When you hear
the word bee, the
image that pops to
mind is probably a
a bumblebee. But
of the new book
Buzz, the world is
abuzz with thousands of kinds of bees,
each as beautiful and intriguing as the
flowers on which they land.
Speaking from his “raccoon shack”
on San Juan Island in Washington — a
backyard shed converted to an office
and bee-watching space, and named
for its previous inhabitants — Hanson
shares what he’s learned about how
bees helped drive human evolution,
the amazing birds that lead people to
honey, and what a Big Mac would look
like without bees. The following conversation has been edited for length
and clarity. — Erika Engelhaupt
This bee book is unusual — it isn’t
mainly about honeybees. Why did you
write about lesser-known bees?
I made a deliberate decision because I
thought the celebrity bees, the honeybees, would steal the show. It was high
time to turn a stage light onto these
20,000 other species of bees, which
have habits that are less familiar but
just as fascinating. For example, most
people think of hives when they think
of bees, but actually most bees are
You write that this book is an “
exploration of how the very nature of bees
makes them so utterly necessary.” So
let’s cut to the chase: Why are bees
First is the deep connection between
bees and flowering plants. They’ve had
a partnership from an early stage; each
spurs the other in terms of diversity. It’s
an incredible role that bees have played
Buzz: The Nature
and Necessity of
BASIC BOOKS, $27
People, and Big Macs, depend on bees
in shaping the natural world. They’re
also important to our lifestyle, first for
their role in the human diet. It’s often
said that one of every three bites of food
depends on bees.
But there are all these other connections that we don’t think about: Bees
have provided light from beeswax candles and sweetness from honey. Early
industrial uses of wax included making bronze sculptures with wax molds,
batiks in Indonesia and wax tablets to
You can trace our relationship with
bees back not hundreds, but hundreds
of thousands of years. The role of honey
in the human diet goes back into prehistory. That source of sugar may have
even helped fuel the expansion of
our brain size. It may have helped us
become who we are.
One of the most astonishing examples
of our relationship with bees has to do
with a bird called the honeyguide. Tell
me about that.
Hunter-gatherers in Africa follow this
bird to bees’ nests, and have for generations (SN: 8/20/16, p. 10). The honeyguide is very good at locating a hive.
But on its own, it can’t access the nest.
So once it locates one, the next thing it
does is look for people. It hops around
on branches and makes a piercing cry
to get attention, then leads a person to
the honey. People climb the tree or dig
out the nest, and honeyguides feed on
What’s funny is how long it took
biologists to figure out this relationship. The original explanation was that
the honeyguide coevolved with the
honey badger, which also raids nests
for honey. Then a biologist pointed
out that badgers are nocturnal, and
the birds aren’t. Also, no one has ever
seen a honeyguide leading a badger. It
makes more sense that the relationship
evolved on the savannah with people
out looking for honey every day.
One of the book’s most hilariously
geeky moments is when you go to
McDonald’s and pick apart a Big Mac.
Why did you do that?
I wanted to look for the significance of
bees in an unexpected place. And you
don’t think of bees when you go into
McDonald’s — you just don’t! I didn’t
care how much people stared. I sat
there with my tweezers, pulling all the
seeds off the bun. I ended up with one
pile you could have without bees [meat
and bun] and one you couldn’t [includ-ing not only the veggies, but also the
cheese and special sauce]. We could
still eat, but it would be pretty dull.
You’re worried about bees. Why?
It’s the four p’s: pesticides, pathogens,
parasites and poor nutrition. Poor
nutrition is one that people don’t think
of. We ship honeybees all over the
place, and they get force-fed almond
blossoms for three weeks, then they’re
packed onto trucks and shipped off to
pollinate apples. It’s not a healthy lifestyle, and not a varied diet.
You say that bees are one of the few
insects that inspire fondness instead of
fear. Why do you think that is?
Bees have been with us from the beginning. Our primordial sweet tooth led
us to follow these creatures, then we
domesticated bees very early on, setting out hives and reusing good sites
in baobab trees. I think we have a very
deep connection to these creatures. s
Thor Hanson, shown here catching bees for
identification, wants people to appreciate the
diversity and importance of bees.