Monday, March 28, 2016

The Australian Native Bee Book

We went for a walk at the Australian National Botanic Gardens on the weekend, and I saw Tim Heard's The Australian Native Bee Book at the Botanical Bookshop.

I have always loved hymenopterans, and especially the eusocial ones (bees, wasps, ants). As the focus of the book is on eusocial stingless bees, I pretty much had to buy it. You see, during my field trips to South America years ago I frequently ran into the genus Trigona and its relatives. Here the nest entrance of a colony in a hotel courtyard in eastern Bolivia:

They are much smaller than honeybees and, as the name implies, do not have a sting. I knew that they are traditionally kept for honey in Central America, but because each hive produces only a fraction of the honey produced by a honeybee hive that practice is sadly dying out. Unfortunately, I never learned much more about their biology and diversity.

The Australian Native Bee Book focuses on keeping Australian stingless bee hives for honey, propolis, pollination services, and simply for conservation and education. Everything relevant is covered, from hive building across colony division to pests and parasites.

I will not attempt to keep any myself - we don't have the space, and these bees do not actually occur in the colder climate of Canberra - but one gets just as much out of the book on the biology, behaviour and diversity of these insects. It is really and truly one of those "everything you ever wanted to know but didn't know where to look up" scenarios. Their nesting, life cycle, global biogeography, taxonomic history, foraging strategy, and much more are described.

At the same time the style shows that rarely achieved combination of using clear explanations, superb images, and unpretentious language that will make sense even to a complete layperson (as I am with regard to bee-keeping) without being dumbed down or misrepresenting anything (which I can judge for some other topics like systematics or biogeography). To cite just the part on why the native stingless bees are not all called Trigona any more, something that is obviously close to one of the main topics of this blog:
Rasmussen's phylogeny also shows that the remainder of the Australian stingless bees called Trigona (and their Asian relatives) are not related to American Trigona. The first Trigona named was a South American species, so that group got to keep the name according to the rules of naming animals. This meant that the Australian/Asian bees needed a new name. (...) Nobody likes it when plant and animal names change, but there are clear reasons for, and advantages to, making these changes. It does not make sense to call all these species Trigona when they are not closely related. It clouds our thinking about patterns. 
Beautifully put, and very succinctly explained.

I would definitely recommend this book to those who loves bees, and especially the eusocial ones.

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