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Bumble Bees of North America, An Identification Guide

Plate from book
Plate from book
Princeton University Press

Bumble Bees of North America An Identification Guide


I used to pet bumble bees as a kid.


I'd walk up slowly while one had her head down in a flower, and while she was distracted, I'd gingerly stroke a gentle, feather-light forefinger along her furry thorax.

I never got stung. In fact, they never even seemed to notice, and would just move on to the next bloom when they were ready.

I thought I knew the bumble bee. Bumble bees were simple, cute and straight-forward.

So when I eagerly agreed to review Bumble Bees of North America, by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson and Sheila Colla, I didn't anticipate being overwhelmed by page after page of diagrams of bumble bee dorsal patterns, each reduced to a grid outline with slightly differing arrangements of black, olive, orange, yellow and white rectangles.

Then again, despite my childhood proclivity for fondling stinging insects and various creepy-crawlies that my peers found scary, bumble bees were never really on my radar when it came to obsessing over the finest details of identification and study (native US snakes, lizards and exotic neotropical parrots took that role in my life for years.).

One of my great passions (besides nature Herself) is field guides. I love anything that helps me to know what creatures or plants I'm seeing, what their place and status in the world is, what unique attributes or behaviors they're known for, and how they interconnect with everything else.

So, it's rare for this reviewer to cry 'uncle' when it comes information torrents.. But I almost did with this book.

I had no idea just what a challenging project becoming a bumble bee expert really is.

Remember the kiddie magazine most of us grew up flipping through nervously in our doctor's waiting rooms? You know, the one with those brain-teasers where there are two pictures that look virtually identical and you had to spot the subtle differences - For instance, in one the boy has on black socks and in the other the socks are blue, or are missing entirely?

That magazine is Highlights For Kids, and perusing the pattern diagrams in Bumble Bees of North America reminds me of the hours I spent absorbed in Highlights' puzzles.

There were books in the library of the reptile building (behind the scenes, in the keeper area of the zoo I worked in), that had equally brain-torturing illustrations - In that instance, of the arrangements of scales (or scute patterns, as explained here) used to identify snakes, in which the slightest difference in shape, size or placement could differentiate subspecies, races or local variations.

Also, as with snakes, it seems some bumble bee species are best identified by their penises.

Yup, we get to study photos of bee privates.

So, I had to put this review away for a little while and come back to it later, in order to decide how to approach it, and my rating.

Bumble Bees of North America is undoubtedly indispensable for the scientist and field biologist. It is a tremendous undertaking, and I can feel the work (to the point of tedium, perhaps) that went into every single page.

But how about for more casual user?

This is a very confusing and confounding group of animals, many of them looking alike, but also being sexually dimorphic (males looking different than females, and both looking different than workers), on top of having so much geographic variation that they end up looking like bees from other areas . . . confusions pile on top of confusions, until I wonder how many lay people would have the heart and motivation to wade through more than a cursory flip-through of the pages.

I know I very nearly had the same reaction.

The photos throughout are serviceable as aids in identification, but I wish there were more (and clearer, brighter, prettier) photos, even though I realize that it's not within the scope of this work. So this isn't so much a 'pretty book' as a useful, informative, dignified one. Even so, I found it surprising and disappointing that bumble bees seem to be less-than-photogenic, their typically curled body positions, hunching as they do over their flowers, only serving to obscure them.

The photos of pinned and/or dead bumble bees don't help to lift the mood, either.

If you look up the publication on the Princeton University Press website, the photos are much more brilliant and attractive, as is the case with online images in general, but in this case, dramatically so. They also have a cute little video player with Flight of the Bumble Bee (of course) playing along with a slideshow of photos.

So, clicking on the reviewer's images reveals what these photos are supposed to look like.

Too bad they don't look that way in the book, They've become dark and muddy, having lost so much clarity and detail during the printing process. What a shame. Online, they're really quite beautiful.

But I have to review the book in my hands, not the promotional images online.

So, if you really look at the photos in the book (which at first glance all appear to be of the same basic black and yellow bumble bee), you'll soon spot variations that make some of these species real stand-outs. Some are clothed in yellow corduroy all the way down their abdomens, row after golden row (like Bombus borealis), or boast very attractive orange bands (Bombus ternarius, for instance). Some are bright, some are dark, some are dusky, and all are endearingly fuzzy.

And then, amusingly, there's the aptly named Bombus perplexus (Confusing Bumble Bee).

See, there's humor here for the 'in' crowd.

Perhaps more beautiful, though, than any of the actual bumble bees, are some of the bumble bee mimics; the surprising, furry, colorful flies, moths, beetles and the locust borer - Although they just serve to confuse things all the more.

Up to the challenge of becoming a bumble bee expert?

You'll have all the tools here - Good illustrations, range maps, quick keys to females from the four North American bumble bee groups, forage (flower) photos, discussion on classification and descriptions of each species, ecology, life cycle, a chapter on how to observe bumble bees and how to catch and preserve specimens for further study.

I like that the authors explain how (especially with use of a good camera), it's no longer always necessary to sacrifice bumble bees to study them - something especially important to me, considering the increasingly risky future awaiting them.

Bumble bees (and pollinators in general) are facing serious threats nowadays, from pathogens and insecticides to invasive species, habitat destruction and climate change. If you want to be involved with field work and conservation efforts, if you want to make a real difference, here's your chance to directly help preserve pollinator biodiversity or even save a species. The authors provide information on how to spot a rare or imperiled bumble bee, for instance the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, and who to contact if you find it, so that the discovery can be verified, recorded and the habitat area protected.

The authors also provide guidelines on setting up bumble-friendly gardens and how to help support bumble bees in your area. They list organisations and websites for pollinator conservation, research and tracking, and urge readers to support organic agriculture and gardening practices.

This is an invaluable book for the right audience. I'm just not sure how wide that audience will be. Will it appeal to the casual nature lover and be anything more than a space-filler on their book shelf?

For those who of you who thirst for specialized knowledge most no one else has, who are thrilled by sorting out minute details (I know you're out there), and energized by the prospect of becoming a real expert in a manageably small, less mainstream (but fast gaining attention) group of animals (46 recognized North American species north of Mexico), this book will be a must-have.

Save the bees. Especially our native bumble bees.

Bumble Bees of North America, An Identification Guide, by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson and Sheila Colla, and published by Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

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