Seattle writer Paige Embry did not begin her scientific life immersed in the study of bees.
Her first love was geology, which she studied at Duke University. She came to Missoula and the University of Montana, “a place where one can see the rocks so much better than in the Deep South,” to continue those studies as a graduate student. Ultimately landing in Seattle, Embry took up gardening, and that is what led her to a multi-year obsession with bees. An obsession that began with one epiphany: Honeybees can’t pollinate tomatoes. So who does? Native bees, Embry learned.
What’s the difference? The honeybee, which is responsible for pollinating a large swath of crops in America — including giant agribusiness stalwarts like strawberries, apples, avocados and, especially, almonds — is not native to North America. They are what’s called a “naturalized” species, originally imported from Europe by the first waves of people who arrived to colonize the continent.
Those folks didn’t want to leave their familiar honey and beeswax candles behind so they brought their European bees with them. Many escaped, went feral and prospered.
In recent years, the honeybee population has been on the decline for reasons bee scientists haven’t entirely figured out. Disease and pesticides have certainly played a large role, and blooming awareness of the importance of bees to our food supply has raised an alarm.
As recently as 2015, the Obama administration issued a plan that included several facets to help address this epidemic. It was called the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. Those “other pollinators” include, as Embry writes in her introduction, “four thousand species of native bees, not to mention certain birds, bats, flies, wasps, beetles, moths, and butterflies.”
Four-thousand species of native bees, all evolved over the last 100 million years or so since they diverged from wasps to do basically one thing: pollinate plants. These are the bees Embry wanted to spotlight in her new book, “Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them.” All of these species are facing the same threats as the honeybee, yet not many people seem to know about them.
“The world looks the way it does and we eat what we eat because of bees,” Embry writes. She wanted to write a book that would excite people about the plight of these all-important insects, and leave them “so entranced by bees that they’ll throw away their weed-n-feed and plant flowers in the lawn.” If enough people read the book, she may be successful.
In the book, Embry devotes a chapter to the honeybee, but the rest of it focuses on discussing North America’s “other” bees, who they are and what they do. There is an abundance of science writing throughout, explaining the relationship between bees and flowers, how pollination works, what one type of bee does differently from another, etc., but Embry keeps that stuff accessible to the average reader.
The science is wrapped up in anecdotal stories from Embry’s own journeys to learn more about all these bees, stories gleaned while traveling around to visit various experts and their projects. She is a charming narrator, using humor and wit to liven could be a dull subject in the wrong hands.
The accompanying photographs are fantastic. Close-up macro shots that highlight the differences from species to species, not to mention the almost alien beauty so frequently encountered when insects are observed in such detail. The book could easily find a home as a smallish coffee table book, as the photos and captions provide a fascinating thumb-through on their own.
The bee-plant-human interaction is one of those incredible symbiotic relationships one so often finds when peering deeply into the natural world. Sadly, not enough of us are looking. Paige Embry is doing her part with this book to change that.
"Our Native Bees" is a keeper for people interested in our food supply — gardeners in particular — as it relates to bees. The book is also essential for those of us who enjoy good writing with a bent toward natural history and science, who are simply keen to know more about the world around us.
Especially if that curiosity includes some of the smallest, and busiest, of creatures we share our world with.