Wednesday, June 23, 2010

'Keeping The Bees' by Laurence Packer

Laurence Packer is a bee biologist whose research and teaching base of operations is at York University in Toronto, Canada.

The title of his book, and much of the publicity that has surrounded it suggest that it is about something that many of us have heard a lot about already - the one-two punch of the central role of bees in human food production followed by the spectre of colony collapse disorder and a world without bees. And it is about these things, in part. But this book is so much more.

Unlike many of his contemporaries writing on the same topic, Packer can offer a broad overview of his subject. His global perspective is derived from years of working with many different kinds of bees, hands-on work, observing behavior and biology in the field.

This book is actually a biology of bees, from the tiniest solitary bees to communal, semisocial and eusocial species. It is a biology in the grand tradition of Jean Henri Fabre, the 19th century French polymath whose books introduced the world to the engaging lives of insects.

Bumblebees play a leading role in Packer's narrative. He touches on everything from their life history, to their social behavior and their diseases, parasites and predators. Packer tells us why bumblebees (and indeed all bees) appear to be at greater risk of extinction than other organisms, a topic I'll be expanding on in a future entry in this blog.

Packer isn't afraid to introduce us to some of the specialized terminology that goes along with his field of study (a bee biologist, for instance, is a melittologist). But in general he works hard to keep his story in everyday language. He has a tremendous knack for making even the most complex subjects understandable in human terms. Bees that maintain a communal nest burrow system are just like human condo dwellers, he tells us, with a common entrance and private apartments.

Those who are looking for fresh evidence that we need bees and that bees are endangered will find it here. And there is also advice for those who want to do something to help bees, including the completely original and delightful suggestion of walking on the grass.

Shortcomings? Well, pictures for one. The book has a few photos, but publication costs aside, it could have had so much more. The bee image on the dust jacket is truly unfortunate - a nice bee, but the graphic treatment is not my favorite. But then Packer is writing in the tradition of the great naturalist-authors like Fabre, Willy Ley and Howard Evans. Like these masters in whose company Packer now finds himself, his vivid language alone is enough to create compelling images of his fascinating subjects in every reader's mind.

'Keeping The Bees'
is a must read for any fan of bumblebees.

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