Book Review 406: Our Native Bees

OUR NATIVE BEES: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them, by Paige Embry. 224 pages, illustrated. Timber, $25.95

I like to watch the bumblebees lolling in the giant blossoms of the night-blooming cereus that decorates my mailbox. They wallow on the stamens and pistils as if in an opium dream.

This is not normal for native bees, who have Stakhanovite work habits: 400 blue orchard bees can pollinate almonds as effectively as 10,000 honeybees.

I had not realized — nor had author Paige Embry before she started on “Our Native Bees” — that honeybees (imported from Europe) cannot pollinate tomatoes. Those North American plants require native “buzz” pollinators.

In this chatty little book — too chatty for my taste — we enjoy a brief sampling of a few of the 4,000 species of native bees.

Most of what you think you know about bees in general will have to be thrown out.

For example, for most species there are no overwintering queens, nor any worker attendants. For most bees most of the time, there are no adults.

Th adults work furiously for a few weeks (sometimes only as long as a certain species of plant is flowering), then they die, worn out, leaving eggs hidden on beds of nutritious pollen, in stems, holes in the ground or other secluded places.

Most native bees are solitary, but different species vary through degrees of sociality up to almost (but not quite) the megalopolises built by honeybees.

Honeybees turn out not to be such efficient pollinators but they serve humans by making large quantities of honey and wax, by being tractable and by being easily transportable.

Forcing native bees to do farmers’ jobs is difficult. The bees are willing enough but their working conditions are not easily modified.

Nevertheless, with the killer diseases and parasites attacking honeybees, as well as problems with pesticides, native bees are beginning to get more respect.

Home owners will learn from “Our Native Bees” strategies to make your yard (or golf course) safer for the natives.

As a bonus, you will spend less time mowing the grass.

One reason “Our Native Bees” is short is that not a lot is known about native bees. It is suspected the not nearly all have even been identified, much less studied for their lifestyles.

But there are lots of color pictures.

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