Give Bees a Chance

Wall St. Journal,  July 12, 2018

In late 2006, the nation’s honeybees began to vanish. Beekeepers visited hives that had, days before, been teeming with bees and found them abandoned. The abruptness and mysteriousness of this strange new malady—which scientists came to call Colony Collapse Disorder—captured imaginations and made front-page news all over the world.

At around the same time, another, less-heralded bee mystery was unfolding. In 2006 a UC Davis entomologist named Robbin Thorp spotted a lone, yellow-topped Franklin’s bumblebee in a meadow in Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains. When he had first begun surveying sites in 1998, this type of bee was relatively plentiful. But it soon became more difficult to find and then impossible: The bee that Mr. Thorp encountered in 2006 was the last Franklin’s bumblebee anyone has seen. Along with three closely related species, the bee had suffered a population nose dive, and no one knew exactly why.

According to a recent global assessment of pollinator populations, 40% of the estimated 20,000 bee species world-wide are considered to be in decline or threatened with extinction. But few people are aware that so many bee species are in free fall, and even fewer seem to care.

Two new books attempt to remedy that inattention: “Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees” by Thor Hanson and “Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them” by Paige Embry. Both books guide us through the world of overlooked and obscure bee species that fill the air around us: bumblebees, masons, alkali, leaf cutters, diggers, miners and many more.

Mr. Hanson, a conservation biologist and the author of three other natural-science books, starts at the beginning, examining ancient fossils preserved in “translucent tombs” of amber to explore the origins of bees as carnivorous wasps that coevolved with flowering plants into nectar-and-pollen-collecting vegetarians. It was, Mr. Hanson notes, an “unsentimental” transaction from which both bee and flower profited enormously.

He examines social bees, such as honeybees and bumbles, and solitary ones, like the alkali bee he encounters in the Arizona desert: With its distinctive opalescent exoskeleton, it resembles a “flying pearl,” he writes, “as if the bee were made from light itself.” Mr. Hanson dives into the history of humans and bees, including the provocative theory that African hominins evolved into modern humans by consuming brain-enhancing honey calories from raided beehives.

Mr. Hanson examines our contemporary relationship with bees as well, visiting farmers who depend on bees for pollination. Beekeepers move thousands of colonies from crop to blooming crop throughout the year, helping pollinate one out of every three bites we eat, including the good stuff, like berries, cherries, melons, peaches, lettuce and almonds. Armed with tweezers and a hand lens, he performs a Michael Pollan-esque deconstruction of a McDonald’s Big Mac, removing the ingredients that require pollination. “Certainly,” he writes, “the advertising slogan wouldn’t have been nearly as catchy: ‘Two all-beef patties, bun.’ ”

In “Our Native Bees,” Paige Embry, a gardener and first-time author, also takes us on a first-person voyage through the world of bees. She visits many of the same places that Mr. Hanson does and interviews some of the same quirky, bee-obsessed scientists. Like Mr. Hanson, she struggles to raise her own native bees at home; like him, she becomes captivated by an obscure species she encounters in the Arizona desert; she, too, travels to southern Oregon to search in vain for the Franklin’s bumblebee.

Ms. Embry’s learning curve, however, is steeper than Mr. Hanson’s. Her journey begins after she discovers that tomatoes—“a fixture in my life”—require “buzz pollination,” in which bumblebees vibrate their muscles at a frequency that dislodges trapped pollen. Honeybees, she learns, can’t do it. Instead, tomato growers import commercially raised bumblebees; scientists now believe that those domesticated imports carried a new pathogen to which the Franklin’s bumblebee was particularly susceptible. She also learns about the vast diversity of native bees around her—“I discovered,” she writes, “that assuming, as most people do, that ‘bee’ equals ‘stinging honey bee’ was even more ludicrous than assuming ‘dog’ equals ‘itty bitty Chihuahua.’ ”

Ms. Embry’s writing can at times be circular and OMG-colloquial (“Yep,” she writes, “we’re talking bee penises”), but she nonetheless uncovers interesting information along the way. Most shocking, perhaps, is how little we know about native bees. Bee surveys are expensive and time-consuming; we have few base lines against which to compare populations past and present. We don’t know the nesting, feeding and habitat needs of an “unimaginable number” of bee species. Some haven’t even been identified. While honeybee losses are watched closely from year to year, we often learn about struggling native bees only when, as in the case of the Franklin’s bumblebee, it is too late.

The lost bees of the Maoxian Valley, however, may have done farmers there a favor, forcing them to plant a more diverse mix of crops, which should sustain healthier populations of pollinators in the future. Mr. Hanson sees hope in that paradox: “While the Maoxian story is often held up as a warning about bee declines,” he writes, “it may ultimately become a symbol of bee resilience, a reminder that solutions are within our grasp.”

The sting of the lost honeybees in the U.S., too, has reaped some sweet rewards. “All that attention helped trigger what can only be described as the largest surge of bee research in history,” Mr. Hanson writes. Thanks to that research, we know far more about bee health. Scientists now attribute bee losses to what they call the “four Ps”: parasites, poor nutrition, pesticides and pathogens. Loss of nesting habitat, invasive species and climate change also play a role. Understanding the causes of the declines can help us find a way to reverse them. Bees reproduce quickly; bees are resilient. “We know enough to act,” Mr. Hanson writes.

Among Mr. Hanson’s and Ms. Embry’s suggestions: less long-distance transport of bees and the pathogens they carry; fewer pesticides; more, and more varied types of, flowers. “Be a little slovenly in the garden; leave some old broken stems and let a little bare dirt show. The bees will come,” Ms. Embry writes. Let’s hope, for our sake, that they do.