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BEES: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide

By Heather Holm
Published by Pollination Press LLC
Book review by Bruce Wenning

The author of Pollinators of Native Plants © 2014, Heather Holm, has written another beautiful book for pollinator gardening enthusiasts. Her latest offering, Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide, focuses specifically on bees, their ecology, and the native plants they pollinate.

It takes many years of tireless effort in the library researching a subject combined with steadfast repetitive trial and error field observations to produce a book like this one. I’m a trained entomologist and, like the author, I work as a horticulturist. I know firsthand how long it takes to learn about specialized natural history subjects and master them as she has. Heather Holm is not a university professor with the perks and amenities that come with that coveted position.

On the other hand, Holm is the “real deal landscape biology practitioner.” This is why, after reviewing her first book about pollinators, and now this one, I admire her “Jane Goodall style” of long-term field observations which she combines effectively with library research. Her efforts have produced text, photographs, and illustrations that readily capture your interest and undoubtedly increase your appreciation for bees, their natural history, and specifically their host plants.

The book is well designed to access specific information about bees and their host plants with relative ease. Holm lists 193 references, with most being peer-reviewed scientific journals to back up her text. She has included excellent color photographs, illustrations, specialized symbols, and summary charts to effectively bring forward pertinent information about bees, their ecological life cycle requirements, and their host plants, including plant site and growing requirements and flowering duration times.

Chapter 1 covers the broad scope of bee natural history in a concise and straightforward way. It includes an introduction to bee ecology, sociality, anatomy, nesting sites, and diets. In reference to pollination, Holm includes the process of pollination (i.e., how it happens), flower structure, floral resources, and native bee management in the landscape. She includes simple descriptions with color photographs about how flies, wasps, and bees differ to help beginners investigate this subject.

In addition, Holm developed a quick reference chart to the bee genera, their morphology, and life cycle duration called “Bees at a Glance.” Each bee genera is explained more fully with page references to respective chapters. I particularly like this chart because it effectively provides field observers and insect lab beginners with a quick reference to the correct chapters, reducing reader search time flipping through the pages or reliance on the index, which is commonly encountered with other guides on this subject. You quickly realize that this book is smartly designed to help you learn a complex subject. My first introduction to this book gave me a confident feeling that I could learn as I go, an approach highly desired by beginners as well as those like me needing a review.

Chapters 2 through 6 introduce the plant pollinating bee families and respective genera (plus species representatives where applicable). The uniformity of chapter design makes learning about bee characteristics for each family more relatable and much less frustrating for beginners and those needing a review. I particularly like the chapter format or design because it allows for quick comparisons between families to better understand their differences. 

Once you familiarize yourself with the format of the bee chapters, you can easily access new material quickly and build upon what you already know or have recently learned. As stated, bee similarities and differences become apparent, which is an excellent aid to properly identifying bees in the field or lab specimens encountered for microscopic identification later. This is very important because pollinators in every insect group are fast-moving objects and can look the same in the field to the untrained eye.

The bee families covered are the Colletidae (chapter 2), Andrenidae (chapter 3), Halictidae (chapter 4), Megachilidae (chapter 5), and the Apidae (chapter 6.) All bee chapters cover family member characteristics, including body size and markings, life cycle activity, nesting requirements, sociality and related behaviors, population numbers, pollen collection, and the seasonal plants commonly foraged.

At the end of chapter 6, Holm provides several ecological reasons for why we should consider using native plants in the landscape. Believe it or not, not all reasons are for the pollinators!

She summarizes the bee-friendly plants in chart form as Plants at a Glance for your personal needs as you review garden design plans or make recommendations to others looking for accurate garden-pollinator information.

For example, the Plants at a Glance section divides bee pollinator-friendly plants by type and species. In addition, plant size, flowering times and habitat/site requirements are listed. Page numbers for each plant species are listed for direct reference to the respective chapters where complete information is given (just as it is for the bee chapters).

The last chapters in the book comprise the actual plant groups. Large native trees (chapter 7), small native trees and large shrubs (chapter 8), small native shrubs (chapter 9), and finally, native annuals, biennials, and perennials (chapter 10) are clearly represented.

Each plant entry has a general description accompanied by color photographs and range maps. Symbols, illustrations, and the subject headings are engaging and effectively placed on the page to convey important pollinator and plant details without lengthy text descriptions. In other words, Holm focuses on what she wants you to know; it’s all in front of you with no extraneous or distractive information. Again, this book is very well designed and illustrated.

Each plant entry includes a flowering period illustration and bullet-style text covering the pertinent flower, extrafloral nectaries, seed, notes on larval host plants, floral resources and attractants, common bees attracted, and bee specialists to that host plant. In addition, plant site information is presented in easy to interpret illustrations covering habitat, soil, plant height, and exposure. These are the site factors gardeners and the like immediately focus on when designing gardens and other planted areas.

The book concludes with a Bee Conservation Checklist that covers both beneficial actions and practices to avoid when monitoring and planning to maintain or create a more bee-friendly environment. The book also contains a well-stocked glossary, combined with illustrations, which helps define and clarify unfamiliar terms for bees and host plants.

Like her last book, Holm’s effort in producing this book certainly highlights her scientific background, ecological experiences, personal pollinator-plant discoveries, and her obvious passion for this subject. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about the bees that are responsible for pollinating our native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. It is, without doubt, a worthwhile book to add to your gardening and/or natural history personal library.


About the Reviewer

Bruce Wenning served on the ELA Board of Directors from 2003 to 2021. He has university degrees in plant pathology and entomology and is the horticulturist at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.


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