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Sexy Parts

book cover

A crucial web links flora and their reproductive partners

The Forgotten Pollinators
By Stephen L. Buchmann
and Gary Paul Nabhan
Island Press; 320 pages; $25

Reviewed by Christina Waters

A newspaper recently recounted the death of over 900 million South African bees, a massive die-off apparently due to disruption of breeding patterns. Unable to match their feeding schedules with that of plant flowerings, the native honeybees dropped like flies, and fruit crops in the area failed.

To most readers, this sort of lurid statistic may be momentarily startling, but probably cuts little emotional ice. For naturalists Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, bee mortality is a bitter fact of life in a shrinking world of fragile ecological networks. Their new book, The Forgotten Pollinators, is an attempt to lure a non-technical audience to witness the intricate, often crucial partnerships among flora and their reproductive partners--pollinators. It is indeed a successful attempt, richly colored by the authors' far-flung field treks and sensuously illustrated by Paul Mirocha.

Injecting their text with dashes of humor and sex appeal, the authors manage to make the dry stuff of reproductive science interesting and touching. It's a detective story that begins 140 millions years ago, when flowering plants came to dominance and, lacking their own means of getting around to meet potential sweethearts, began developing complex symbiotic relationships with pollinators that could nurture their genetic messages into the future.

The book is full of clear explanations, elegant prose, and some case histories as absorbing as prehistoric opera, like Nabhan's account of why flowers evolved into so many forms. "Soon after their Silurian conquest of the ancient landmasses more than 400 million years ago, early terrestrial plants took to releasing--almost like dust in the wind--copious quantities of spores," he begins, before exploring the co-evolution between pollinators and their lascivious accomplices.

Just as eco-pioneer Rachel Carson warned of the "silent spring" pesticide poisoning could cause, she also foresaw "fruitless falls," in which "there was no pollination and there would be no fruit." Taking this omen as their theme, the authors proceed to riff juicily through the sexual habits of an astonishing menagerie of birds, bees, mammals, dinosaurs, bats, butterflies and botanicals--all endangered and many vanishing.

And sexy it is. The action-packed chapters are filled with sucking, licking, slurping, probing, penetrating, scenting, copulating and caressing. As Nabhan and Buchmann roam the fringes of biology, introducing us to the strange and the weird, their own infectious delight in nature's dizzying though dwindling diversity keeps our attention through the book's many technical passages.

In The Forgotten Pollinators the world is suddenly alive with sexual activity, with the Diaspora of great clouds of pollen, the scent of aphrodisiac pheromones, the whir of hummingbird wings. And if the authors have succeeded, readers will become newly sensitized to the peril of any environmental program that seeks to save endangered habitats, without also insuring the survival of those pollinators who keep the earth flowering and genetically abundant. The birds and the bees will never look the same again.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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