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We've heard a lot about the decline of managed honey bees lately, but not so much about honey bees living in the wild. That is until now. Dr. Thomas D. Seeley, Horace White professor of Biology at Cornell University and a leader in the field of honey bee biology, has written a new book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. This slim volume focuses on techniques for locating unmanaged honey bee colonies nesting in natural settings or even in urban areas.

Honey bee hunting is an ancient craft, used by people centuries ago to find honey bees to rob of their honey. Now it can be an entertaining and engaging hobby that requires little more than patience and a willingness to learn more about nature.

As Seeley explains in detail, finding a colony of wild honey bees involves capturing foraging bees using a specially-designed box and feeding the trapped honey bees scented sugar solution. Once released, the honey bees return to their nest and recruit more foragers. The bee hunter marks the returning bees and then follows to see where they are going.

Although beautifully written and engaging, I do have qualms about some of the contents of the book. First of all, the bees are fed in an old piece of honeycomb. The idea is that the comb entices the the honey bees to return to the food. This is a good technique in the hands of a careful scientist who realizes the need to use clean, healthy comb. I am concerned, however, that those who aren't as careful or knowledgeable may expose wild bees to diseases and parasites by using contaminated honeycomb from sick bee colonies.

The second concern I had was that not everyone reading the book will be as respectful of nature as Thomas Seeley. I learned the hard way that people wanting to know how to build leafcutter bee nests don't always have positive motives. I heard from gardeners who wanted to build the nests not to help the leafcutter bees, but to trap and destroy them. Honey bee hunting may result in similar harm if wild honey bee nests are destroyed for the honey or to capture healthy bees for managed hives. If you read the book, I would like the hear your thoughts about this.

On completely different note, if you are wondering whether to purchase an electronic version or the paper version, I have to say that the acid-free paper used to make this book is exceptional. I don't usually wax poetic about paper quality, but when I opened this book, I spent several minutes running my fingers over the pages. Enough said.

Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting is a must for anyone who wants to study wild honey bees. It will likely to appeal to beekeepers and scientists alike. Ideally it will be used to introduce some lucky youngsters to ways of observing our natural world, as well.

Related:

Visit Princeton University Press for a chapter to preview

ScienceFriday has a combined interview with Bernd Heinrich and Tom Seeley talking about their newest books (with short videos of using the bee box and marking bees)

Hardcover: 184 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (May 3, 2016)
ISBN-10: 0691170266
ISBN-13: 978-0691170268

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Disclosures:  This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Just in time for the summer firefly season comes a new popular science book, Silent Sparks:  The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis.

Most of us probably remember the wonder we experienced the first time we saw a firefly light up a summer night. Sara Lewis has captured that amazement in a bottle and poured it out onto the page.

Lewis's passion about her topic shines through from the first paragraph. Written for the lay reader and scientist alike, she summarizes what we know about fireflies from scientific research, but uses easy-to-understand language and defines all the terms, even including a glossary in the back matter. For example, she explains glow-worm fireflies are not worms or larvae at all, but are "plump and wingless females" that glow to attract males.

Most readers probably know fireflies are really beetles. Did you also know not all members of the firefly family (Lampyridae) light up? Lewis calls lampyrids that fly during the day and don't light up "dark fireflies." Without the ability to flash, dark fireflies attract mates via pheromones.

Other topics covered in the book include how fireflies produce the glowing light and how it has been exploited in tests for the presence of ATP. She explains what larval fireflies look like and discusses why those that glow do so for a different reason than the adults. She writes extensively about firefly reproduction, the topic of her own research. Lewis also includes practical firefly wrangling advice, ranging from how to get a firefly to sit still (give it a bit of apple) to how to encourage fireflies in your neighborhood (tone down the outdoor lighting). In the back is a key and a field guide to North American genera of fireflies.

Silent Sparks is an enlightening book about these fascinating insects. Reading it just might inspire you to go outside and spend a summer night contemplating the wonder of fireflies.

Related:

Firefly Watch Citizen Science

Want a glimpse into the flavor of the book? Check out the author's TED Talk, Sara Lewis: The loves and lies of fireflies

Princeton University Press also has a chapter to download and read.

