If a teacher could own only one book about bees for a classroom or personal library, this volume would be an excellent selection. It definitely is a “go to” source for comprehensive information on these fascinating insects. There are about 20,000 species of bee, and arguably they are the most important insects on the planet, because they cross-pollinate 90% of the world’s plants.
Ancient carnivorous wasps evolved into bees that thrive on plant nectar. Many of these insects have become highly specialized, with long tongues, hairy bodies, combs, and pollen baskets to facilitate their nutrition as well as their jobs as pollinators. Bees are somewhat unique in that males “have no fathers, but do have maternal grandfathers.” Their anatomy, immunology, life cycle, and genetics are among the many topics discussed in detail in this book.
The book’s hero is the honeybee, the species most important to humans. Detailed descriptions of their dances disclose how vibrations, sounds, and scents are incorporated into movements that allow bees to communicate the “directions, distance and food quality” of a potential food supply. There is even a two-way communication in which a bee colony member head-butts the dancing bee, passing on the message to avoid a particular location “because a danger has been spotted there.” Bees release an alarm pheromone when they sting. Smelling like bananas, this chemical attracts other bees to help in an attack. The authors point out that this is the reason that “a beekeeper should never eat bananas for breakfast!”
Throughout The Bee are wonderful gems that will pique reader interest. For example, some bees exhibit sleep patterns, and it is suggested, from the observation that their antennae sometimes wiggle, that they may be dreaming or perhaps picking up danger signals. Worker bees’ jobs depend on their age. While young, they are active in hive jobs such as tending the brood and the queen, building combs, and cleaning and guarding the hive. Older bees actually leave the hive to collect pollen, nectar, and water. Bees also have a unique way of fighting infections in the hive. Known as “behavioral fever,” the process involves the colony’s bees raising their temperature as a group and wiping out fungal infections that could contaminate larvae. Fascinating information, as in these examples, will inspire readers to keep reading.
Bees have been important to humans for centuries. Hippocrates and Aristotle acknowledged the benefits of bees, and books about bees were printed as early as the 1600s. Aside from pollination and honey production, bees are useful in many other ways. For example, they are used in research on age-related conditions. By studying relationships between aging, memory, and behavior in bees, scientists are learning things that may help us understand Alzheimer’s disease. Research is being done with mellitin, a component of bee venom, which can “destroy HIV-infected cells without killing non-HIV cells.” The U.S. Government has even funded research on the use of bees to track land mines. Bees are also used for studies in epidemiology, communication, genetics, sociology, and other fields.
In addition to extensive information on the evolution, anatomy, and behavior of bees, this lavishly illustrated book also describes their relationship to humans in the areas of beekeeping and the challenges that bees face in the modern environment. Each chapter is like a full plate of food, divided into different topics that can be tasted and consumed in small bites. The bites consist of two-page spreads that include informative sidebars with interesting supplementary information, clearly labeled diagrams amplifying text material, and striking photography.
A valuable feature is the directory highlighting 40 species of bees. Each bee is showcased on a full page with a large colorful illustration of the bee, a silhouette showing its actual size, a brief description, a detailed discussion of its behavior and life cycle, a list of food sources, and its habitat and status.
The information is thorough and detailed enough for college entomology courses and would be appropriate for supplemental use in high school classes. Some of the less technical portions would appeal to middle school students with an interest in bees. The book includes a wide-ranging bibliography, a list of websites, a comprehensive index, and author biographies.