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The curious and vital role of insects takes center stage in three new tomes

Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
Simon & Schuster
255 pp.
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The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild

Thomas D. Seeley
Princeton University Press
376 pp.
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Protecting Pollinators: How to Save the Creatures that Feed Our World

Jodi Helmer
Island Press
230 pp.
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When Beethoven was writing his famous fifth symphony in 1806, the ink in his quill was almost certainly a byproduct of the quirky lifestyle of a tiny wasp. A thousand species of oak gall wasp (Hymenoptera: Cynipidae, Cynipini) induce gall formation, mostly in oak trees. The “oak apple” galls, which protect and provide food for the young wasp larvae, contain high concentrations of tannic acid. When crushed and fermented with iron salts (for example, iron sulfate or rusty nails), the galls produce gall wasp ink, which is nonsoluble, long lasting, and without lumps. It was the most popular ink in Europe from the 1100s to the 1800s.

Though wasp-produced inks have fallen out of favor, insect decline has entered the public consciousness in a big way recently. People have been worrying about bees for some time, but our anxiety has recently extended to all insects, fueled by datasets showing startling rates of decline (1), news stories about “insectageddon,” and a gut feeling that there used to be a lot more insects around (2). Norwegian entomologist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson’s new book, Buzz, Sting, Bite, provides a host of reasons why we need to care about this, offering a cornucopia of fascinating insights that paint a portrait of the deep interconnectedness of human culture with our six-legged friends.

One reason for concern is that insects are intricately involved in our food production and waste management systems. When a million head of cattle were grazing Australia in the early 20th century, the 9 million metric tons of dung they produced every year fouled pastures and led to a plague of flies because there were no native dung beetles willing to consume the cow pats and recycle the nitrogen to the soil. The problem was solved in the 1960s by introducing African dung beetles. In our cities today, ants clear massive amounts of junk food waste, dispatching the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs a year from the streets of Manhattan, according to one study (3).

As always with entomology, be prepared for horror stories. There’s the cockroach wasp (Ampulex dementor), which takes control of a cockroach’s brain using precise brain surgery and induces its victim to bury itself alive, controlling its movement directly by biting into its antennae. Consider the fruit flies, which reproduce so quickly that, if unchecked, would generate a ball of flies spanning the distance between Earth and the Sun in a single year.

At times, I was frustrated by the lack of scientific explanation in Buzz, Sting, Bite. For me, the process of discovery is as captivating as the discovered facts themselves. We learn how the temperature regulation mechanism in termite mounds inspired passive cooling in a Zimbabwe shopping mall, for example, but nothing about who discovered this mechanism or the experiments that demonstrated it. In another passage, Sverdrup-Thygeson reveals that a dragonfly can see up to 300 separate images per second, visual processing power 15 times faster than ours. If it went to the cinema, it would see a very rapid slide show rather than the moving image we perceive. But how do we know that?

If tales of curiosity-driven scientific experimentation are what you’re after, Thomas Seeley’s new book, The Lives of Bees, is a delight. Here, you will find an inspiring story of one man’s lifelong fascination with one insect species: the western honey bee (Apis mellifera). The extraordinary detail about how honey bee colonies function, and how exactly we know how they function, will enchant anyone who is passionate about bees. There is even a bee treadmill involved, used by Seeley to work out how bees measure cavity size.

Honey bees were among the first animals to have a close relationship with humans, with evidence of beeswax on pottery from prehistoric farming communities 9000 years ago. Given this age-old interaction, it is surprising that honey bees are not fully domesticated. Despite consuming their honey for millennia, we have not shaped them to suit us. They still sting, and there are no specialized breeds for different purposes.

Seeley argues that this is because until recently, the honey bees’ ability to fly meant that people were not in control of their mating and therefore unable to exert artificial selection. Honey bee mating rituals are still a mystery; male bees (drones) congregate in very distinct locations 10 to 20 meters up in the air. Congregation areas can persist for decades, and queens and drones fly several kilometers to reach them, but how they are positioned and how individual bees find them are still unclear.

Western honey bees are perfectly capable of surviving “in the wild,” without help from humans. They now live almost everywhere there is land on Earth, including across North and South America and eastern Asia, well outside their original native range of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East (4). Most western honey bees, whether living with beekeepers or feral, are a genetic mix of races and subspecies long influenced by human management and trade. The assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) of the conservation status of Apis mellifera in Europe classes it as “data deficient” because “it is difficult to know where the species currently occurs in the wild, if at all, due to the introgression of managed and feral colonies with wild populations” (5).

Seeley makes the case that despite their history with humans, honey bees survive better when free of interference by humans and allowed to adapt naturally to pressures imposed by their environment. He presents evidence, for example, that untreated feral honey bee populations isolated from managed apiaries can overcome the blight of Varroa mite (Varroa destructor).

This mite, and the viruses it vectors, have become the biggest scourge of beekeeping since it jumped across from the eastern honey bee (Apis cerana) in the early 1900s and was transported around the world. Managed Apis mellifera colonies not treated with acaricide are usually overcome with mites and die within 2 years. Honey from dead colonies is collected by workers from nearby colonies, an adaptive behavior exploited by the mites, which jump on the robber bee bodies and hitch a ride to infect a new colony.

