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The art of the bee

In June 1799, Alexander von Humboldt departed Spain on a five-year expedition that traversed what was known in the New World as New Granada and New Spain. Along the way, he made extensive collections and observations of geography, geology, climate, atmospheric science, astronomy, magnetic flux, botany, zoology, biogeography, ecology, and anthropology. He converted his 4,000 pages of notes into a collection of volumes called the Cosmos. His most popular work, however, was a book called Ansichten der Natur (Views of Nature), a condensed version of the Cosmos. In this book, von Humboldt organized chapters around themes and brought into each chapter a consilience of disciplines that spanned botany to anthropology. Woven together into a narrative, the book painted a view that reflected both an opinion and a glimpse of nature.

Humboldt appealed to artists and poets to interpret and paint nature. He believed that they would be better at conveying views of nature to the public than would science-oriented naturalists. The nineteenth century philosopher Henry David Thoreau was strongly influenced by Humboldt when he wrote his most noted work, Walden, weaving a tapestry of science and imagination. The American painter Edwin Church accepted Humboldt’s challenge and, beginning in 1853, retraced his expedition across South America. The result was 1.7 x 3 meter canvas painting, The Heart of the Andes (1859), now hanging in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting, like the chapters of Ansichten Der Natur, is a composite interpretation of the natural history of the Andes, showing amazingly accurate details of the flora and includes geography, geology, and even an element of anthropology.

The Heart of Andes by Frederic Edwin Church, Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

As I set out to write a book on honey bee biology, I kept Humboldt as an aspirational model. Rather than write the typical biology text that reflected an excavation of levels of biological organization like taxonomy, biogeography, physiology, anatomy, etc., I built chapters around themes relating to honey bee impacts, behavior, and ecology.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Fredrich Georg Weitsch, Alte Nationalgalerie via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The impact of bees on our world is immeasurable. Bees are responsible for the evolution of the vast array of brightly colored flowers and for engineering the niches of multitudes of plants, animals, and microbes. They’ve painted our landscapes with flowers through their pollination activities and have evolved the most complex societies to aid their exploitation of the environment. The biology of the honey bee is one that reflects their role in transforming environments with their anatomical adaptations and a complex language that together function to exploit floral resources. A complex social system that includes a division of labour builds, defends, and provisions nests containing tens of thousands of individuals, only one of whom reproduces.

My book, The Art of the Bee: Shaping the Environment from Landscapes to Societies, presents fundamental biology, not in layers, but wrapped in interesting themes and concepts, and in ways designed to explore and understand each concept and learn fundamental bee biology. It examines the coevolution of bees and flowering plants, bees as engineers of the environment, the evolution of sociality, the honey bee as a superorganism and how it evolves, and the mating behaviour of the queen.

We will explore the wonderful biology and behavior of honey bees in future installments, each related to a different chapter painting a view, an opinion and a glimpse, of the wonderful world of bees.

Feature image by John Pons via Wikimedia Commons. CC4.0.

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