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This Summer, Try a Bee Read, Rather Than a Beach Read with 'Our Native Bees'

Our Native Bees Cover

By Lisa Brunette

You know that bittersweet feeling you have when you get to the end of your favorite novel, and you're reluctant to leave the beloved world of the novel behind as it ends, but you're satisfied for the experience? I felt the same way when I finished Paige Embry's Our Native Bees.

The full title is Our Native Bees: North America's Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them, but a more accurate subtitle might have been 'and the stories that make them,' for it's the strength of the storytelling that really sings in this work of non-fiction. 

Now I was already highly predisposed toward loving this book, since I'm somewhat obsessed with bees. As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a volunteer with Shutterbee, a citizen-science bee study, and I'm now in my third year with that program. I'm also an avid supporter of Wild Ones, a group that promotes native plant gardening for the express purpose of providing habitat for pollinators, especially native bees. 

But my personal obsession aside, I challenge any of you to try reading this book and not fall in love with native bees.

Whether it's the eponymous sunflower chimney bee - which builds little turret-like 'chimney' structures at the opening of its ground nest - or the habit of some bees to grab hold of a flower or stem with its mandibles and sleep hanging upside-down - the bees are a storied lot. While the numerous full-color, close-up photographs of bees tell their tale in visuals, it's Ms. Embry's enjoyable prose, tinged with a flare for the dramatic, that keeps one riveted:

The battle of the budworm began in 1952 at Budworm City in the upper reaches of New Brunswick, Canada. Given that the entire place consisted of sixteen shacks and an air strip buried in the woods, Budworm Village would have been a more appropriate name. Nevertheless, from that air strip, pilots flew World War II surplus biplanes loaded down with the chemicals needed for the aerial assault on the enemy, Choristoneura fumiferana, a small gray-and-brown moth. The innocuous-looking adult wasn't the true problem; it was the ravenous young larva, a caterpillar called the eastern spruce budworm, that they sought to kill.

Despite this passage's heft toward a discussion on pesticide use and its resulting damage to bees, the book is neither screed nor doom-and-gloom depressant. Embry encounters each new problem facing native bees with a healthy dose of skepticism to all things commercial and chemical, but she doesn't allow that bias to cloud her judgment or reduce her optimism. By the end of the book, Embry has given us knowledge, and that knowledge is power. I learned, for example:

  • That native bees alone pollinate tomatoes. The tomato flower requires a technique called "buzz pollination," and only North American native bees do that; the European honeybee cannot.
  • While our native bees are in decline, even when their numbers are down, we can find hope in their resiliency: Some bees when under distress from dwindling forage resources will diversify, finding new plants to visit for pollen and nectar.
  • Converting your own lawn to native plants can have a positive effect on native bee populations, extending their forage opportunities. 

Embry leaves us with a report of an initiative to remake golf courses - Operation Pollinator - into areas where bees might find a home, in such an unlikely place. That should give your average home gardener plenty of inspiration. As Embry puts it: 

If golfers and golf course superintendents can rethink normal for golf courses, then surely the rest of us can reimagine our lawns as a place for grass and flowers. After all, that's the way it used to be.

I give this book an A+ for its entertaining accessibility, its heart and science in equal measure, and its balanced perspective. To learn more, check out Paige Embry's website.