I should begin by declaring an interest: I like watching bees and can often be found in the garden looking at them when I might be doing something more productive.  It’s as though their sheer industriousness is enough without my joining in.  I am not an expert on bees, nor do I possess great knowledge about them, and so I approach this review from the standpoint of being able, potentially, to remedy this to some extent by using this book.  A key issue for me is whether (or how) I would use this guide in place of my rather fine (but deliberately limited) Guide to Bees of Britain by the Field Studies Council [FSC].  It is this 8 x A5 folded sheet that I currently take into the garden, or on walks, to aid identification.  This has fine pictures, a clear text, and weighs in at only 37g.


This new Field Guide has a lot going for it: it’s written by Steven Falk, a naturalist and conservationist who has worked with bees for over forty years, and illustrated by Richard Lewington, one of Europe’s leading insect artists; there are 700 excellent colour photographs of bees in the wild, and over 200 up-to-date bee distribution maps.  The book sets out to provide a comprehensive introduction to bee classification, ecology, field techniques and recording, with information on how to separate the sexes and distinguish bees from other insects.  There are introductions to families and genera, descriptions of key characters and life histories, and detailed species descriptions that cover field and microscopic characters, similar species, variants, flight season, habitat, flowers visited, nesting habits, status & distribution, and parasites & associates.  To a non-specialist eye like mine, the ground seems to have been completely covered, and it is wonderful to look at with multiple illustrations on every page.
The Introduction begins just where a book like this should:
“Most people are amazed to discover that we have over 270 species of bee in Britain and Ireland and that bumblebees and the Honey Bees account for only one-tenth of that figure.  They are also surprised to learn that over a quarter of our bee species do not collect pollen or make nests but are ‘cuckoos’ of other bee species, or that some of our so-called ‘solitary’ species are actually social, or that some bees look more like wasps.”
It then moves onto What is a Bee? in which you learn that bees have evolved from hunting wasps exchanging, in this long process, a predatory and carnivorous lifestyle for one that involves collecting pollen and nectar, with some further evolution to cuckoo-like activity.  All told, there are at least 20,000 bee species, with the earliest recorded being one preserved in amber from 83 million years ago.  A section on Bee Classification follows (families and genera), and then species, races, forms and variation.  Understandably, this gets quite technical very quickly, but the pictures are great.  There’s then a long section on how bees live (life-cycle) and on the non-human threats they face.  This is followed by a detailed look at habitats, a section on field techniques, including trapping, and a final section on conservation.  All this takes up the first 50 pages.  The next 10 pages are about how to use the Guide with dichotomous keys, and the final 370 pages set out in great detail the 6 families of bees in Britain and Ireland.
The book is ambitious: it sets out to be useful to multiple audiences ranging from casual observers (that would be me), keen wildlife photographers, serious bee recorders, and bee researchers.  The reason it is so long (432 pages) and heavy (a whopping 847g) is because of the needs of recorders and researchers.  And their need is also a national one, given the pressures that bees are under from intensive agriculture.  Because of this, our need to know more about them, where they are, how many they are, and how they are faring, is more urgent than ever, and this is their first such comprehensive guide for over a hundred years.  The guide reminds us that bee identification is not easy, and that a ‘compare insect and picture’ approach only get you so far – and that’s not very far at all given how small and similar some bees can be.  Hence, if you’re serious, you need lenses, microscopes, a reference collection in a museum or on line, or a collection of your own.  The guide says that to realise the full potential of the book:
“does mean having access to a microscope and collecting equipment, and developing a collection of reliably identified pinned specimens.”
Well, that’s not for me, and I certainly hope that not too many of us are inspired to go round collecting and pinning – but that’s another issue.  So where does all this leave me in terms of the other guide that I mentioned at the outset?  Well, it’s not really a fair comparison as they are designed for different purposes, and it makes perfect sense to have both of them: one for outside the house, and one for inside.
William Scott
Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland Steven Falk & Richard Lewington; ISBN: 978-1-910389-03-4; Bloomsbury, 2015; pp 432; £50.00

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