Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: The Bees in Your Backyard

The digital age has thankfully produced a wealth of resources, both online and in print, for amateur naturalists looking for information about insect pollinators. Perhaps the best of these to date is The Bees in Your Backyard, by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016). This is a visually-rich, up-to-date reference to all the genera of bees in North America north of Mexico.

At eight-by-ten inches in size, this book really isn't a field guide, but a useful tool to help determine the identity of an individual bee from a specimen or detailed image. As one becomes more familiar with key characters of different kinds of bees, they become increasingly easier to identify in the field.

The Bees in Your Backyard could be recommended simply on the strength of the "keys" it employs to aid in bee identification, but it goes beyond that. The discussion of each genus includes distribution maps that show not only where those particular bees occur, but their level of abundance and diversity in a given area. There are also graphs showing the seasonal distribution of the bee genus; and a scale with life-size silhouettes shows the size range of the genus.

As the average infomercial goes "but wait, there's more!" Indeed, the introductory pages address bee anatomy, bee biology, how to study bees, and a key to the different families of bees. A separate chapter gives tips on how to promote bee diversity in your yard, garden, and neighborhood.

Interesting and relevant facts are scattered throughout the book in highlighted boxes of text. These are welcome little "surprises" and bonuses, but sometimes become distracting.

If there is any complaint with the book it may lie in this "busy" appearance. People who have a difficult time with their attention span or ability to focus may have problems with the book's organization. For example, chapters are divided into sections with decimal numbers (chapter 1 is divided into 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc). This is reminiscent of a textbook or website presentation and thus may appeal to students but not an older, more informal audience. Page numbers are located in the middle of the side margins of each page, and I, for one, have to learn that all over again each time I open the book.

Until now, the best reference for bee identification for this region was The Bee Genera of North and Central America, a bilingual (English-Spanish), scholarly work by Charles D. Michener, Ronald J. McGinley, and Bryan N. Danforth (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994). That book is now very much outdated, and is exceedingly expensive. Information on the biology of the bees is also minimal.

Whatever its minor shortcomings, or differing reader preferences, The Bees in Your Backyard is by far your best bet for a comprehensive work on all things apoid, in a compact 288 pages, too. Plus, at $29.95 U.S., it is highly affordable. Make sure you add this to your library, and use it often. Pollinators need all the help they can get, especially our native, solitary bees.

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