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Review: Keeping the Bees, by Laurence Packer

Bees evolved from wasps 100 million years ago. Today there are more than 19,000 species. Their variety is fantastic. There are sweat bees, cuckoo bees, masked bees, broad-tongued Australians and many, many more. They live on bare soil, in dense grass, rotting logs, keyholes and snail shells. We are, of course, most familiar with the honey bee. But only 5 per cent of bees are able to produce the bee vomit we call honey, and only a fraction of those do so in any quantity. Some are generalists, collecting pollen from anywhere. Many are specialists gathering their food from only one species of flower.

We marvel at the honey bees' complex social structure, but most bees are solitary. Some bees are not even actually "busy as bees." They more resemble Greek civil servants, working little and retiring early. Luckily, they are the exception. Most bees have a stupefying work load. One earth-dwelling species can dig nests two metres deep. Given their tiny size, that's the human equivalent of carrying 50 tons of dirt armful by armful up a vertical tunnel.

Laurence Packer, a professor of biology at Toronto's York University, is a melittologist, a student of the wild bees we are hardly aware of. His Keeping The Bees is actually a love story. His fascination with and devotion to what he calls these "essential and beautiful little insects" permeates the book.

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Melittologists in general seem to combine a sense of adventure, outstanding patience and masochism. They can be found in places where you can die of thirst or be bitten by death adders. They spend days counting bees, and even pollen grains, in blazing heat.

Then there are the stings. There's only one practical way to learn how potent stings are. Get stung. It takes a quality most of us lack to stand still while an angry-sounding black bee the size of a hummingbird flies straight at you. One researcher studying stingless bees that feed on tears let them lick his eyeballs.

The book presents fascinating facts but has a serious social purpose as well. It is alarming without being alarmist. Throughout our history we humans have been good for bees. The changes we've made have created more diverse habitats, hence more bee species. With its complex structure, a city has more bee diversity than the suburbs. A downtown garden might have 30 different species, more than most pristine Canadian forests.

But now we are not so bee-friendly. Pesticides are one of the chief villains in the decline of bees. They increase crop yield, but they can kill off the pollinators that make the crop possible. Climate change is hurting bees too, making suitable habitats harder to find. Globalization has introduced invasive species and disease. Too many ecosystems, like the tall-grass Prairies, have been virtually destroyed.

About a quarter of our food relies on pollination, yet pollinators like the bees are declining in sheer numbers and diversity. Colony Collapse Disorder in the United States focused attention on honey bees. It mainly strikes industrial bees - hives moving all over the continent on transport trucks. They are subject to exposure to multiple pesticides and the stress of travel, but scientists still aren't sure what causes it (probably not cell-phone towers).

The disease highlights the danger of being so dependent on only a few species to pollinate our orchards and fields. But right now, wild bees can't take up the slack. In much of the New World, they have almost disappeared.

In China, pesticides have wiped out so many bees that food crops are pollinated by hand. In Kenya, some crop yields have been cut in half because of a lack of bees. According to Packer, if another disease emerges in honey bees or bumble bees and spreads world wide, a large part of our food supply will be in jeopardy. Many of the foods we now take for granted won't be affordable for most people.

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What's to be done? Packer offers some simple local prescriptions. Grow bee-friendly flowers in your garden, provide nesting sites and don't use pesticides. But one of Packer's goals is consciousness raising. I know he's raised mine. After reading the book I was thrilled to find three species of bees visiting a cornflower in my garden, and I'm looking for other "nectar bars" to plant.

Ian McLeod is a beekeeper with the Mulmur Bee Boyz honey co-operative.

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