as they fly home, and track their progress as they zero in on the bees’ home.

Is there any danger of being stung while bee hunting?

TS: Bees will be buzzing around the bee hunter while he is keeping track of their comings and goings from his feeder, but I can honestly state that there is little or no chance of being stung while bee hunting. The reason is that bees are entirely friendly to the human who is providing them with delicious food. They will fight off a yellow jacket wasp if she discovers the feeder and starts to help herself to the goodies. But the bees have no reason to sting the bee hunter, and I’ve never been stung in my nearly 40 years of bee hunting. It may seem incredible, but unless you accidentally put a bare arm down on a bee resting on a knee, or you thoughtlessly slap at a bee flying near your face, you don’t need to worry about being stung while bee hunting.

Why did you write this book?

TS: The popularity of honey bees has skyrocketed recently, but not everyone can become a beekeeper, so I figured it would be good to show honey bee enthusiasts another way—beside beekeeping—to have fun with these delightful little creatures. A beekeeper manages colonies of honey bees that are living in hives he (or she) has provided, so beekeeping requires having a fair amount of equipment and space for the hives. A bee hunter, however, searches for colonies of honey bees that are living in tree cavities and other living quarters that they have found for themselves, so there is no need for complicated equipment. In my book, I describe the simple and inexpensive tools used in bee hunting, and I point out that “The complete toolkit of a bee hunter fits easily into a knapsack in the field and a shoebox back at home.”

My second reason for writing this book is to inform people that the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is still an essentially wild animal. Wherever there are honey bees, there exist both managed colonies living in beekeepers’ hive and wild colonies living in tree cavities, rock clefts, and the walls of buildings. And even though humans have been keeping honey bees in hives for at least 9,000 years, starting in the Middle East, because humans do not control the matings of queen bees and drone bees, the bees residing in beekeeepers’ hives look and behave the same as their wild counterparts. The honey bees living in the wild are no longer super important to us as honey makers, but they do remain valuable for their pollination services. After all, it is not just the bees flying from beekeepers’ hives that pollinate our apple orchards, tomato fields, cranberry bogs, and other croplands. Honey bees from wild colonies—together with bumble bees, solitary bees, and diverse non-bee pollinators—also contribute hugely to the business of agriculture.

My third reason is to attract young people to study the behavior, social life, and ecology of honey bees. To do so, I end each chapter in the book with a “Biology Box” section in which I explain briefly what biologists have learned about the behavioral skills of honey bees that the bee hunter observes when he induces them to lead him to their home. For example, he sees bees guide their hive mates to his little feeder, which can be a mile or more from their home. How on earth does this happen? I hope these Biology Boxes will give my readers an intoxicating taste of what biologists have revealed about how honey bees do all the amazing things that they do!

Are there any websites that have more information on bee hunting, such as videos that demonstrate the hunting techniques?

TS: Yes, indeed. Check out beehunting.com. There you will find three beautiful videos that show the methods of collecting bees, marking bees, and following bees. These videos are excellent accompaniments to the written descriptions found in the book.

Thomas D. Seeley is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Honeybee Democracy and Honeybee Ecology (both Princeton) and The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York and his most recent book is Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting.

Bee Hunting—Tools of the Trade

BeesIn Following the Wild Bees, Thomas Seeley provides a handy how-to guide on the ancient practice of bee hunting. Bee hunting involves luring bees to a honeycomb filled with homemade sugar syrup and then, once they’ve had their fill, tracking them as they fly off to their hive home. Finding the beehive is the ultimate goal. Along the way, the bee hunter can appreciate natural beauty while learning about the unique behavior of the cognitively advanced honeybee.

To bee hunt successfully, there are a few tools that are must-haves, and a few that will make life easier as you track bees through their natural habitats. Never fear, though! Bee hunting is a relatively inexpensive sport, and all of the items can fit comfortably inside a backpack.

The most important tool is the bee box. This is a small wooden box (5.5 inches long, 3.5 inches wide, and 3 inches high) with two compartments that enables the bee hunter to capture bees and lure them to the store of sugar syrup. You will also need an opaque cloth to cover the bee box once there are bees inside to help them discover the bait.

