Book review | The Bee: A Natural History

The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich. Princeton University Press, New Jersey. Copyright © 2014 by Noah Wilson-Rich/Ivy Press Limited. This review refers to the hardcover edition.

The popular interest in all things bee has resulted in a raft of books, some good, some not so much. But The Bee: A Natural History is one you shouldn’t miss. Although the book focuses heavily on the honey bee, it is not a beekeeping book. Instead it puts honey bees in the context of all bees and explains the relevance of those 20,000 species to our daily lives. The Princeton University press release states, “If you eat food, then you need to know about bees.” I couldn’t agree more.

The book is attractive even before you open it up. The cover features a full-color glossy photo of a honey bee along with eight silhouettes of other species. The remainder of the book echoes this promise: in-depth discussions of the honey bee and intriguing glimpses at the rest. By the end, the average reader will realize that honey bees do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a large community of similar creatures responsible for the look of our planet.

Beneath the cover, the pages are filled with stunning color images and complex drawings of beedom, from honeycombs to Varroa mites and from bumble bee nests to dance language. The book includes sections on bee evolution, anatomy, genetics, social behavior, and how bees and mankind have interacted through time. There is a section on beekeeping basics and detailed charts of honey bee disease symptoms and treatment options.

My favorite chapter is “A Directory of Bees” where the author introduces basic bee groups and then, one page at a time, profiles individual species such as Andrena florea, the bryony bee; Amegilla cingulata, the blue-banded bee; and Xylocopa violacea, the violet carpenter bee. Each bee is photographed, shown in silhouette, and described by forage preference, distribution, behavior, and life cycle.

The last chapter details modern challenges to these ancient creatures—predators, disease, climate change, habitat loss, urbanization, agricultural systems, and even the fear of bees as a threat to bees themselves. The author includes suggestions for helping bees, from becoming a beekeeper to merely planting flowers on your back deck.

The book is written in clean, easy-to-understand prose. You don’t have to be a scientist or even a beekeeper to understand the material or to grasp the importance of bees to our way of life. The author’s passion for his subject is obvious without being weighty, the diagrams are on point, and the photographs are a joy.

It has always been my contention that understanding bees generally—all of them—makes one a better beekeeper. Conversely, you don’t need to be a beekeeper to enjoy the fascinating pas de deux between flower and bee. The Bee: A Natural History illustrates the entire story in a quick but fascinating portrait. Be sure to put this one on your wish list.

Publication date: September 10, 2014. For sale only in the United States, its dependencies, and Canada.



  • Mahalo Rusty for a clear and concise review. If you ever consider a vacation to Maui, please let me know well in advance as I would be happy to host you for numerous enjoyable activities/events (both bee and non-bee). We seem to have quite a growing bee community out here in the rainforest regions of Maui.

    Much aloha,

  • Hi Rusty:

    Thanks for the book review. My husband used to work in the same lab as Noah at Tufts University. He is a very personable guy and so passionate about bees. We’re looking forward to reading the book.

    • The way I understand it, most laying workers can fly. Some probably can’t, or at least they are not very good at it since their ovaries are developed and heavier than standard worker ovaries. So if you have a hive with, say, a couple hundred laying workers in it, I would guess that maybe 75 or 80% of them can fly just fine.

      Of course, even if none can fly and you manage to separate the layers from the rest, a new crop of layers will start up in a day or so.

  • Rusty, I am looking for a big, fat, juicy beekeeping book I can sink into for the fall/winter season. Which one would you recommend for me? Thanks!

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