Book Review: Bee Time
by Mark L. Winston
Harvard University Press, 2014
The job description of Mark Winston, author of the cheery new book Bee Time, runs like this: “Academic Director of the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University and Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences” – a mouthful of a designation, which is slightly ironic considering the one-thing-at-a-time nature of his busy little subjects. Winston fills his book with parallels between the world of bees and the world of humans, almost to the point of making this a sociological parable instead of a natural history, but one point he returns to over and over is that bees don’t multitask – if one of them were Academic Director of the Centre for Dialogue, he certainly wouldn’t also be a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.
But Bee Time works wonderfully as a hybrid of its two natures. Winston wants to acquaint his readers with the fascinating complexity of the bee world, and he also wants to alert readers to the fact that the bee world is drastically endangered. He brings to this hybrid task a very smooth ability to simplify the complex bee-literature he’s obviously mastered, providing engaging glimpses into the world of the hive – and usually presenting them in parallel context of the human world:
We share with bees another facet of governance, the tragedy of chaos when events upend the peaceful order of a well-functioning society. Human history is more replete with war and violence, considerably more so than the honeybee world, but even the placid world of the honeybee colony can descend into conflict if the queen dies suddenly. The workers sense her loss within minutes due to diminished queen odors in the hive and begin rearing a new queen within hours. Occasionally they fail, and the beekeeper’s phrase for that situation says it all: the colony becomes hopelessly queenless.
Naturally, at the center of his book is the marvel of bee communication, a marvel that’s been unfolding in complexity steadily as research has progressed on it. Bees typically have hugely complicated methods of communicating with each other – methods that are both inventive and adaptive, not the product of blind instinct but indisputably a language, indeed a series of languages. Winston describes it all with the gusto of a clear enthusiast:
All this stroking, licking, and buzzing entails the use of language, either a vibration-based dialect that influences foraging or the chemical language of pheromones, which mediates the workers’ awareness of their queen and stimulates or inhibits various worker behaviors. These interactions are how bees converse, a relentless current of news that is the cornerstone of the apparent orderliness in the hive.
The sociological parables with which Winston fills so much of his book tend toward an important and very sad point: the fact that many species of bees all over the world are dying off at alarming rates due to a combination of human environmental deprivation and human pesticides. As Winston rightly reminds his readers, “any significant drop in bee populations will have repercussions that go far beyond the loss of bees. A world without bees would be almost impossible to contemplate and likely one in which we would never have evolved in the first place.”
Considering the enormous ripple-effects that would happen in the wake of the disappearance of these key pollinators, Winston’s wake-up call takes on an urgency that’s belied by its friendly, approachable tone. That clarion call makes Bee Time an important book, even if you by chance suffer from a touch of apiphobia.