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Buzz - Thor Hanson *****

There is no shortage of books about bees - not surprising given their fascinating social structures and importance in pollinating plants. But the majority of titles concentrate on the most familiar bee species, the honey bee and their superorganism nature. However, that leaves out thousands of species of wild bees, from the familiar bumble bees to tiny black insects few would even realise were bees. What Thor Hanson does so well is introduce us to the intriguing world of the wild bee.

I don't find straight natural history books particularly engaging - rather too much of Rutherford's infamous complaint about stamp collecting - but Hanson overcomes this potential problem through storytelling, whether it's telling us about the origins of bees from wasps, his attempts to provide a home for bees with his son, or in his many meetings with bee experts. I was reminded of Fredrik Sjöberg's The Fly Trap in the way that it was the narrative that absolutely tied everything together. Hanson may not have Sjöberg's lyrical, almost mystical, style, but instead gives us homely insights and puts across well his sheer fascination with bees.

Although wild bees are the main focus, there is a discussion of the colony collapse problems that have dogged beekeepers and a visit to America's bee-unfriendly almond groves. Hanson comes across as far more balanced on the potential causes of colony collapse than some environmentalists and explores a range of contributory factors that may have come together to put some bee species in danger. (Interestingly, some wild bee species have been practically wiped out, while others in the same environment remain unharmed.)

There's never the feeling of worthiness that you often get in nature books. Hanson is a scientist who clearly loves bees and is a great narrator, but he's never preachy and puts across both information and enthusiasm in equal amounts. I wish there had been a bit more that was UK specific, rather than focussed on the US - I often found myself thinking 'Do we have bees like that?' - but this didn't stop the book from being an engaging, informative page-turner.

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Review by Brian Clegg 


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