Our Native Bees: North America's Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them
by Paige Embry

Timber Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-604-69769-8.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 04/09/2018

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Science

Paige Embry is a gardener and garden consultant with a background in geology who became obsessed with bees. We're lucky she did, because the result was Our Native Bees, a lyrical, passionate, and fascinating story of America's 4,000-plus species of native bees, the people who study and work with them, and the reasons these diverse insects matter to all of us.

As with so many ah-ha! moments, Embry's began with food, in this case tomatoes, "a plant with roots deep in my Georgia childhood. The summertime table in my house always had a plate of sliced tomatoes on it... When I grew up and moved away, I too, grew tomatoes, although with varying success in the cool summers of Seattle. Tomatoes have been a fixture in my life..." She continues:

It wasn't until I was nearly fifty that I learned that honey bees can't produce those tasty red and orange globes. Tomatoes require a special kind of pollination called buzz pollination, where a bee holds onto a flower and vibrates certain muscles that shake the pollen right out of the plant. Honeybees don't know how to do it, but certain native bees do. I was appalled. How could I, a serious gardener for many years, not have learned that it takes a native bee—not a European import—to properly pollinate a tomato?

That stunning fact led Embry on a quest to learn who these buzzing pollinators are, and eventually, to the writing of a book about their lives and needs, as well as the stories of the varied and intriguing people who work with them. Along the way, she met farmers in the orchards of California's Central Valley, scientists who study bumblebees (the primary pollinators of tomatoes), blueberry growers in Maine, a bee-factory owner in Seattle, golf course managers in the Deep South, and a pesticide company employee involved in creating habitat for the very bees his company's products kill. She learned about native bees by catching, identifying, killing, and "pinning" dozens and dozens of individual bees in an effort to come to grips with the dizzying complexity of their habits and habitats.

Embry possesses a voracious curiosity, a genuine interest in people and nature, and an ability to digest science and the people who practice it into illuminating and humorous stories. All of this makes this book a delight to read, as well as an insightful contribution to our understanding of the world around us, especially the "little ones" as biologist E.O. Wilson calls insects, who (in his words) "really run the world." Our Native Bees is essential reading for gardeners, farmers, cooks, nature-lovers, and anyone who cares about this animate planet and our survival thereon. Read it. You'll be hooked on bees too.

Paige Embry has spent her adult life involved in science and nature. She studied geology at Duke University and the University of Montana and worked as an environmental consultant in Boston and seattle. After moving to the Pacific Northwest, she took up gardening and started a garden design and coaching business. She has taught classes on geology, soils, gardening, and pruning. Embry's immersion in the lives of America's native bees began with a gardening epiphany: honey bees can't pollinate tomatoes. This led to an obsession with bees that cascaded into taking classes, wading through scientific literature, raising bees, participating various kinds of bee science, modifying her garden, and trekking into fields and onto farms with bee experts to learn who America's bees really are. She also wrote this book.

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