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 26, 2016)
ISBN-10: 0691162689
ISBN-13: 978-0691162683

 

Illinois, USA.
(Public domain photograph of Photinus sp. firefly by Alex Wild)

Disclosures:  This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

How very far we have come in the last 100 years or so. If you haven't thought about that fact lately, compare Anatomy of the Honey Bee by R.E. Snodgrass (1910) (or Cornell University Press, 1985), - parts of which are available at Extension.org - with the ultra-modern Bee by Rose-Lynn Fisher, with a foreword by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2010, Princeton Architectural Press).

Featuring an outstanding series of scanning electron microscope photos, Bee is a visual treat. As you can see from Fisher's examples on her website, this is a mite's view of a honey bee where eye hairs look like forests and pollen grains resemble boulders. It is a world Snodgrass could only dream of glimpsing.

The text that accompanies the photographs is sparse, but to the point, which is direct contrast to the text-heavy Anatomy of the Honey Bee.

Anatomy of the Honey Bee, however, still remains relevant. It covers far more than just external structures, including development and internal anatomy. Carefully labelled cut-away and exploded views make identification of individual structures much easier.

In fact, these two books complement each other nicely. A serious student of honey bees will want to look at them both ways.

Bees_Collecting_Pollen_2004-08-14
Bees Collecting Pollen 2004-08-14" by Jon Sullivan - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Doesn't comparing these two books make you wonder what the next 100 years will bring?

Whenever a book features honey bees like The Bees: A Novel by Laline Paull, it is likely to catch the interest of apidologists and others who find bees fascinating. Although this book falls definitively in the realm of fiction, that does not mean it has nothing to say about honey bees or, for that matter, our human perception of them. For this particular novel, however, separating the fact from the fiction is where things get sticky.

Told from a third person limited point of view, Flora 717 is a member of the sanitation caste of her honey bee hive. We soon learn that she is no ordinary sanitation worker when she is allowed to feed the new larvae in the Nursery. There, in a bit of foreshadowing, it is revealed that only the Queen may breed and Flora 717 is introduced to the gruesome fertility police.  What else will this special worker bee do?

The book contains facts, such as honey bee workers produce wax from glands on their abdomen or that drones are kicked out of the hive in the fall, mixed with highly imaginative elements. Sometimes the creative aspects of the story are easy to discern, for example there is a Greek chorus of spiders that exchange glimpses of the future for honey bee sacrifices. Other parts, like Flora 717's changing tasks through time, will be more difficult to decipher. Anyone familiar with honey bees will understand that they exhibit age or temporal polyethism, which means that the tasks they perform are generally determined by their age. The youngest honey bee workers are likely to clean cells, and then tend brood. Once the workers are a bit older they maintain the nest, as needed. Finally the workers process food, and the very oldest honey bees go outside the nest and forage for nectar and pollen. Thus, ironically, Flora 717 is not an unusual bee as she is described in the novel, but actually is the only bee in the hive that is exhibiting more or less normal honey bee behavior. Trying to avoid spoilers, it should also be noted that an event in the end will seem (to those that understand haplodiploidy) rather like those children's cartoons that show male cows with udders.

The New York Times Review reveals some of the foibles of reading a work of fiction that is built on a foundation of reality. Emma Straub, the reviewer, suggests high school environmental science and biology teachers add the book to their syllabuses. In all due respect, I think they'd be better off with more authoritative text. How about Sue Hubbell's A Book of Bees, or something similar and newer?

Many of the reviewers (who understand the novel is fiction) try to tie The Bees to other classic novels, such as  Watership Down, The Handmaid’s Tale, or even The Hunger Games. It is as if the readers need to put a tag on the novel to understand it more fully. In my view, The Bees is actually as individualistic as its main character Flora 717. If it needs a tag, then I would say "magical realism" might be the best choice.

If you read The Bees, keeping in mind that it is novel and suspending a bit of disbelief, then you are likely to find it entertaining and maybe even thought provoking. What more can a reader ask of a novel?

Have you read it? What do you think?

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A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell

Disclosures:  This book review was based on a personal copy of the book. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.