Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide

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Whenever one hears about bees these days, it is almost invariably to the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, that the reference is being made. Indeed, the health of this species is of justifiably great concern, but it is by no means the only species of bee on the planet. Among the approximately 20,000 species of bees known to science, there are mason bees, digger bees, sweat bees, polyester bees, carpenter bees, mining bees, and, of course, bumble bees.

Of all these, this last is perhaps the most popularly known and readily identifiable – or at least many might think so. In truth, the friendly, fuzzy bumble bee so commonly known to backyard gardeners is actually a member of a genus comprising some 250 distinct species, 46 of which are found in North America north of Mexico. And it is these very 46 (well, 45 actually, as one may now be extinct) that are the subject of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide.

Very much to the credit of its authors, Bumble Bees of North America is far more than just a guidebook. Before the individual species accounts even begin, there is a 50-page introduction that covers how to observe and attract bumble bees, their ecology and general life history, threats to their well-being, bumble bee mimicry (both Batesian and Müllerian), how they are scientifically classified, and how the book itself should be used as a tool in identifying them. Indeed, so clearly written and well organized are these introductory sections that they serve very well as both a first lesson to the absolute newcomer to the natural history of bumble bees and as an overview to the experienced naturalist and even the professional entomologist, ecologist, or general biologist.

Then there are the species accounts. As the authors clearly explain in their introduction, identifying bumble bees to the species is not something that can always be accomplished in the field. Given that the castes (queens and workers) – as well as the males – of each species can potentially appear in a variety of different color patterns, there is only so much that can be done in the field, even with a hand lens, to arrive at a reliable species-level identification.

However, this is not to in any way discourage the casual amateur naturalist. For those not interested in collecting individual specimens, the species accounts – each complete with range maps and yearly activity graphs as well as textual information describing such pertinent items as range, habitat, and behavior – provide a wealth of information that can lead the reader to a better understanding of which species might be found in a particular area. And thanks to a very cleverly designed scheme of diagrammatic color pattern icons, it is often possible to reach at least a general idea of an individual bee’s identity without collecting it and examining it under a microscope.

Of course, for those interested in going deeper and securing species identifications, each species account includes detailed information for examination of the specimen under a microscope. A section of comprehensive identification keys for both female and male bumble bees – with photos – is also included following the species accounts.

Because of their importance as a pollinator, their ubiquity (in various species, of course) across the continent, and simply because the lives and behaviors of bumble bees are so fascinating, Bumble Bees of North America should be considered a must-read by all amateur naturalists.

Professionals – entomologists, ecologists, general biologists, and most especially teachers of life science subjects at all levels – would also do well to add it to their reading lists for both its superb introduction to the genus as well as its value as a reference guide.

John E. Riutta