For all the recent media attention given to declining bee populations, how much does the average person actually know about bees?
The moment you open this lusciously illustrated new offering from Princeton University Press by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carrel, you will be captivated by magnificent photos and engaging captions that delight and fascinate. But more than that, you will learn just how beautiful and unexpected is this mightily important group of insects, and how complex and diverse their lives.
Did you know, for instance, that hot dry deserts are home to more bee species than anywhere else in North America? That most bees do not live in hives (instead they live underground) and most do not produce large amounts of honey (or any honey at all?) That bees are divided into groups called tribes? Did you know that some bees don’t even look like bees (to the untrained eye) and could be mistaken for wasps, flies, flying ants or termites? That some kinds of bees, such as the Cuckoo Bees, parasitize the nests of other bees, much as the more familiar Cuckoo bird does other birds? That bees never hang papery round nests from tree limbs? (That’s something done by wasps). Honey bees do build their honey-filled nests in tree cavities, though. Did you know the smallest bee species in the world is an astonishingly minute 0.08 inch long, while the largest is a beefy inch and a half? And, aren’t all bees either drab reddish-brown, or yellow and black? Well, yes, except for the solid black ones and the blue ones and the shiny metallic green ones, or the pale yellow ones with pale green eyes, or the bumblebees with patches of bright orange fuzz or Nomada bees that are fire-engine red, or the Centris species, which sport red eyes. And some species don’t even have a nest to retire to at night, so they bite onto a twig and spend the night hanging on, asleep, while dangling out in the open air!
While this is not an instruction manual for bee keepers, there is an overview of apiary arts, as well as advice on creating bee-friendly landscaping so you can help pollinating insects or provide naturalistic nesting sites for them (including species which like crevices in rock work like stone walls, or who burrow down into hard packed earth.) How about hanging a bundle of twigs from a tree to attract nesting bees? Fun projects for school children, or the child in any of us ‘grown-ups’ who want to experience the thrill of nature in our own backyards.
Wilson and Carril’s breathtaking guide introduces you to the roughly 4000 North American bee species without losing the reader through ‘information-overload’. It gives advice on finding and identifying species in the field and even shows you how to collect and catalog your own specimens should you be interested in such increasingly dedicated work. Unlike some other publications which are exhaustive and highly technical, with confoundingly detailed comparative charts and perplexing terminology, however, (which can become tedious and put off even a very interested newcomer), the language here is friendly and accessible for beginners, while still authoritative enough to be of value to experienced enthusiasts. The authors volunteer translations of scientific names and other interesting tidbits of knowledge, including keys to identification, offering fun facts without surpassing the limits of readers with distractable attention spans. As an added, appreciated bonus, the typeface used is clear and large enough to be read by many an older reader, even without glasses, all in a clean, colorful, pleasing page layout.
One of loveliest things about The Bees In Your Backyard is the truly stunning photography. This, paired with expertly chosen glossy paper and careful printing, produces images so satisfyingly sharp, colorful, clear and precise that you can almost see each bee’s personality, (this reviewer’s snapshots of the images, which accompany this review in the slideshow, can’t do them justice). My hat is off to the authors, who took those magnificent photos which aren’t otherwise credited. From personal experience attempting to ‘shoot bugs’, I understand how challenging it can be, especially out in the field.
It’s gratifying that the interest in pollinators, and bees specifically, has grown enough to support books like The Bees In Your Backyard. Maybe that means there is hope for saving them, and the rest of our spectacular natural world.
The BEES In Your Backyard, A Guide to North America’s Bees, by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, published by Princeton University Press.