MTPR

The Fight To Save Our Native Bees

Mar 29, 2018

"I learned about five years ago that honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes. Honey bees are not native to North America, which I did know, but I was surprised that I did not know that honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes because I’ve been a gardener for decades. I was like, “How did I miss this?!” I felt sort of like a dope, and then I started asking other people and hardly anybody knew that honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes but that are a number of our native bees, those that evolved right here, can. So I thought, “People should know about this. I’m going to write gardening articles, and I’m going teach gardening for pollinators classes, because people should know who’s out there pollinating their tomatoes.” And I started reading about the bees and I sort of fell in love with them." -- Paige Embry on her love affair with native bees.

Our Native Bees

The following are highlights from a conversation with Paige Embry about her book, Our Native Bees: North America's Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them. To hear the full conversation click the link above, or subscribe to our podcast. 

Sarah Aronson: What’s the difference between wild bees and managed bees?

Paige Embry: A managed bee is one that people bring to certain areas with the idea of having them pollinate, usually, crops. Honey bees are a little special because sometimes they’re used for their honey-making abilities as well as their pollinating abilities. Honey bees are the most widely occurring managed bee, but there’s others, there’s maybe 10 or 12 in the world that are also managed but none as widely and pervasively as the honey bees are. All of the other bees that are just out there in the world doing their thing, flying around, and pollinating whatever pleases them, and living wherever it pleases them, and doing it according to the natural schedule, those are the wild bees.

Usually when I read scientific nonfiction books, I find myself going so slowly through them and trying to metabolize every fact, and I think a quarter of the way through your book I just threw up my hands and said, “I’m just going to go along for the ride,” and I could do that because the narrator in the book is so voicey and engaging. It made me wonder, Paige, who are your favorite nonfiction authors?

Well, [John] McPhee. In part because I studied geology and so I remember reading his books, back in the day, and being amazed that somebody who is not a geologist could nail, so beautifully, geology for people. You didn’t have to be a geologist to do it. In fact, maybe it’s easier to do it if you’re not a geologist. I like Elizabeth Kolbert. Those are the two that jump to mind.

And then how would you describe your [writing] style in terms of balancing narrative and fact?

I had readers, who were non-scientists, who would reel me back in sometimes when I would get caught up in talking too much about all of the science because it’s like “Well we want more of the story, so you need to get back to the story.” So I had that to reel me in but when I first started learning about bees four or five years ago, and I was reading about bees, and reading a lot of guidebooks about bees because that’s mostly what’s available, and the facts would go in and just sort of slip right back out again and it wasn’t until I started putting them in stories, that the facts started sitting more. I’m not sure I can divorce the story from the facts but I think the story is an essential part of it.

How did you get your start in the bee world?

I learned about five years ago that honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes. Honey bees are not native to North America, which I did know, but I was surprised that I did not know that honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes because I’ve been a gardener for decades. I was like, “How did I miss this?!” I felt sort of like a dope, and then I started asking other people and hardly anybody knew that honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes but that are a number of our native bees, those that evolved right here, can. So I thought, “People should know about this. I’m going to write gardening articles, and I’m going teach gardening for pollinators classes, because people should know who’s out there pollinating their tomatoes.” And I started reading about the bees and I sort of fell in love with them.

About the Book: 

Paige Embry’s multiyear obsession with the lives of America’s native bees began with a gardening epiphany—honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes. When it comes to the plight of pollinators, honey bees get all the press. But the fascinating story of North America’s native bees—an endangered species essential to our ecosystems and food supplies—is just as important. Through interviews with farmers, gardeners, scientists, and bee experts, Paige Embry explores the crucial role native bees play in successful gardening and agriculture. The people and stories are compelling: Embry goes on a bee hunt with the world expert on the possibly extinct Franklin’s bumble bee, raises blue orchard bees in her refrigerator, and learns about an organization that turns the out-of-play areas in golf courses into pollinator habitats. For those curious about the interplay between these wild creatures and our modern food systems, Our Native Bees is an illuminating exploration of the pollinators essential to our survival.

Paige Embry
Credit Zoe Tyson

About the Author:

My multi-year immersion into the lives of America’s native bees began with a gardening epiphany—European-import honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes, but a variety of native bees can. This realization led to an obsession with native bees that cascaded into taking classes, wading through the scientific literature, raising bees, participating in bee science, modifying my garden, and trekking into fields and onto farms with bee experts to learn who America’s bees really are, and how they are faring. It also led to a book.

I’ve spent my adult life involved in science and nature. I tend to latch onto something and love it hard for a long time. I fell in love with geology in the very first geology class I took at Duke. Afterwards, I headed out to Montana to graduate school, a place where one can see the rocks so much better than in the deep south where they are so often covered in dirt and plants.

When I moved to Seattle I discovered gardening and fell in love with plants. After having a couple of kids, I started a garden design and coaching business. I’ve taught classes on geology, soils, gardening, and pruning. I started writing to promote the business, sending out monthly newsletters, and discovered the pleasure of writing and the power of story-telling. I’ve been surprised to find that my Georgia roots, which I thought were long-decayed, sneak into my writing. Despite living in Seattle for 25 years, when I write I hear the dropped g’s, slippery vowels, and soft, slurring rhythms that filled my childhood. This mid-life foray into writing has been an unexpected gift on many levels.