Ancient friend still gives us a buzz

Form and Function in the Honey Bee

November 28, 2003

Cave paintings dating from 10,000BC testify to the long-term relationship between honey bees and the human race. Vast amounts of literature on the western honey bee, Apis mellifera , deal with its physiology, behaviour and techniques for its management as pollinator and producer of honey and wax.

Using detailed artwork in combination with scanning electron micrographs, Lesley Goodman's book is the best-illustrated account to date on the functional anatomy of this important insect.

The scanning electron microscope has been a boon to functional anatomists, especially those specialising in insects. Using beams of electrons focused by magnets, the microscope facilitates the examination and photography of structures at magnifications much higher than those achievable with conventional light microscopes. Goodman's book is the first virtuoso treatment of the honey bee using a scanning electron microscope and is, literally, an eye-opener.

The high standard of illustration is matched by the quality of the writing, which makes the complex details of structure and function accessible to the non-specialist. This book should appeal to beekeepers, students and bee scientists. All will relish it not only as a source of information but as an attractive coffee-table book.

Nine chapters deal, in turn, with the antennae and sense of smell; the compound eyes and vision, including the perception of colour and movement; the simple eyes (ocelli); the bee's response to gravity; the mouthparts and sense of taste; the complex but beautifully orchestrated movements involved in gathering pollen and packing it into the pollen baskets (corbiculae); respiration; the mechanics of flight; and the pheromone-producing glands, their role in a range of behaviours and the defence of the colony.

Where relevant, the bee's physiology is compared with that of humans. This book is a much-needed update of the classic volumes on bee physiology by Karl von Frisch. The oft-stated anomaly that, theoretically, bees should not be able to fly is more than adequately debunked here. It is true that if we regard bees as fixed-wing aircraft, then they would not be able to get off the ground. But they are not fixed-winged aircraft: they are helicopters.

The only omission in this otherwise comprehensive book is an account of the functional anatomy of the drone's genitalia. This is perhaps connected to the tragic fact that Goodman lost her battle with cancer before the book was completed. Richard Cooter and Pamela Munn completed and edited it and have done an excellent job.

Christopher O'Toole is research officer, Bee Systematics and Biology Unit, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Form and Function in the Honey Bee

Author - Lesley Goodman
Publisher - International Bee Research Association, Cardiff
Pages - 220
Price - £55.00 and £25.00
ISBN - 0 86098 223 8 and 243 2

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