Sunday, November 21, 2021

Book Review: Wasps, by Heather Holm

That “other” wasp book, the one that is not mine? Spoiler alert: It’s good. Excellent in fact. It is tempting as a niche author to view your colleagues as competitors, but that does a disservice to the profession, and undermines the common goals of influencing public perceptions and initiating actions. This book is a fine complement to Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect, and exceeds it in certain respects.

This is a surprisingly large (11 ¼ x 9 ¼ inches), heavy, hardbound volume of 415 pages, with much larger images than Holm’s previous books. Holm self-publishes through Pollination Press, LLC, and exercises great attention to detail and organization in all her works. Personally, I am not a fan of the liberal use of codes, tables and sidebars, but compared to the two other books of hers in my library, those strategies are minimized here. The book is decidedly not as “busy” in its layout as I was expecting. Considering the digital age, my minor complaint may reflect the literature I grew up with, and be out of step with contemporary audiences. The species accounts include large images labeled with key identification characters. This is an outstanding idea that is absent even from most field guides.

While I have not read the book from cover to cover, I have read enough to conclude that Holm’s research was exceedingly comprehensive, and highlights the historical role of women in contributing to our knowledge of wasp biology. She includes an extensive bibliography of her sources, plus a glossary, and her trademark “planting guide” for which native plants in your region are most attractive and beneficial to wasps and other pollinators. Holm conducted a survey of flower-visiting wasps for eastern North America via iNaturalist to crowdsource observations of pollinator associations, and also drew from other contemporary resources to complement the existing scientific literature. We need more innovative approaches like this.

There are two subtitles to Wasps. One is “A Guide for Eastern North America,” and the other is “Their Biology, Diversity, and Role as Beneficial Insects and Pollinators of Native Plants.” No matter how you define eastern North America, the contents of this book work for you. Considering Holm is from Minnesota, I was pleasantly surprised to see many wasp species from the southeast U.S. included in the book. The natural history information presented is accurate, thorough, and captivating.

There are certain limitations to Wasps. This book is driven by an interest in plants, especially native plants and how they can and should be used in landscaping. This is the overarching theme for all of Holm’s books. Consequently, wasps that do not visit flowers regularly are given only passing mention in this book. Sawflies, horntails, gall wasps, ichneumon wasps, braconid wasps, and most of the chalcidoid wasps are absent in the species accounts. All of our friends among the social wasps, the mason wasps, sand wasps, spider wasps, and their conspicuous kin, are treated in detail. You would not want a book that could double as an anvil anyway.

The bottom line is that this is an exquisite volume deserving of consideration for literary awards, and certainly worthy of inclusion in the library of all naturalists. Placing insects in the larger context of ecology and human enterprise needs to be a more common treatment across all media. Holm is a master of subtle advocacy for underdog insects, and other authors can learn from her style and presentation. Please visit the Pollinator Press website to place your order.

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