Why humans, and Big Macs, depend on bees

a bee on a flower
SWARM OF BEES Honeybees may be the most famous of their kind, but there are more than 20,000 species of bees, including more than 250 bumblebees.

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees
Thor Hanson
Basic Books, $27

When you hear the word bee, the image that pops to mind is probably a honeybee. Maybe a bumblebee. But for conservation biologist Thor Hanson, author 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.

SN: This bee book is unusual — it isn’t mainly about honeybees. Why did you write about lesser-known bees?

Hanson: 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 solitary.

SN: 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 necessary?

Hanson: 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 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….

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