Book review | Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees by Thor Hanson. Basic Books, New York. Copyright © 2018 by Thor Hanson. This review refers to the hardcover edition.

If you have read other books by Thor Hanson, you know how user-friendly his prose can be. Buzz is no exception. The book is a clean, easy-to-read tale of bees that moves from their evolutionary beginnings to their worsening plight in the modern world. Honey bees are included in the story and receive the attention they should—no less and no more. Hanson puts honey bees in perspective among all the other bees we are fortunate to have in our gardens and our lives.

In Buzz, Hanson recounts his own history with bees, how he fell under their spell, and how he eventually learned about their secret lives. He takes us along on his journey as he interviews prominent bee scientists from Laurence Packer of York University to Diana Cox-Foster of the Logan Bee Lab. During the many discussions we learn tantalizing tidbits such as the ideal length for a mason bee tube and the probable cause of bumble bee decline.

The best part for me was Hanson’s adventures with his own backyard bees. For example, Hanson details his quest to attract bumble bees to a homemade nest with the assistance of his young son, Noah. After reading the account, I immediately pulled my leaky mud boots out of the trash. Last week they seemed useless, but suddenly they seemed priceless! I also learned how to make honey pots for bumble bees and why some flowers are more-or-less dependent on house cats for their survival. The things I didn’t know!

Bees in the northwest

Being from the same neck of the woods as Hanson, I could relate to his fascination with the alkali bees of Touchet, Washington and the incredible diversity of bees that can be found so close to a temperate rainforest. Although the story starts here in the Pacific Northwest, that’s just a warm-up. The bee tales take us back to the New Jersey Cretaceous for a look at an ancient bee in amber, to deserts in the American southwest, and into the almond orchards of California.

The volume concludes with a short description of the seven families of bees, a helpful bibliography, and a glossary of terms. I needed help with the word “callow,” which turns out to be the bumble bee equivalent of the honey bee term “teneral”—an adult bee just after leaving its cocoon.

The nature of notes

My one complaint about the book is the “Notes” section. Hanson is one of those authors who packs a lot of juicy tidbits into the end notes. Normally, that is fine. But in this book, nothing in the text clues you to the existence of a note—no asterisks, numbers, or letters hint at the goodies at the end. After two irritating chapters of turning back and forth to the notes, I finally read all the notes from all the chapters and then read the rest of the book. When I was lucky, I recognized the phrase that triggered the note and was able to go back and re-read it in context—a clunky but workable solution.

End notes aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was sad when it came to an end. I could have easily read another couple hundred pages. Pick up a copy for a cold winter’s evening and you will find yourself making plans for a bee-crazy spring. Buzz…

Publication date: July 2018. Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Buzz. An alkali bee, Nomia melanderi, approaches her nesting hole in eastern Washington. © Rusty Burlew.

An alkali bee, Nomia melanderi, approaches a nesting hole in eastern Washington. © Rusty Burlew.


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  • A friend just gave me the book as a birthday present.
    I very much agree that so far it’s a really fascinating book!
    Glad you are recommending/liking it.

  • Thanks for another terrific book suggestion/report! This time I decided to download it in iBooks since I’d have the immediate gratification of owning/reading it, and also because it’ll be so much easier to carry my iPad with me on planned holiday travel.

    I was surprised and delighted to learn that the “notes” you refer to are actually linked in the text in this electronic book format! A simple tap on the blue text takes you to the note in the back of the book, and back where you were reading … Wanted to share this with you! Happy holidays!

    • Paul,

      That is so funny. I usually get Kindle editions, but this time I got the hard cover and ending up struggling with the end notes. Who would have guessed?

  • Reading the Kindle edition now, based on your recommendation.

    What a fantastic book, with science and humor and education and cuteness, all rolled up together.

    It’s like a Mary Roach, but with less human bodies, and extra added bees!

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