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The power of bees

by timber press on April 17, 2018

in Natural History

Bees’ appearance varies hugely. Some are massively hairy like this male Habropoda excellens, the three-spotted digger bee, from Utah. Photo courtesy of Sam Droege’s USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

In her travels with farmers, gardeners, and scientists, Paige Embry examines the vital role these pollinators play. Along the way, she hunts for a bumble bee that may be extinct. Filled with Embry’s discoveries, both sobering and hopeful, Our Native Bees offers a rare exploration of these underappreciated natives so crucial to our survival.

Gail Langellotto-Rhodaback is the statewide Master Gardener program coordinator for Oregon and a professor at Oregon State University. Before moving to Oregon she worked in New York City, where she conducted a survey of bees in that most urban of cities. One day she was out collecting water pan traps (bee bowls) next to a high school right when school was letting out for the day. Some of the kids came over to see what was going on. “We were all standing in a circle,” Gail says, “looking at what was in the bowls and we [the scientists] were pointing out the different insects that we’d collected in the water pan trap. And it was really kind of cool because they didn’t know that there was such a thing as a good insect.” At which point the cops rolled up and hit their siren. With everyone standing around in a circle, “I guess we looked like we were doing a drug deal,” Gail says.

The cops walked up to see what was happening, and then they wanted to know about the insects in the bee bowls too. “It was really, like, a beautiful moment,” Gail said. “In East Harlem, we had teenagers and scientists and graduate students and cops all looking at these bees in water pan traps, interested and asking questions.”

Bees have power.

They have the obvious power of pollination and supplying us with many of our favorite foods. They also have an unexpected superpower—the ability to form connections and build community among people. That moment in New York City is just one example.

People come together to volunteer at bee labs or help with bee surveys. Some use vacation time to take bee classes and hunt for bees. I have been astounded, again and again, by the bee people I’ve met. They’ve shared their time, their knowledge, and their passion with a complete stranger who sends them an email, asking to talk or come spend a day in their life.

Bees are resilient.

We may think the world is falling apart and an individual can do little to help stop it. That is not true for bees. If we just stop kicking the bees quite so hard, we can help them—and see the results almost immediately.Renounce pesticides. Plant flowers that bees in your area like. Be a little slovenly in the garden; leave some old broken stems and let a little bare dirt show. The bees will come.

Renounce pesticides. Plant flowers that bees in your area like… The bees will come.

Bees are diverse.

It’s probably this vast diversity that has struck me the most in all the research that I’ve done on bees. Most people think of honey bees when they hear the word bee or, even worse, they envision a yellow jacket or some other kind of wasp. Twenty thousand species rife with differences being reduced to either a very unusual outlier of the group or something that is not a member of the group at all.

When you think of bees, think instead of those males guarding their territories, sleeping together, hanging out at the bee bar waiting for females, and getting into battles and biting each other on the legs. Think of the females that excavate deep mines to make homes for their babes or build turret entrances to their nests out of dirt and regurgitated nectar, with bee poop crenellations. Think of the little cleptoparasite larvae taking down their gigantic foes and the Cinderella Ceratina bees out gathering for their siblings with no hope of a future home of their own. These are our bees.

Bees have changed my life.

This book started when I overcame my introvert’s nature and contacted Robbin Thorp to ask if I could join him on a Franklin’s bumble bee hunt. Roaming those slopes with Robbin and listening to him talk made me think there were indeed bee tales to be told—and I wanted to tell them—even if the prospect of approaching people to ask for interviews scared the willies out of me. I never thought I’d write a book, let alone feel like I’ve found my calling, and it’s all thanks to bees.

That trip to meet Robbin was in August 2014. I haven’t been able to make it back to Mount Ashland for another of his bee hunts in the intervening years. I plan to go again, hopefully this coming year. I’ll drive down I-5 to that little oval of land where the Franklin’s bumble bee once flew. I’ll meet Robbin and any of the other bee enthusiasts and experts who join him, and we’ll hunt. We won’t put out bee bowls. Bumble bees tend to be good at escaping from them. And, holy smoke, what if we drowned a Franklin’s? I’m sure no cops will show up to ask what we’re doing, but any hikers who are around will no doubt ask what we’re up to and go away knowing a little something about the world that they hadn’t before. It’s part of the bees’ superpower. And, who knows, maybe this will be the year that black-bottom bee returns.


Paige Embry has a BS in geology from Duke University and an MS in geology from the University of Montana. She has worked as an environmental consultant, taught horticulture and geology classes, and run a garden design and coaching business. She has written articles for Horticulture, The American Gardener, and other magazines. Visit her at paigeembry.com.


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