In praise of the pollinators: why bees are even more important than you think

The public is obsessed with the domestic bee, but most people don’t know how many different kinds of bee – with diverse and extraordinary capabilities –  there are.

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There is a key moment in this entertaining, well-informed book when its American author, walking a trail on his country’s Pacific north-west coast, suddenly begins to notice an abundance of bees at his feet. Gradually it dawns on him where they are going and he follows them to a sand bank by the seashore.

Only after I stood right at the cliff’s base could I see, hear, and feel the overpowering thrum of all those concentrated lives. If the path above had streamed with bees then here they raged in a torrent, often crashing full speed against me in their haste to reach their nest holes.

By a careful assessment of the tiny burrows that these bees have excavated into the sand wall, Hanson arrives at a figure of 400,000 adult insects in the one population. By scrutiny of their physical characteristics he works out that the teeming swarms are a part of the family with which we are less familiar, one that comprises solitary-nesting digger bees, mining bees, leafcutter bees and sweat bees. The moment is significant because it shows how we so often overlook the incredible diversity that lies at our feet, and also behind that four-letter word: bees. Hanson gives an estimate of 20,000 species of bee worldwide.

In the contemporary clamour over the loss of major pollinators, many people assume the word refers only to a single insect – the domesticated species Apis mellifera. As one of Hanson’s informants observes, the public’s bee monomania “is like asking an ornithologist a question about chickens”.

The real joy of the book is Hanson’s celebration of the range of lifestyles and extraordinary capabilities that bees possess, other than honey production. One detail that left me flabbergasted is the ability of one Himalayan bumblebee to fly at heights greater than that of Mount Everest. Equally remarkable is the bee’s ancientness. Proto-bees first appeared on Earth when dinosaurs were still kings of the Cretaceous. The early vegetarian insects then performed a 125 million-year evolutionary dance with vascular plants, trading pollination services for nutrient-rich nectar or pollen. Before bees were so busy, the Earth’s vegetation largely comprised wind-pollinated conifers, cycads and seed ferns.

Hanson makes clear that bees have been pivotal in creating the colour-filled world of flowers that we take for granted. And should we ever wish to see how anaemic a bee-less world would look, then we can go to the Juan Fernández Islands off Chile, where the only buzz comes from a tiny rare sweat bee. As a consequence, the plants have had to develop other means of reproduction and the island flora is intensely monotonous.

The author points out that bees helped even to make our lives sweet-scented: the kinds of chemical signals that attract bees to plants are the same sorts of perfume which please the human nose.

The book goes on to explore the interior lives of the insects. Their compound eyes, for example, have 6,000 facets, each passing information to the brain. They see light in the ultra-violet spectrum, so many flowers possess bull’s-eye patterns invisible to us but which guide the pollinators to the plants’ all-important reproductive parts. And their antennae possess seven distinct sensory structures each attuned to different environmental cues, which can influence the bee’s body position in flight, pick up faint electrostatic changes in the flowers or respond to the Earth’s magnetic field.

Hanson is also determined to incorporate a harder message about the fundamental importance of bees to all life. Perhaps the most graphic expression of this is a list of 150 crops that are either dependent or substantially benefit from bee pollination. They include cotton, coffee, raspberries, onions, garlic, pepper, tomatoes, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, beans, apricots and mustard. Hanson quotes an old saying that suggests every third mouthful of our food depends upon bees. That claim has now been pretty much corroborated by scientists who estimate that 35 per cent of global food production involves plants dependent upon pollinators.

The author’s point is plain: we need to adopt an approach to insects and to their central role in the maintenance of all life other than an annual worldwide pesticide bill of $60bn. And we need this revolution in ecological thinking soon, because bee communities in the US are now showing traces of 118 different toxic chemicals. 

Mark Cocker’s most recent book is “Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late?” (Jonathan Cape)

Buzz: the Nature and Necessity of Bees
Thor Hanson
Icon Books, 304pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact