Why We Need Bees

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Bees during the honey harvest at a farm in Beit Lahia, Gaza Strip near the border with Israel, Friday, May 4, 2018. (Hatem Moussa/AP)
Bees during the honey harvest at a farm in Beit Lahia, Gaza Strip near the border with Israel, Friday, May 4, 2018. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

With Anthony Brooks

What’s the buzz? We’ll look at the wonders of bees and worries they’re at risk of disappearing.


Thor Hanson, author of "Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees." Conservation biologist and Guggenheim Fellow.

Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the leading nonprofit in the United States dedicated to protecting bees and other insects.

From The Reading List

Excerpt from "Buzz" by Thor Hanson

In symbolism and in daily life, the value of bees to people lies rooted in their biology. The modern bee is a marvel of engineering, with wraparound ultraviolet vision; flexible, interlocking wings; and a pair of hypersensitive antennae capable of sniffing out everything from rose blossoms to bombs to cancer. Bees evolved alongside the flowering plants, and their most remarkable traits all developed in the context of that relationship. Flowers provide bees with the ingredients for honey and wax as well as the impetus for navigation, communication, cooperation, and, in some cases, buzzing itself. In return, bees perform what is their most fundamental and essential service. Yet, oddly, it’s one that people didn’t begin to understand— let alone appreciate—until the seventeenth century.

When German botanist Rudolf Jakob Camerarius first published his observations on pollination in 1694, most scientists found the whole notion of plant sex absurd, obscene, or both. Decades later, Philip Miller’s description of bees visiting tulip flowers was still deemed too racy for his best-selling The Gardeners Dictionary. After numerous complaints, the publisher deleted it completely from the third, fourth, and fifth editions. But the idea of pollination could be tested by anyone with access to a farm, a garden, or even a flowerpot. Eventually, the dance between bees and flowers came to fascinate some of the greatest thinkers in biology, including such luminaries (and beekeepers) as Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. Today, pollination remains a vital field of study, because we know it is more than simply illuminating: it is irreplaceable. In the twenty-first century, sweetness comes to us from refined sugars, wax is a by-product of petroleum, and we get our light with the flick of a switch. But for the propagation of nearly every crop and wild plant not serviced by the wind, our reliance upon bees remains complete. When they falter, the repercussions make headline news.

Recently, the buzz about bees has often hummed louder than the bees themselves. Die-offs in the wild and in domestic hives threaten critical pollen and flower relationships that we’ve long taken for granted. But the story of bees is much more than a tale of plight or crisis. It leads us from the age of dinosaurs through an explosion of biodiversity that Darwin called an “abominable mystery.” Bees helped shape the natural world where our own species evolved, and their story often comingles with our own. The subtitle of this book guides its content: it’s an exploration of how the very nature of bees makes them so utterly necessary. To understand them, and ultimately to help them, we should appreciate not only where bees came from and how they work, but also why they’ve become one of the only insects to inspire more fondness than fear. The story of bees begins with biology, but it also tells us about ourselves. It explains why we’ve kept them close for so long, why advertisers turn to them to hawk everything from beer to breakfast cereal, and why our finest poets prefer their flowers “bee-studded,” their lips “bee-stung,” and their glades “bee-loud.” People study bees to better understand everything from collective decision-making to addiction, architecture, and efficient public transportation. As social animals recently adapted to living in large groups, we have a lot to learn from a group of creatures who, in part at least, have been doing it successfully for millions of years.

In the past, people around the world heard the buzzing of bees as voices of the departed, a murmured conveyance from the spirit world. This belief traces back to the cultures of Egypt and Greece, among others, where tradition held that a person’s soul appeared in bee form when it left the body, briefly visible (and audible) in its journey to the hereafter. While modern listeners perceive that living vibrato more prosaically, it remains a potent force, amplified by the unconscious urgency of a long and intimate bond. But the buzz about bees does not begin with pesticides, habitat loss, and the other challenges we’ve thrust upon them. It starts with their ascendance, an ancient lesson in hunger and innovation. Nobody knows the exact sequence of events that led to the beginning of bees, but everyone can agree on at least one thing: we know what it sounded like.

Excerpted from BUZZ: THE NATURE AND NECESSITY OF BEES by Thor Hanson. Copyright © 2018 by Thor Hanson. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

NPR: "'Buzz' Offers An Adoration For Bees Amid Continued Die-Offs" — "Ecological statistics pertaining to bees carry a sting: More than 75 percent of the world's 115 primary crops require pollination or thrive better through interaction with pollinators. Bees are the primary pollinators in the animal kingdom, yet sudden and massive die-offs of these insects began in 2006 and continue now, with a 30 percent annual loss reported by North American beekeepers. These statistics — and the severity of this enormous reduction in bee numbers — is at the heart of 'Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees' authored by conservation biologist Thor Hanson."

The biologist Thor Hanson is in love with bees, and he wants you to love them, too. He can tell you all about the much-discussed colony collapse disorder and the existential threat to bees. But he can also give you hope that we can save them. And wow you with facts about the world’s leading pollinators: There are more than 20,000 species of bees. They've been here since the dinosaurs. And they're as ubiquitous and essential as oxygen.

This hour, On Point: the buzz about bees.

— Anthony Brooks

This program aired on August 1, 2018.


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