Bee Box

For bait you will need two small squares of empty comb that will fit inside one of the compartments of the bee box. These can be obtained from a beekeeper. Next, you will need a jar of sugar syrup. This sugar is easily made by mixing 1.5 cups of pure, white cane sugar with enough boiling water to make two cups of syrup. To finish, add 1 drop of anise extract to make the bait irresistible to the bees. To transfer the sugar syrup to the comb, use a small dropper.

Once you have trapped the bees in your bee box, helped them to discover the bait, and then set them free to offload the “nectar” in their hive, you will need to make the combs as conspicuous as possible for when they return, hopefully with some bee friends. You will need a jar lid, scented with a few drops of anise extract, and a small piece of 8-mesh hardware cloth (easily obtained at a hardware store) that will sit on top of the jar lid. You then place the comb on top of the hardware cloth in the open air and wait for your bees to return.

In order to identify individual bees, you will need a set of paint pens. You should also have a watch with a second hand, a notebook, and a magnetic compass to take accurate notes on the movements of your bees.

Finally, you will need a backpack or toolbox to carry all of your items as you track the bees to their hidden home. You might want to bring a folding chair, a stand for the bee box, a roll of vinyl flagging to mark your path through the woods, and a topographic map of the area. With these items you will be well on your way to engaging in the sport of bee hunting.

While the tools will help, there are important skills that you will also need to conduct a bee hunt. For a complete guide on how to become a master bee hunter, pick up a copy of Thomas Seeley’s Following the Wild Bees. In the meantime, check out our slideshow of beautiful full color images from the book.

Follow the wild bees with Thomas D. Seeley

following the wild bees seeleyBee hunting—in which one captures and sumptuously feeds wild bees, and then releases and follows them back to their secret residence—is virtually unknown today, though it was once widely practiced. Thomas D. Seeley, world authority on honey bees, vividly explores the exhilarating pastime in his new book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. A unique meditation on the natural world as well as a how-to guide, the book provides history and science about the craft alongside gorgeous photos and helpful diagrams.

Click through the gallery below to see some of Seeley’s essential tools for bee hunting as well as fascinating photographs captured during the hunt.

Top Ten Bees You May Not Know About

For many of us, the bees that are heading out of our backyard gardens and into hibernation this fall are relatively indistinguishable from one another. But in fact there are roughly 4,000 different bee species found in the United States and Canada alone. With over 900 stunning photos, The Bees in Your Backyard provides an engaging introduction to all of these. Curious about which ones you’ve probably been missing? The authors, Joe Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, put together this handy list of the “backyard bees” many people have never heard of. –PUP blog editor

1. Long-horned bees (Eucerini)

1 long-horned beeAll bees feed their offspring pollen and nectar. Many long-horned bees are specialists, a nice way of saying ‘picky’; females only collect pollen for their young from specific kinds of flowers, even when other ones may be available. Many of them prefer flowers in the sunflower family.

2. Mason bees (Osmia)

2 mason beeWe rely on honey bees for the pollination of many of our tastiest fruits. Some mason bee species can be effective pollinators of orchard crops, and research has shown that they are often better pollinators than the honey bee.

3. Leaf cutter bees (Megachile)

3 leaf cutter beeAs their common name suggests, leaf cutter bees use their incredible mandibles to cut out circular pieces of leaves that they carry back to their nests. These leaf pieces are used to line the walls of the nest cells like wallpaper.

4. Small mining bees (Perdita)

4 small mining beeThe genus Perdita has over 650 different species, all of which live in North and Central America. The smallest bee in North America is a Perdita.

5. Metallic green sweat bees (Agapostemon, Augochlorini)

5 metallic green sweat beeWhile most bees in North America are solitary and don’t live in hives with a queen and workers, there are a few species green sweat bee that are partially social. They are solitary at the beginning of the season, but social by the end of the season.

6. Mining bees (Andrena)

6 Mining beeAll mining bees nest in the ground (as, in fact, do most bees in the U.S. and Canada), in tunnels each female digs herself. The deepest bee nest that has been excavated in North America was a mining bee nest and it was over nine feet deep.

