Why humans, and Big Macs, depend on bees

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees
Thor Hanson
Basic Books, $27

When you hear the word bee, the image that pops to mind is probably a honeybee. Maybe a bumblebee. But for conservation biologist Thor Hanson, author of the new book Buzz, the world is abuzz with thousands of kinds of bees, each as beautiful and intriguing as the flowers on which they land.

Speaking from his “raccoon shack” on San Juan Island in Washington — a backyard shed converted to an office and bee-watching space, and named for its previous inhabitants — Hanson shares what hes learned about how bees helped drive human evolution, the amazing birds that lead people to honey, and what a Big Mac would look like without bees. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SN: This bee book is unusual — it isnt mainly about honeybees. Why did you write about lesser-known bees?

Hanson: I made a deliberate decision because I thought the celebrity bees, the honeybees, would steal the show. It was high time to turn a stage light onto these 20,000 other species of bees, which have habits that are less familiar but just as fascinating. For example, most people think of hives when they think of bees, but actually most bees are solitary.

SN: You write that this book is an “exploration of how the very nature of bees makes them so utterly necessary.” So lets cut to the chase: Why are bees necessary?

Hanson: First is the deep connection between bees and flowering plants. Theyve had a partnership from an early stage; each spurs the other in terms of diversity. Its an incredible role that bees have played in shaping the natural world. Theyre also important to our lifestyle, first for their role in the human diet. Its often said that one of every three bites of food depends on bees.

But there are all these other connections that we dont think about: Bees have provided light from beeswax candles and sweetness from honey. Early industrial uses of wax included making bronze sculptures with wax molds, batiks in Indonesia and wax tablets to write on.

You can trace our relationship with bees back not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of years. The role of honey in the human diet goes back into prehistory. That source of sugar may have even helped fuel the expansion of our brain size. It may have helped us become who we are.

SN: One of the most astonishing examples of our relationship with bees has to do with a bird called the honeyguide. Tell me about that.

Hanson: Hunter-gatherers in Africa follow this bird to bees nests, and have for generations (SN: 8/20/16, p. 10). The honeyguide is very good at locating a hive. But on its own, it cant access the nest. So once it locates one, the next thing it does is look for people. It hops around on branches and makes a piercing cry to get attention, then leads a person to the honey. People climb the tree or dig out the nest, and honeyguides feed on the remains.

Whats funny is how long it took biologists to figure out this relationship. The original explanation was that the honeyguide coevolved with the honey badger, which also raids nests for honey. Then a biologist pointed out that badgers are nocturnal, and the birds arent. Also, no one has ever seen a honeyguide leading a badger. It makes more sense that the relationship evolved on the savannah with people out looking for honey every day.

SN: One of the books most hilariously geeky moments is when you go to McDonalds and pick apart a Big Mac. Why did you do that?

Hanson: I wanted to look for the significance of bees in an unexpected place. And you dont think of bees when you go into McDonalds — you just dont! I didnt care how much people stared. I sat there with my tweezers, pulling all the seeds off the bun. I ended up with one pile you could have without bees [meat and bun] and one you couldnt [including not only the veggies, but also the cheese and special sauce]. We could still eat, but it would be pretty dull.

SN: Youre worried about bees. Why?

Hanson: Its the four ps: pesticides, pathogens, parasites and poor nutrition. Poor nutrition is one that people dont think of. We ship honeybees all over the place, and they get force-fed almond blossoms for three weeks, then theyre packed onto trucks and shipped off to pollinate apples. Its not a healthy lifestyle, and not a varied diet.

SN: You say that bees are one of the few insects that inspire fondness instead of fear. Why do you think that is?

Hanson: Bees have been with us from the beginning. Our primordial sweet tooth led us to follow these creatures, then we domesticated bees very early on, setting out hives and reusing good sites in baobab trees. I think we have a very deep connection to these creatures.

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