Book Review: What a Bee Knows by Stephen Buchmann

In pollinator ecologist Stephen Buchmann’s What a Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories, and Personalities of Bees, the author makes a compelling case for why we need to pay closer attention to bees (and to protect them), offering stories and anecdotes from research and observation that highlight the fascinating lives of these extraordinary creatures. 

For anyone who appreciates (and this should be all of us) or is curious about bees, this book is a revelation. Readers will learn there are 21,000 species of bees in the world (about 3,500 in the U.S.), and that despite the best-known bees being social honeybees, most are ground-nesting and solitary. You’ll also learn that bees are self-aware, can feel pain and can play, and have memories. Research shows that bees likely dream, and they also use tools. 

What a Bee Knows is especially essential reading for anyone with a fear of bees, as “these largely unwarranted fears and irrational phobias support a thriving global pest control industry based upon deadly but nonspecific chemicals.” Buchmann notes that more than one billion pounds of insecticides are used each hear in the U.S. — three times more chemicals than in the year Rachel Carson published Silent Spring six decades ago. What a Bee Knows asks us to consider bees in a different way — and shows how our own future depends on it.

This is because 85 percent of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators like bees, and every third bite (35 percent) of the world’s food supply is thanks to bees. 

But this book is more than an education about bees and their importance to life on the planet; it’s also a lot of fun. Learning about the myriad species is eye-opening to those who know bees only as those who live in honeycombs. Bees can be solitary (80 percent of them are), social (honeybees, for example), or parasitic (like the cuckoo bees, who sneak into unrelated nests and lay their eggs for other bees to raise). 

Bees have fascinating sex lives: Queen honeybees mate with up to forty males in midair at fifteen miles per hour, after which she will lay 1,000 eggs. Some male leafcutter bees cover the eyes of females during courtship and mating. The shaggy, solitary cactus bee bites the female’s neck during courtship, and sex lasts ten to thirty seconds. 

Bees plan for the future. Social bees learn from other bees, and they are “master builders” when it comes to building their homes, creating “such repeatable and precise geometric forms in the darkness of their nests with no obvious blueprints or templates.” While bees are deaf to sound, they are sensitive to vibrations. Most bees are vegan, but the stingless “vulture bees” eat carrion as well as nectar from flowers. Bees smell through their antennae and taste with their feet. They can’t see the color red, but they can see ultraviolet light that we cannot. 

Unfortunately, much of what this book teaches us about bees was learned through experiments with bees in captivity. One finding seems especially sad: “Bees in confinement will drink bitter or even toxic substances that can cause malaise or even death” — whereas free-flying bees avoid such substances. Buchmann outlines why he believes bees can feel pain, and also reveals studies indicating that bees can feel anxious, optimistic, and cautious.

Yet not everything about bees has yet been studied; bee sleep, for example, is still being researched, though what is known so far is that bees have three phases of sleep, including a phase that allows for memory consolidation.

While there is still much to learn about bees, what is known is that they need protection and places to thrive. Bees are at risk due to shrinking habitats (in large part due to livestock agriculture) and climate change, and Buchmann notes, “We must take immediate action to protect pollinators, including bees…Bees had gotten along fine for 130 million years, before we came along to spoil things for them.” 

Don’t miss the book’s appendix, a list of ten things to do to help pollinators, including planting wildflowers; avoiding insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides; downsizing your lawn and avoiding mulch; providing bee houses; and more. As Buchmann points out, “Bees need places to live and flowers, and very little else.” Surely we humans can do our part. 

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