7. Sweat bees (Lasioglossum)

7 sweat beeSweat bees, particularly those in the subgenus Dialictus, are often the most abundant bee in people’s backyards, and probably anywhere else one looks for bees. Though nondescript, they are ubiquitous.

8. Masked bees (Hylaeus)

8 masked beeMasked bees are often mistaken for wasps because they are nearly hairless. These bees are the only North American bees that don’t carry pollen on the outside of their bodies. Instead they ingest the pollen, storing it in a crop. When they return to their nest, they regurgitate it.

9. Carpenter bees (Xylocopa)

9 carpenter beeCarpenter bees are among the biggest bees in North America. They are also one our only bees capable of chewing into wood to construct their nests; most other bees use pre-existing tunnels, made by beetles, other insects, or helpful humans.

10. Cellophane bees (Colletes)

10 cellophane beeCellophane bees line their underground nest with a natural cellophane-like material they produce using a special gland. This substance looks remarkably like plastic wrap.

How many of these have you seen in your backyard? Check out the book’s introduction here.

“The Bees in Your Backyard” Slideshow and Exclusive Interview

Joseph S. Wilson, assistant professor of biology, and Olivia Messinger Carril, who received her PhD in plant biology and has been studying bees for nearly 20 years, are co-authors of comprehensive new bee guide, The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees. Wilson and Carril took the time to answer some of PUP’s questions about their new ultimate bee guide, and discuss the significant and changing role that bees play in our everyday lives. Read their interview just after this stunning slideshow featuring just a few of the book’s 900 photos:

[portfolio_slideshow id=37549]

Your book begins by telling us that there are over 4000 bees in North America, do either of you have a favorite among those?

OC: Its hard for me to pick a favorite, but if I had to…  Diadasia are the genus I studied for my PhD. They are found only in North and South America and there are about 30 species in the U.S. Separately, the Exomalopsini tribe includes the genera Exomalopsis and Ancyloscelis.  All of these bees are fuzzy and look like teddy bears with wings. The Exomalopsini are tiny–about the size of a tic tac, while Diadasia are considerably larger. Both groups are made up of bee species that specialize on flowers (called ‘hosts’).  So in addition to their adorable appearance, I am intrigued by their lifestyle choices.  For my PhD research I looked specifically at the flower scent of Diadasia host plants and compared it with the scent of non-host flowers.

JW: I have always like the small bees in the genus Perdita. There are over 650 different Perdita species so I can’t say that any one species in particular is my favorite, but as a group I really like them. I think what draws me to this group is that Perdita are not the stereotypical bee; they are all small, nearly hairless, and often have bold yellow and black markings on their faces and bodies. The smallest bee in North America is a Perdita. For me, Perdita are a good example of how diverse the bees of North America are. When I point out a Perdita to friends they are always amazed that those small creatures hovering around flowers are actually bees, not gnats.

How did you each get your start in the field of bee studies anyway?

JW: I have been interested in insects for a long time.  In fact I remember having the biggest insect collection in the 6th grade. It was in making that collection that I first ran across a bee that I realized was not a honey bee (It was actually a male long-horned bee sleeping in a sunflower.) Although my interest in biology (including insects) persisted, I didn’t actually start working with bees until early in my college career.  I was introduced to the people, including Olivia, working in the “bee lab” (officially the USDA ARS Bee Biology and Systematics Lab) through a girl I was dating (who later became my wife). At first I volunteered in the lab pinning and labeling bees and eventually was hired as a technician. I worked for Olivia, who was leading a project surveying bees in a National Monument in southern Utah. Later, I headed my own project investigating bee diversity in a military base in western Utah. I temporarily paused my work on bees while I pursued a PhD studying the evolution and biogeography of some nocturnal wasps, but returned to working with bees (and wasps) after completing my degree.

