Books

the story behind the book

To bee or not to bee, Noah Wilson-Rich answers the question

david wilson for the boston globe

“I wasn’t the kind of kid who grew up playing in the dirt or even who had a big interest in insects per se,” said Noah Wilson-Rich. But one biology professor in college, Northeastern’s Rebeca Rosengaus, introduced him to “the amazing world of social animals.” After graduation, the former pre-med student found himself pursuing a PhD in biology instead, studying bees.

A persistent lack of research funding for his field, Wilson-Rich said, led to his next change of course. “I’m a product of a poor economy,” he said. “I was finishing up my PhD, and I was looking at the job market, and it wasn’t looking so great. So I had to think outside the box.”

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His idea was novel — “selling beehives to raise funding for my research,” simply put — and it has been a success. A business begun in his South End apartment, a decade later Best Bees is valued at half a million dollars, with 17 employees.

Like backyard chickens, urban beekeeping has a certain of-the-moment cachet, but Wilson-Rich, who teaches biology at Northeastern, says it’s no fad. “The function behind it is undeniable,” he said, adding that as pollinators of more than 100 different fruit and vegetable crops, bees help power the US economy.

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On a local level, he added, plenty of Boston-area restaurants have begun keeping their own rooftop beehive operations, providing honey for their kitchens. For those who want to help bees without necessarily hosting a hive, his advice is simple: “Plant more flowers.”

In his recent book, “The Bee: A Natural History,” Wilson-Rich tries to counter the negative perception some hold of bees. “There are over 20,000 species of bees alone,” he said, “but they all get a bad rap because of their cousins, the wasps, the hornets, that are aggressive and do attack.” It’s natural to be afraid of a bee sting, he added. “I have been stung more times than I can count,” he admitted, “but this is because I’m a beekeeper.”

Wilson-Rich reads Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Commonwealth Salon, Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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