The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America's Bees
by Joseph S. Wilson & Olivia Messenger Carril



Princeton University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-691-16077-1.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 05/09/2016

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Science

You know how sometimes a book opens a door to a world you never imagined existed, one you might not have cared about before that book entered your life? The Bees in Your Backyard is that kind of book.

First, this book is so stunning that it would make a fine coffee-table book. The hundreds of gorgeous color photos are artfully displayed and reveal the beauty of a whole group of insects most people still fear viscerally, even though there's no need to. (Most of North America's 4,000-some species of native bees are easy to get along with, unlike non-native European honeybees, their touchy cousins. Or wasps, which aren't bees at all.)

And oh, are these mild-mannered and vitally important insects beautiful! Some, like familiar bumblebees, are fat and furry; others are almost impossibly tiny and slender. Many sport the traditional "warning-stripe" pattern of yellow and black, or silver and black; in others the black alternates with brilliant orange, rust or lemon. Still other bees come in jewel tones, all sparkly emerald or sapphire, or glittering in gold.

Not that this field guide is all about bees' good looks. The authors, both scientists, clearly find bees fascinating, and they tell a good story (which is not true of most scientists). Seriously—no terse descriptions here. After an extensive introduction on what makes a bee a bee, where bees live, and so on, Wilson and Carril detail each group of bees in charming and readable prose: what makes the bees in a group unique, how they got their name, what kind of flowers they pollinate and how they go about it, and how they nest and mate. As in this sidebar, "Fooling Around," on how some orchids trick male bees into pollinating their flowers:

The orchid petals resemble the 'back' of a female bee, complete with little wings. They even emanate a floral scent like that of a female bee. Males... pounce on the backs of the female 'bees' thinking only of mating, but leave frustrated and covered with pollen from the orchid. Not being fast learners, these hedonists often make the same mistake over and over with other orchid flowers, thereby unwittingly effecting pollination.

Wilson and Carril also demystify scientific names (most native bees, like many insects, have no common name) by explaining what the name means and how it's pronounced and telling stories about how the different bee groups got their names, thus illustrating the process behind the tongue-twisting language of science. Like this on a genus of bees named Caupolicana (Koh-poh-lik-AY-na): "Caupolicana is named after a fierce warrior of the Mapuche people in Chile. He led an army against the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. The first specimens ... were collected in Chile."

As a woman in science (although botany rather than entomology), I appreciate seeing Carril as co-author, proof that women in science are finally getting more recognition for their work. (Note that she's not the first author listed, however.)

Every gardener or student of nature needs a copy of The Bees in Your Backyard, if for no other reason than to marvel at the astonishing diversity and beauty of this group of insects most of us know little about—even though their lives are vital to ours and to the health of our planet.


Joseph S. Wilson is assistant professor of biology at Utah State University and has been studying bees and wasps for more than a decade.

Olivia Messinger Carril received her PhD in plant biology from Southern Illinois University and has been studying bees and the flowers they visit for nearly twenty years.

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