Unofficial Bookclub No 7

Bees of the World: A Guide to Every Family, Laurence Packer, Princeton University Press, 240pp, £25.

The extraordinary face of one of the Ctenocolletes, a large Australian bee but member of the world’s smallest bee family

Bees of the World is a beautiful, fascinating and truly welcome book, partly because it so graphically dispels a myth promoted in some greenwash media. You will have read this sort of nonsense: ‘we’re planting [often non-native] flowers to save ‘the bees‘. What they mean is one bee. The only bee as far as they’re concerned. The insect bringing us honey and domesticated almost globally. The western honey bee Apis mellifera.

Don’t get me wrong. I love that bee too. I love honey also. But its super-abundance and our fixation with this one species are a problem. As George Monbiot put it in his book Regenesis: ‘a land of milk and honey is a land of ecological destruction.’

In truth there are at least 20,000 bee species worldwide. There are 275 in Britain alone. As Laurence Packer illustrates, with some truly stunning macro-photography, bees are extraordinarily diverse in colour, size, appearance, lifestyle, behaviour and range. The author offers a succinct survey of all this global complexity, maps out the 100 different genera, gives a precis of their lifestyles and then salts the book with some really great anecdotes. There are bees as big as the last two sections of my index finger. There are bees no longer than the hairs near my knuckle (less than 2mm!).

I’m a sucker for bees with magically multi-coloured eyes, like this Coelioxys bee otherwise known as the sharp-tail bees

Not all bees, contrary to popular myth, are card-carrying members of the workers’ party. They can be solitary and uncooperative. There are also a good number of them that cheat and steal. There are bees who commit regi[na]cide, and then steal the productive labour of the old queen’s family. But let’s not anthropomorphise bees.

Let’s see them in all their glorious, mind-expanding complexity and end with a tale involving the joy of the bees and, perhaps, also the madness of those who love them. There is a group of tiny bees called Lisotrigona that live in south Asia. Their sister genus Trigona includes a number that feed on carrion and detritus (they’re even called ‘vulture bees’). But Lisotrigona obtain proteins and the antibacterial enzymes they need eating the tears of vertebrates, incuding birds of prey. To study this behaviour, entomologist Hans Baziger dotted the minute bodies of the stingless bees with white paint. Then he photographed them feeding on his own tears. He worked out that some of the individual insects revisited his eyes 144 times in a single day. Rather make your eyes water doesn’t it.

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