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Wednesday July 6th

Save the bees, please. Novelist Paige Embry talks importance of protecting native bees

The Augochlora pura is one of the most common bees in Eastern North America. Photo by Amanda Robinson.
Buy Photos The Augochlora pura is one of the most common bees in Eastern North America. Photo by Amanda Robinson.

Paige Embry will be speaking about her new book, "Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them," at Flyleaf Books on Saturday, March 10 at 2 p.m. Embry is from Seattle, Wash., and has a bachelor's degree in geology from Duke University and a master's degree in geology from the University of Montana. 

Staff writer Chadwick Dunefsky spoke with Embry about her new book and why she considered native bees important. 

The Daily Tar Heel: Could you tell me about your new book? What is it about?                                                                                                                                                                                  

Paige Embry: It is not a guide book to native bees. It is much more of an armchair read of stories that happen to be about native bees. I am a longtime gardener, and when I learned that honey bees can’t pollinate tomatoes, I thought I should know that already, and I thought a gardener should know that, as well. So I went out and started investigating native bees, and I ran into all of these cool stories about bees, and it made me want to work with them. 

DTH: Why would you say it’s important for us to be talking about bees today?

PE: Well, honey bees get all the press. Everybody knows about the trouble that the honey bees are in, but few people know really anything at all about our native bees. There are 4,000 species of bees that are native to the U.S. and Canada. We do know that there are problems (with native bees), habitat loss and things along those lines... So I think people should know about that. And also people who have access to gardens or farms, it’s really easy to modify gardens to support native bees. It’s a conservation effort if people know a little bit about it. 

DTH: What would you suggest to people if they wanted to learn about these modifications?

PE: To avoid pesticides, provide nest-sites. Because most people think of flowers when they think of what to do for bees, (you need) to plant flowers that have good pollen and nectar resources, and that’s important. But the wild bees, 70 percent of them live in the ground, 30 percent of them live in an above ground hole like an old beetle burrow or in an old den somewhere. They have to have a place to live that’s close to those flowers because some of the bees are smaller than a grain of rice and they don’t fly very far from their homes to the flowers... So in addition to planting flowers which people do for honey bees, you also need to leave some open ground and provide some above ground holes for them. It could be that you cut down some raspberry canes and stash them in a corner somewhere.

DTH: Is your home modified like this, as well?

PE: I live in a very urban part of Seattle, Wash., and I definitely have put out nest blocks, which are blocks with reeds in them for some of the bees that dwell in holes. I certainly have some empty spaces where ground nesting bees could nest, but I haven’t had any start nesting there. I always choose pollinator plants. A conifer is not going to be good for pollinators. But I always think about, "Is there a pollinator plant that will fit this situation?" So yes, I have modified my garden to make a better home for native bees.

DTH: You got to speak with farmers, gardeners and scientists while writing your book, so I was wondering if you had any interesting stories you wanted to share. 

PE: One of the short stories that I liked (was) about a kind of bee that’s called ceratina calcarata, and somebody has named the bees Cinderella... (When the eggs hatch), they don’t go out and start flying right then. They’re going to go through winter and start a hibernation phase... (The first egg hatched) is called the "dwarf eldest daughter," and momma bee forces (it) to go out and help her collect food... (Because), she has no chance of surviving the winter and ever having any offspring of her own, somebody nicknamed her Cinderella.

DTH: What was your favorite part of writing the book?

PE: I loved getting the opportunity to go out into the field and into the lab and see how the science is done and also to learn a little bit more about what it takes to bring all the food to the grocery store. That was wonderful. 

DTH: How would you say going into the field has changed your perspectives on bees now?

PE: Most people, when they hear the word "bee," they either think of a honey bee or something with a stripey bottom that stings. Although I wasn’t quite in that category, I had no sense at all of how versatile all of our bees were, both in how they looked, and how they behaved. I see bees more as an incredibly varied group of animal than I did before starting this research. 


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