Ask a non-biologist what bees do when they visit flowers and you may be told, correctly, that they are collecting nectar to make honey or are busy pollinating the flowers; a few people might even say that they are collecting pollen and nectar to feed their young. However, ask how many species or types of bee there are, and the probable answer is that there are honeybees, bumblebees and maybe a few other sorts. In fact, there are several hundred species of bee in Britain and more than 16,000 species worldwide. Only a small proportion are bumblebees, and just a handful are honeybees.
To get their minds around such diversity, biologists group species into genera, genera into tribes and tribes into sub-families and families. Even then, to attain a world perspective on a group such as bees, which contain more than 60 sub-families and tribes comprising over 1,000 genera and sub-genera, takes a lifetime of study.
Charles Michener started studying bees as a schoolboy in the 1930s and was already a world authority when I entered biology 40 years ago. He and his students have investigated many aspects of bee biology, but throughout his career he maintained his schoolboy interest in understanding the huge variety of bees. This knowledge is now distilled in his major work, The Bees of the World . Despite its price, it will be bought by all scientists with a serious interest in bees, and it must have a place in the libraries of all institutions that aspire to entomological research, especially those that sponsor undergraduate expeditions.
The 16 pages of coloured plates, many line drawings and 913 pages of text give you your money's worth. The book has 119 sections or chapters. The main taxonomic part starts at section 33 with "A key to the families" and finishes 700 pages later with section 119 "Tribe Apini", the true honey-bees. The Apini get only two pages despite their importance in human culture, because their tribe contains only seven or eight species. Each section has a key to the genera of a particular sub-family or tribe with phylogenies where known; it then discusses each genus, referencing species-level treatments. The book has a comprehensive literature list, an index to the taxa and an excellent general index.
The first 32 sections form a short textbook on bees, with emphasis on what one needs to know to understand their taxonomy. Although many sections are short and give just the bare bones of a topic, taken together they give general readers an overall perspective on the evolution, ecology and social structure of bees. More important, they clearly illustrate the morphological structures used in bee taxonomy and provide a primer in important concepts in systematics as applied to bees.
Some people say taxonomy is a dying art. Surely it is strangely unfashionable at a time when diminishing biodiversity is seen as a key global biological challenge. It took me 20 years to understand how important it is to place the species I study in a wider context. I used to think of taxonomy as a dry, "legalistic" discipline. How wrong I was. Michener's book might help young students to reach this conclusion more quickly.
Graham Elmes is a senior scientist at NERC's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Dorset.
The Bees of the World
Author - Charles D. Michener
ISBN - 0 8018 6133 0
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - £100.00
Pages - 913