OC: As an undergraduate I worked part time for the USDA ARS Bee Biology and Systematics Lab.  My first tasks were menial:  data entry and whatever odds and ends tasks needed to be done.  At the end of my first year there, however, my boss approached me with an opportunity to participate in a survey of bees in Pinnacles National Monument, in California.  I would be required to camp for three months, and hike every day looking for bees on flowers.  While I had little vested interest in the bee survey itself, the idea of camping and hiking every day for months on end sounded like a dream come true.  By the end of that first season, though, looking at the amazing diversity of bees that I had collected (nearly 400 species in an area of 25 square miles) enthralled me.  Why were some species only in certain areas, while others were found across the whole monument?  Why would some bees specialize on certain plants, and what was it about those plants that was so ‘special’?  How did they know when to emerge from their nests every year?  I happily returned to Pinnacles for two additional seasons, no longer just for the hiking and camping, but also for answers to my questions.  I’ve been trying to answer questions about bees ever since.

What made you think to write a book about  bees and how did you gather the information?  What is the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

OC: For me, the idea of a guide to bees that was accessible to those without years of training in bee biology first took shape during my years as a graduate student.  Many in my cohort were interested in studies of pollinators and/or pollination, but were disheartened by the lack of information for the beginner.  Here were scientists in training looking at flowering plants and categorizing their visitors as “honey bee”, “bumble bee”, or “other bee”.  Considering that the “other bee” category includes nearly 4,000 species, this was unfortunate.  I realized that this is in fact how most people see bees, and that too is unfortunate.  There are bees in almost every backyard, pollinating gardens and flower beds right under our noses.  In contrast to the birds in our backyards, which we can name from the time we are five years old, bees are lumped under the heading of “Bee”, and we are taught to steer clear because they are dangerous.  In fact they are beautiful, amazing, (harmless), and inordinately important creatures, but completely misunderstood.  I don’t remember who said it to first, but when I lamented to Joe about how inaccessible the story of the bee was to the lay person, he completely agreed.  “We oughta write a book” was the outcome of that conversation.

We gathered the information for this book by pouring over the scientific literature, collecting every bit of information we could about each genus, and then synthesizing it all into a few short paragraphs that were understandable to anybody.  For me, the most surprising thing was about myself.  Here I had been studying bees in one way or another for over 15 years and assumed I knew more or less all there was to know about bees.  I was so very wrong.  Bees are incredible, and each species has a unique story to tell.  Even today most species and even entire genera are complete mysteries to scientists either because they are rare or because no one has taken the time to get to know them.

JW: More and more as we turn on the TV, open a newspaper, or browse the covers of magazines, we are aware of the role of bees in our lives. I began to be somewhat dismayed by the mischaracterization of bees from trusted news outlets and prestigious media companies. If the common portrayals of bees was to be believed, bees were either killers (i.e., killer bees) or they were in grave danger from colony collapse disorder (which only affects the honey bee). I was frustrated that while the public was gaining an appreciation for the importance of bees, they were largely in the dark about what a bee actually is, and how diverse North America’s bee community is. The decision to write this book came after discussions about the need to educate people about bees. Education is the first step to conservation.

Like Olivia, as we researched this book I was blown away by the diverse and complex world of bees. Most bee researchers focus on a small group and become experts on that group. To write this book, Olivia and I had to learn about the lifestyles of all of North America’s bees, which was challenging, but also quite rewarding. Furthermore, we endeavored to include high quality photographs of as many of the bees as we could, and we hoped to take these pictures ourselves. I learned firsthand how challenging bee photography can be, and we ended up adding a section in the book about some of the tricks we learned about photographing bees.

In the introduction to your book, you discuss the many misconceptions surrounding bees–what ‘myth’ do you find yourself most often dispelling?

OC & JW:  It used to be that every time we told folks what it is that we studied, they would try to find common ground with us by relating a story about that one time that they had been stung by a bee (the truth is, only female bees are even capable of stinging, and they are not very aggressive.  In all the many years of collecting bees and handling them–sometimes hundreds in a day, we’ve been stung less than two dozen times).  Anymore, though, people skip telling us about being stung and ask:  “So how bad off are the bees?”

How bad is the bee decline, really?

