on 5 February 2007
I must begin by saying that I bought this book somewhat by default. I was looking for something about wasps, but as the Collins New Naturalist series has never covered this area (why not??), I opted for Bumblebees as a second-best choice.
As it turned out, I could not have chosen better. The book covers just about every possible area of UK bumblebee anatomy, ecology and conservation. It begins with a general introduction, before moving onto chapters covering the bumblebee lifecycle, bumblebee psychology (i.e. perception and decision-making, and how these affect behaviour), cuckoo bumblebees, predators, parasites and lodgers (including interaction between cuckoo bumblebees and their hosts), bumblebees and flowers (from both the bees' and the flowers' viewpoints), an excellent identificaton guide, and finally two chapters on the possible causes of bumblebee decline in the UK and approaches to their conservation.
What is fascinating about the book is that the author has been able to provide a wealth of scientific information, but presents it in a way that is fully intelligible to the non-scientific reader. I have no scientific background at all, just a general interest in wildlife, and yet I had no trouble in following the explanations given about every aspect of bumblebee life. Such an ability is always a good indication of an author who truly understands his/her subject.
As with the other New Naturalists, this one focuses on its subject from a British perspective. Plenty of reference is made to continental European studies of the same or similar species, and several relevant comparisons are made with bumblebee ecology in the US, but in all cases they are used as background and guide to the species to be found in the UK.
The identification guide, covering all British species, takes an interesting approach. Rather than the paintings provided in any standard field guide, Ted Benton has provided just two plates showing a selection of males and queens. Instead, the guide contains line drawings of anatomical features useful for identification, together with a written guide to enable comparison between similar/confusing species, enabling the reader gradually to eliminate the wrong species. One reason for this is that this book is not a field guide - it is a heavy 580-page reference book that does not just slip into your jacket pocket. And another is that bumblebee species include highly confusing variations, which means that the standard approach would be of limited value. The approach taken by this book is about as in-depth as it is possible to be.
If I have a criticism, it is of the photos. All are of excellent quality, but those that should help you to identify different species or distinguish between males, workers and queens are often too small to be of much use. There seems to be no good reason for this other than the editing: most of the pictures are half-page size, but the bee is a small feature in an image dominated by the background (i.e. the plant it is visiting). I cannot help feeling that they could have been cropped and enlarged to focus more on the bee. Curiously, there are several full-page photos in the book, but not one of them is of a bee!
However, the criticism is minor, and overall Ted Benton's Bumblebees is a superb example of how to present scientific study to the general public in an absorbing and lively way.
on 30 March 2011
I've always had a soft spot for bumblebees, though I know little about them; I can recognise the commonest British species, but that is all. I've been training my six-year-old son to do the same, actually, based on the fact that they all have differently-coloured bottoms, which he thinks is quite funny. I decided I'd like to know a little more about them myself.
Having big furry bodies, bumblebees can maintain body temperature above their surroundings very successfully and are thus unusual among insects in being well-adapted for cooler climates. Their strongholds worldwide are in Northern Europe and Central Asia; there are very few species in the tropics. This northerly distribution would make them very sensitive to climate change, you would think, though it seems in this country at least that intensive agriculture has had a much more serious impact on their numbers. Within the UK, Scotland is an important stronghold for several of our declining species.
Benton is a fascinating writer, and though the book is a mine of scientific detail, the author's training as a sociologist is evident in several fascinating sections, such as the discussion of altruism, conflict and cooperation (pp 61-4). In the final chapters on `Agricultural Change and Bumblebee decline' and Conservation, it really comes to the fore, and manages - just about - to stay the right side of polemic. A thorough and valuable guide - by far the best I've ever seen - to these endlessly-engaging insects.