Phil Lester

Healthy Bee, Sick Bee: The Influence of Parasites, Pathogens, Predators and Pesticides on Honey Bees


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Phil Lester’s first book, The Vulgar Wasp, was about one of the world’s most hated insects. His second is about just the opposite – the honey bee, arguably one of our best-loved six-legged creatures. People have revered honey bees for centuries. Today we celebrate them with toys, postage stamps and campaigns to raise awareness; we dress up in large bee suits to protest the use of pesticides; we’ve even sent bees into space and watched as they adjusted to microgravity.

Bees are one of the world’s most efficient pollinators. Their work is vital to the success of many food crops, and hence to the world’s economy. So we need to take seriously any threats to their health – including parasites, pathogens, predators and pesticides – and, guided by evidence at every turn, find a way to minimise harm and keep bees thriving. As Healthy Bee, Sick Bee shows, this is no small task.

In this book, entomologist Phil Lester explores the wonderfully complex and sometimes brutally efficient life history of honey bees, and the problems they face in New Zealand and around the globe. What causes a beehive to collapse? Are pesticides as big a problem as they appear? What can we do to improve the health of our honey bees? With intelligence, insight and entomologist jokes, Healthy Bee, Sick Bee tells the story of this much-loved little insect and offers new ways of thinking about how to ensure they will stick around in the future.

'A very readable, enlightening text, interwoven with many delightful anecdotes and personal touches. . . . Incredibly well written, with persuasive evidence-based analyses. It will certainly change the way you view AFB and very potentially revolutionise the way AFB is both taught and monitored. I highly recommend this book.' —Judith de Wilde, New Zealand Beekeeper

'If you want to learn about popping bee penises (and honestly, who doesn’t), and where not to get stung, then this is the book to read. But obviously this book contains much more than a string of very amusing anecdotes. Phil Lester not only shows us his love of honey bees, but also his deep knowledge of everything that plagues them. I can easily see this book becoming the go-to-book for anyone interested in honeybees and their demons, large and small. Highly recommended.' —Prof. Madeleine Beekman, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

'Lester’s book is an impeccably researched analysis of the health of the honey bees of New Zealand by one of the world’s greatest bee pathologists. Lester pulls no punches when discussing controversial topics like the effects of neonicotinoids on bees, or the (un)likelihood of eradicating AFB from New Zealand. Packed with anecdote and cautionary tales, the story is told with immense style. This will be a valuable resource for beekeeper and scientist alike.' —Prof. Ben Oldroyd, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney


What kills honey bees?

1. The life history of bees
Democratic decisions and the occasional coup d’état

2. Varroa destructor: The vampire mite
A parasite that gives (viruses) as well as takes (blood and fat)

3. Viruses
Manmade, global pandemics in our favourite insect species

4. American foulbrood
My hive smells fishy ­– now I’m obliged to burn my bees

5. Pathogens
Fungal, trypanosomatid and other parasites and pathogens

6. Pesticides
How do neonicotinoids, Roundup, organic pesticides and other chemicals affect honey bees?

7. Predators
Ants, small hive beetles, hornets, wasps – and a plethora of other predators

8. The future
A lot of things affect bee health – and sometimes populations collapse


Phil Lester is a Professor in Ecology and Entomology at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the author of The Vulgar Wasp (VUP, 2018) and has published more than 140 articles on invasive ants, bees and wasps and other insects in journals that include Biology LettersEcology, and Proceedings of the Royal Society. Phil sits on the editorial boards of several journals, including Biological Invasions. He has won Fulbright and Royal Society Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellowships.

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