If you've watched the news at all in the past couple of years, you undoubtedly will have heard that bee populations have been dying out for reasons unknown. I was told by a local bee keeper this spring that our area actually suffered a 100% loss among domesticated hives this year, and it wasn't a particularly harsh winter (at least not compared to last year). Statistics like that are enough to put a scare into anyone, especially when people like to quote Einstein as having said that humans would die out within four years if honey bees were to disappear.
Not long after hearing about our local situation, I started noticing an abundance of bees on the wild huckleberry bushes during my regular walks, and our rock cress was positively buzzing with these orange-bottomed beauties.
How could these guys be so prolific when the domesticated bees were faring so poorly?
I like to do what I can to help out my bee friends, but I'm certainly not an expert on the subject, so when I was asked to review a couple of new books about bees, I was keen to do so, hoping that it would give me a better understanding of these amazing insects.
The first one that I read is called Keeping the Bees, written by Laurence Packer, a Toronto based mettilologist (bee biologist).
Packer's tone is humorous and familiar, and reading his book is a little like spending an afternoon "talking bees" with a knowledgeable old friend. Some of the information is so interesting that I found myself reading excerpts aloud to my son, such as how cuckoo bees gain access to the "fortresses" of other bees, which, as Packer puts it, "reads like a lesson in ancient military strategy". How could an 11 year old obsessed with battle games not love that? The part about how the larvae of the Francisco oil beetle (about 700 of them) clump together to trick a habropoda bee into thinking it's a female bee (and thereby hitch a ride with him back to the nest where they eat the pollen stores and habropoda children) still gives me the heebee jeebies.
Packer also talks about the fact that honey bees aren't necessarily the best pollinators, but are being relied upon in conventional agriculture because there aren't usually enough wild bees on large industrial farms to effectively pollinate the plants, either because they are too far from significant wild bee habitats, or due to a lack of diversity among crops (resulting in fewer visits from the choosier bumble bees). This practice is spreading disease and ultimately compounding the problems faced by honey bees.
The other great thing about this book is Packer's ability to take a subject matter with the potential to be extremely dry and complicated, and make it accessible and entertaining even to those of us without a background in zoology. This book is a must read for those who would like to know more about wild bees and what we can do to keep them around.
The second book is called the Collins Beekeeper's Bible: Bees, Honey, Recipes & Other Home Uses.
This book focuses largely on the keeping of honey bees, and is absolutely packed with information for anyone interested in setting up their own backyard hive(s). The thing I love most about this book is the abundance of color photographs and gorgeous illustrations. I'm a very visual person, so I found the images (which range from lovely styled photographs and line drawings, to historical prints and etchings) to add to and compliment the practical information perfectly.
This great tome of a book (well over 400 pages) covers the history of bees and beekeeping, includes clear instructions on setting up and maintaining a hive, as well as harvesting honey and other bee products, and has extensive lists of beneficial plants and bee friendly flowers. It also provides dozens of delicious sounding recipes, homemade beauty and cleaning products, as well as the medicinal uses for honey, and crafts using beeswax. You can rest assured that you'll be seeing some of these foods/projects in upcoming posts.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading both Keeping the Bees and The Collins Beekeeper's Bible, and feel I have a greater understanding of bees as a result. I'm sure that I will refer back to both books many times as I continue to set up my garden (and hopefully one day, bee hives). I would definitely recommend them to anyone looking to learn more about bees, wild or domesticated, and think that together they form the basis of a complete and comprehensive bee library.