Book Review: Bumble Bees of North America
by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson & Sheila Colla
Princeton University Press, 2014
When the garrulous and utterly charming Dutch-born Englishman Bernard Mandeville published in 1705 the long work that would come to be known as The Fable of the Bees, he spawned not only an enormous bestseller but also something of a scandal. His critics – both in his own time and down through the centuries – have bridled at his insinuations that without aggressive greed and ambition all flourishing cooperative societies would fall apart (when his bees suddenly stop buzzing for gain, their hive promptly disintegrates), but underneath such philosophical objections there’s always been a hint of vanity – that it’s an affront to compare Enlightenment mankind with a swarm of mindless insects.
Almost at the exact same time Mandeville’s enormously entertaining work was making the rounds of London coffee houses, a similarly disquieting insight was being achieved in a flower-carpeted meadow outside of Sudbury, in what was then the English colony of Massachusetts Bay. On a beautiful spring day, a famous man laid down to rest in this field, seeking the solace of nature after some bruising encounters with the venal ways of humanity. But as he watched the fat bumble bees floating among the flowers, he had a startling revelation: “They took no notice of me, nor of each other, and there was no peace among them,” he later wrote to a friend. “Each went about his tasks as though every new blossom held some vast emolument, and this greed was never satisfied in the whole afternoon I watched.”
The always-laughing, always-chatting Bernard Mandeville and the always-frowning, always-doubting Cotton Mather had virtually nothing in common as men, but each in his own way was struck by the same realization bee-watching can produce today: here is an incredibly complex and hurrying society working, constantly working alongside our own, usually taking no notice of it, paralleling and even parodying it in ways that are often uncomfortably precise. It makes bumble bees a perennial source of fascination, and surely that fascination is the wellspring of the handsomely-produced new guidebook from Princeton University Press, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide.
There are almost 20,000 species of bees in the world, 250 of which fall into the genus Bombus, and less than 50 of those live in North America. They are champion pollinators (indeed, they likely evolved in the late Cretaceous right alongside flowering plants, and humans can take some small consolation from the fact that they very likely ignored the bellowing of the dinosaurs as completely as they ignore modern-day observers), and gradually over the last two centuries of intensive study, scientists have gained a fuller understanding of something Charles Darwin noticed a long time ago: a great deal of the world’s ecosystem depends on the never-ceasing toil of bees. It makes recent stories of their increasing rates of die-off all the more disturbing, and it adds a sharp (although doubtless unwanted) edge to this wonderfully comprehensive guide, the added unspoken question of how long these remarkable creatures will be among us.
It’s a book that serves several levels of bee-enthusiasts simultaneously. Each entry starts with a clear color photo and some identification specifics, followed by “microscopic characters” diving into very specific physiological details, and each entry concludes with a handy visual identification guide to queens, males, and drones, plus a color-coded distribution map of where in the country each species can be found – and when, in their migrations, they can be found there.
The last 50 pages lay out even more particular anatomical details, the kinds of things beginners probably won’t have been brave enough to discover on their own. And paging through the whole thing is an oddly thought-provoking experience, full of picture after picture of all these different kinds of bumble bees completely intent on whatever it is they’re doing.
It’s an extremely comprehensive guide, far exceeding any comparable paperback that’s ever appeared. Bee-fanciers should swarm to get their own copies – and then do some research into what conservation measures they themselves can take to help out.