OC: The truth is that 1) we don’t really know because 2) its complicated.  Its complicated because there are so many species of bees.  If one kind is in decline, we really can’t assume that all 30,000 kinds around the world are.  Or because some are in decline in the eastern United States doesn’t mean that western populations of that same species are too.  We can guess that many of the landscape alterations we’ve made in the U.S. are not beneficial (replacing midwestern prairies with monocultures of corn and soy, fragmenting desert areas with parking lots and strip malls, perhaps even our unchecked use of insecticides), but the actual impact is largely unknown.  Systematic bee surveys were seldom conducted 100 years ago, so we don’t have solid baseline data against which to compare current population levels.  And at least some bee species seem to naturally vary 10 to 100-fold from year to year based in part on floral bloom and weather.

We do know for certain that for several years honey bee populations appeared to be dropping dramatically and the reasons for that are still not entirely clear.  Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that honey bee populations have suffered declines–there are recorded instances of honey bee declines dating back at least 100 years and perhaps even longer.  Declines in honey bee populations are economically disastrous to be sure, but they don’t tell us much about the many other pollinating bees that help with fruit and seed set.  Looking at other bees, there are evident declines in the populations of some species of bumble bees in the last 30 years.  Alternatively, squash bees have expanded their ranges in the last 100 years; they were once just in the southwest but have spread as squash plants have been planted in gardens across the country.  Considering the contrast in just these two kinds of bees, we are hesitant to make any sort of broad statement about the state of bees as a whole.

What do you hope people get from this book, and who is it meant for?

JW: While my hope is that this book will be useful for naturalists, gardeners, and professional entomologists, I think everyone will gain a greater understanding and appreciation for bees by reading it. I like to think that this book will enable more educated conversations about bees, which will lead to better designed conservation efforts both by professionals and by homeowners.

There are stories in the news every week discussing how important bees are to agriculture and what a loss it would be to us if they disappeared. However, your book is titled “The Bees in your Backyard”… why are bees important in our backyards?

JW: Bees are important for agriculture, but they are equally important at smaller scales.  Bees make for healthy flower gardens and healthy vegetable gardens and they are also beneficial to fruit trees.  Studies have shown that backyard gardens are good for healthy bee communities and vice versa; surrounding natural areas are good for backyard bee populations

OC: Near my own small garden in New Mexico some weedy-looking globe mallow popped up this year.  I opted to leave them and let them flower, even though I have to wade through them to get to my row of vegetable plants.  Because they provide such a bountiful resource for the bees, I’ve found that my garden (which has fewer blossoms than the globe mallow patch) is much more frequently visited by bees than in years past. I’m reaping the rewards in the form of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, watermelons, chiles, and eggplants.  Since we don’t know if most kinds of bees are experiencing population declines, it seems wise to assume they might be.  If that’s the case, planting a few extra bee-friendly flowers or encouraging them to nest in our backyards certainly can’t hurt anything and most likely will be a great help to these wonderful creatures.

Joseph S. Wilson is assistant professor of biology at Utah State University and has been studying bees and wasps for more than a decade. Olivia Messinger Carril received her PhD in plant biology from Southern Illinois University and has been studying bees and the flowers they visit for nearly twenty years.

Why beekeeping in L.A. is a good thing, according to Noah Wilson-Rich

The BeeAccording to Noah Wilson-Rich, author of The Bee: A Natural History, bees exert an overwhelmingly positive influence, despite their bad rap as stinging pests. In his recent op ed in the Los Angeles Times, bees are efficient entities that produce “tangible benefits.” Wilson-Rich draws attention to the peculiar and outmoded 1879 ban on urban beekeeping in L.A.– a ban that has now been reversed– declaring that urban beekeeping in single-family residential zones is legal, and for good reason. He argues:

Bees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy annually in their role as pollinators of more than 100 fruit and vegetable crops. That number balloons to $100 billion globally. I won’t pretend that bees will put a dent in L.A.’s unemployment rate or add significantly to the state’s gross domestic product. But legal beekeeping would spur job creation, allowing skilled professionals to make a living by installing and maintaining beehives for residences, companies and schools.

According to Wilson-Rich, urban beehives are actually more productive than their rural counterpart. Urban beekeeping is already legal in numerous cities, including Washington D.C., Paris and New York, and he questions why Los Angeles, a city where allegedly ten bee colonies exist every square mile, fails to keep up with the valuable and safe practice or urban beekeeping.