Seeley watched in horror as the Varroa mite arrived near his home in New York State, assuming it would decimate the population of feral honey bees he had been studying in the Arnot Forest. Through painstaking work measuring the density of these colonies before and after the Varroa invasion, he has shown that although the population initially crashed, by 2002 it had recovered to its late 1970s density.

Left to their own devices, the Arnot Forest honey bees have evolved multiple mechanisms to cope with Varroa. They now keep the mites at low levels by grooming them off each other and uncapping infested pupal cells to disrupt their reproduction.

Seeley’s book ends with recommendations for beekeepers who wish to keep bees in a way that benefits bees more than humans. This includes not treating for Varroa mite, although it is vital that any beekeeper taking this approach regularly checks for mites and destroys colonies that are being overcome, long before they die. Seeley also implores beekeepers to space their colonies out so that workers and drones do not mistakenly enter the wrong colony and spread disease, to avoid moving the colonies around, and to stock their hives from locally adapted swarms or queens.

One of his recommendations will seem anathematic to those interested in conserving the diverse myriad of native wild pollinators, especially given that Seeley writes from a continent where the honey bee might be described as an “invasive alien species.” He recommends locating colonies in natural areas of forest and moorland, far from sources of insecticide and fungicide.

There are serious problems with this from an insect conservation perspective. Seeley cheerfully informs us that a single honey bee colony collects 20 to 35 kg of pollen and enough nectar to produce 60 to 80 kg of honey every year from an area of more than 100 km2 around each colony. He does not consider the effect this might have on native insects competing directly for this food resource or on the pollination of native plants, whose seed production can be reduced by an influx of honey bees (6)—not to mention the spread of diseases, which can transfer from honey bees to wild pollinators through shared flowers (7).

These issues are honestly discussed in Jodi Helmer’s book Protecting Pollinators, which tackles the complexity of pollinator conservation head on. Although much of the concern about pollinators has been fueled by declines in honey bee colony numbers in the United States, managed honey bees are not in decline globally. In fact, they are increasing (8). It is wild pollinators that are suffering declines. Species with specialized habitat or feeding requirements are more likely to be troubled, such as the Californian native yellow carpet bee (Andrena blennospermatis), which relies on a flower associated with the fast disappearing vernal pool habitat, or the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), which migrates between Mexico and the northwestern United States and Canada.

Protecting Pollinators is full of inspiring stories of people’s efforts to help, from public libraries providing native wildflower seeds to citizen scientists mapping milkweed, the larval food plant for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). The book wrestles admirably with the complicated effects of invasive species and climate change on the many thousands of wild pollinator species.

Helmer highlights the irony of insecticide manufacturers, such as Bayer, investing in public education and outreach centers focused on caring for bees. Bayer sells neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been clearly implicated in declines of wild bee populations (9, 10), banned in the European Union because of adverse impacts on bees, and recently found in the cloacal fluid of hummingbirds (11).

Helmer includes a chapter on cases in which people’s goodwill is misplaced and their efforts to help pollinators may actually harm them. She considers mass releases of commercially reared monarch butterflies, which may promote the spread of the pathogen Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, and ill-informed feeding of hummingbirds at a time of year when this may stop them migrating.

Looking after honey bees, particularly in cases of relatively inexperienced hobby beekeeping, is unlikely to be the best thing to do for pollinators, Helmer writes, and is conspicuously missing from her list of “Twenty-nine ways you can help protect pollinators.” Sometimes quite the opposite is needed. Helmer describes a project to eradicate honey bees from Santa Cruz Island, California, in order to restore native bee populations. (Strange then, that the picture on the front of the book is a honey bee, Apis mellifera.)

These books represent three personal takes on the relationship between people and insects, or people and pollinators. None tells the full story. The Lives of Bees was my favorite read, but it taps into a misleading narrative that says, “If we look after honey bees, everything will be fine.” The other two offer a sense of the urgency and scale of the challenge we face in protecting the billions of tiny creatures we once swatted away without a second thought. All three books will change forever how readers see insects.

1. C. A. Hallmann et al., PLOS ONE 12, e0185809 (2017).
2. D. H. Janzen, W. Hallwachs, Biologic. Conserv. 233, 102 (2019).
3. E. Youngsteadt et al., Glob. Change Biol. 21, 1103 (2015).
4. F. Requier et al., Trends Ecol. Evol 10.1016/j.tree.2019.04.008 (2019).
5. P. De la Rúa et al., Apis mellifera, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, e.T42463639A65 (2014).
6. A. Valido et al., Sci. Rep. 9, 4711 (2019).
7. J. Geldmann, J. P. González-Varo, Science 359, 392 (2018).
8. S. G. Potts et al., Nature 540, 220 (2016).
9. B. A. Woodcock et al., Science 356, 1393 (2017).
10. M. Rundlof et al., Nature 521, 77 (2015).
11. C. A. Bishop et al., Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 37, 2143 (2018).

About the author

The reviewer is a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Fellow at the School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, Norfolk NR4 7TJ, UK.