A World without Bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum

20 August 2008

Book Review

A documentary horror story. Without bees to pollinate all sorts of plants including our food crops and the plants our cattle eat, our society would be in serious trouble. Yet bees are threatened by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) a mysterious ailment which wipes out whole bee colonies globally. In A World Without Bees, the authors, both amateur beekeepers, try to track down the possible causes, which may include diseases, pesticides, lack of genetic resistance cause by human breeding experiments, and the horrific Alien-like Varroa mite, which lives a parasitic life on the poor hard-working bees.

Most people will find the detailed descriptions of bees' lifestyle fascinating: they map their area and can find their own hive with unerring accuracy, even if it is surrounded by other hives. Sick bees leave the hive to die, rather than contaminate their sisters. They clean the hive of waste matter diligently and only defecate outside the hive, even in winter. They do their famous “Waggle Dance” to tell other foraging bees where to find nectar. Transporting them to California in trucks to pollinate the almond trees, as billions of bees are needed, doesn't disorientate them, although it is possible that the stress weakens bees already subjected to chemical-related problems. This mixing up of millions of bees allows new diseases and pesticide-resistant parasites to spread rapidly, which would not happen so quickly if the hives remained in different parts of the United States, so the bees would have time to adapt to these problems.

This is another clear view of what our industrialised agriculture is doing to one of our most important – if disregarded – species. Most honeybees in Britain are the docile and productive Italian bee. Our native bee is a northern adapted species which is less “commercial” but because it is wild has a wider gene pool and greater resistance to cold and disease. Bees, because they are highly dependent on the flowering of plants to collect food for the winter for their colony to survive, will be adversely affected by climate change.

This is an important book about an area of natural life that most of us take for granted. If bees died out, human labour could pollinate the plants manually – as happens in Sichuan Province of China, but it is a laborious and less effective process.

Does the book answer the question: How is CCD caused? No – although it gives the most current theories. Nevertheless, a worthwhile read, if sometimes a little stodgy in places.

Guardian Books £9.99 298 pp.

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