Read the full piece in the Los Angeles Times here.

Noah Wilson-Rich is the founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based beekeeping service and research organization. He is the author of The Bee: A Natural History.

The Bees in Your Backyard – a slideshow

Bees are in decline, bringing many to embrace their value and think twice before decimating a hive. Even urban beekeeping has experienced an explosion in popularity. But the sheer number and variations that exist in the species can be confusing for novice (and seasoned) bee enthusiasts alike.

The Bees in Your Backyard by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril provides an engaging introduction to the roughly 4,000 different bee species found in the United States and Canada, dispelling common myths about bees while offering essential tips for telling them apart in the field. The authors are bee and wasp experts, and between them they have been studying these often misunderstood pollinators for more than three decades. The book contains over 900 stunningly detailed color photos, a few of which we’re excited to share with you here:

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PUP Op ed Original: Noah Wilson-Rich on why urban dwellers should be raising bees on their rooftops

Belted beeNoah Wilson-Rich studies bees and the diseases that are depleting their colonies. He founded the Best Bees Company, a Boston based beekeeping service and research organization, has given a TED talk, and is now the author of The Bee: A Natural History, recently published by Princeton University Press. Today he shares with us the vital importance of urban beekeeping.

CITIES ARE KEY TO SAVING BEES
By Noah Wilson-Rich

Nearly a decade after the start of Colony Collapse Disorder (C.C.D.), a bizarre phenomenon whereby honey bees simply vanished from their hives across the United States during 2006-2011, bees are still dying at unsustainable rates today. Across the country, about one in every three hives does not survive the winter. Germany shares this alarming statistic across their apiaries. Bee deaths seem higher in areas with harsh winters and in areas with monoculture agriculture use – but lower death rates in cities. In Boston, urban bees not only survive the winter at higher rates, but they also produce more honey than beehives in surrounding suburban and rural environments.

The Bee jacketBees are vitally important creatures. We tend to give honey bees (Apis mellifera) all the credit for pollination because most people are familiar with the old man beekeeper working his white painted beehives image. Yet, honey bees are only one species of bee from about 20,000 total species worldwide. Their contributions span far past pollinating around 100 fruit and vegetable crops that we rely upon, and an estimated $100 billion to the global economy each year. Of the $15 billion that bees contribute to the United States economy annually, the alfalfa bee alone contributes an estimated $7 billion. The alfalfa bee! (Cattle rely on alfalfa for feed.) If the future of humanity is to involve nutritious food, then we must consider bees.

Regardless of what caused or ended C.C.D., or why bees are thriving in cities, the discovery of urban beekeeping as a safe haven for bees gives us hope. The post-C.C.D. world still has myriad dangers for bees; they are still dying. The three leading hypotheses for what’s killing bees: 1) Diseases, 2) Chemicals (e.g., fungicides, pesticides, etc.), and 3) Habitat loss. The Typhoid Mary event for bees that opened the flood gates to a series of additive plagues was in 1987, when Varroa mites first came to the United States. In 1998, small hive beetles were added. In 2004, imported Australian honey bees brought with them Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. In 2006, C.C.D. began. In 2013, the fungus Nosema ceranae became omnipresent in all 200 hives that my laboratory sampled. And we haven’t even started on the pesticides, fungicides, and habitat loss yet.navigating bee

Spring brings to light the brighter side of things. My beekeeping team was back out this year, tirelessly checking hives, maneuvering rooftop equipment on skyscrapers, trekking through waist-high snow drifts, looking for signs of life. One team returned to our Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary in Boston’s South End, reporting that 100% of the day’s hives visited were alive. I assume they stayed around Boston or Cambridge that day, and my suspicion was right. The next day, another team of beekeepers returned from the field, their faces long trodden and forlorn, with only 1 out of 15 hives visited that day having survived the winter. I assumed they visited countryside beehives; I was right.

Policy makers are increasing their legislative actions to be more permissive for urban beehives, with beekeeping allowed in Seattle in 2008, New York City in 2010, Boston in 2014. San Francisco totally allows beekeeping unrestricted, while Denver limits to 2 hives in the rear 1/3 of a zone lot. Los Angeles is slated to be the next major metro area to allow beekeeping in residential areas. Even Washington, DC now has its first beehives at the White House grounds, in step with President Obama’s 2014 memorandum, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”

Urban beekeeping took flight in New York City in March of 2010. It was made illegal by the Giuliani administration in the 1990’s, along with a list of dozens of prohibited animals. In the years since its legalization, the island of Manhattan became a pollinator haven. After my recent talk at the March 30, 2015 meeting of the New York City Beekeepers Association, local beekeepers asked if there were too many beehives in the city. Beekeepers in London talk about this, as well. Is there a saturation point, with too many beehives in the City? That’s how common beekeeping is in New York and London. (One way to measure this is based on the Great Sunflower Project, whereby everyday citizens record the number of bees visiting a flower for 10 minutes each day, as a means of gathering data to measure pollinator abundance; this hasn’t yet been done for cities.)

Los Angeles is the only major city in the United States with illegal beekeeping. The pesticide policy came into effect long ago, way before “killer bees” gave the non-aggressive bees a bad rap. Rather, policy makers received bad info, that bees attack fruit – and decided that the best way to preserve our crops was to ban the bees. We now understand pollination. We know that more bees actually lead to more fruits and vegetables. Yet the law of the land remains, and Angelinos must kill beehives upon site. The future for beekeepers in Los Angeles may be bright, however, with City Councilor Katie Peterson and other policy makers working to legalize beekeeping as soon as within the next few months.

Access to urban beekeeping is a social justice issue. It gives everyone access to local, healthy food. What’s more is that is allows for a new avenue of corporate sustainability, with businesses opting to put beehives on their rooftops as a display of their commitment to the environment. For example, simply reusing a towel or having an herb garden on the rooftop is not necessarily enough these days for a hotel to rise to the top of the sustainability ranks. Beekeeping and pollinator protection are the next step for sustainability branding.

Urban beekeeping is happening across the globe, and it’s a good thing. We should change laws to allow more of it to happen and also educate the public so they can also raise bees on their rooftops to allow for a more sustainable future for both humans and bees, alike.

Noah Wilson-Rich, Ph.D. is founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based company. His latest book is THE BEE: A Natural History.

Read the introduction here, and take a peek inside here:

Sunny, Spring Book List

The Bee
Say goodbye to cold, dreary winter and hello to spring. Welcome the season by checking out Princeton University Press’s selection of natural history books. Wondering what bird you hear chirping? Download BirdGenie Backyard Birds East and West and find out. Some choices to get you out of the house and into nature:

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The Bee:
A Natural History

Noah Wilson-Rich
With contributions from Kelly Allin, Norman Carreck & Andrea Quigley
“The natural history of solitary, bumble, honey and stingless bees is as gripping as our lengthy alliance, as urban beekeeper Noah Wilson-Rich and contributors show in this charming compilation. They cover evolution, biology (including a unique proboscis made of two organs), behaviours (such as honey bee ‘quacking’), the causes of catastrophic die-offs, and more.”–Barbara Kiser, Nature

 

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Birds of Australia:
A Photographic Guide

Iain Campbell, Sam Woods & Nick Leseberg
With photography by Geoff Jones
“Written primarily for the visiting birder, reading a copy of this book will fire up anyone’s desire to get out into the field to see more of our fabulous birds.”–Sean Dooley, Australian Bird Life

 

bookjacket Britain’s Butterflies:
A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland

Fully Revised and Updated Third edition
David Newland, Robert Still, Andy Swash & David Tomlinson
“The images in this pocket-sized photo-guide are excellent and include pictures of eggs, chrysalids and caterpillars of all breeding species. Comparing very similar species can be difficult, but computer mock-ups helpful place specimen in situ. Clear text and page design make the book easy and fun to use.”BBC Wildlife magazine

 

bookjacket Britain’s Hoverflies:
A Field Guide

Revised and Updated Second edition
Stuart Ball & Roger Morris
Praise for the previous edition: “The latest field guild from the excellent Wildguides. . . . Beautifully and clearly laid out.”–Charlie Moores, Talking Naturally