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Holm / Bees - An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide

Bees - An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm (2017 -paperback, 224pp – Pollination Press $29.95) 

Heather Holm’s second book is a tour de force, combining plant knowledge with an intimate understanding of the native bees of Eastern North America. While this is a beautifully produced publication with stunning photographs, it is Holm’s genius for organizing information in a way that’s clear and accessible that makes it especially valuable. 

There are more than 300 species of native bees here in Huronia. (The invasive European honey bee is not one of them.) Bee identification is a tricky business, especially as some bee look-alikes are actually flies, and some wasp look-alikes are actually bees. This book - which covers the Midwest, Great Lakes and Northeast Regions – will get you started with a useful chart that zeroes in on key identifiers such as hairiness, antennae length, number of wings, waistedness and eye position. Another chart helps narrow down the search by size, time of year and general appearance. Then you go to one of the chapters on each of the five major bee families found in Ontario. 

I found it quite easy to determine that the dozens of bees I observed last week flying low to the ground in two different sparsely vegetated sandy areas were of the family Colletes, of the species C. inaequalis (unequal cellophane bees), which are among the earliest bees to emerge in spring. Few people would consider the areas where I found them – a former quarry in a tract of Simcoe County forest that’s favoured by clay target shooters, and a garbage-strewn waste ground along Huronia Rd. in Barrie – to be particularly attractive but for these extremely busy creatures that are among the first of their kind to appear in spring, they are vital habitat. 

And the bees were fascinating to watch. What were they up to? Holm has the answer: The males typically emerge first from the nests (the entrances are small holes in the bank or path) and fly low to the ground, waiting for the females. When one comes out, they converge and compete to mate with her. The family gets its name from a waterproof membrane these bees make to line their nests against flooding, dessication and spoilage of the pollen/nectar provisions laid in for the larvae. 

I’m interested in bees because of my passion for plants – and if you’re like me, you’ll be delighted with the second half of the book which is a treasure trove of information about plants. Holm has profiled more than 100 plants - the most important large and small trees, shrubs and annuals/biennials/perennials that provide forage for bees. All her selections are native. Native bees have developed a mutually beneficial relationship with native plants for thousands of years, she explains, and native flowering plants are four times more likely to attract pollinators than exotics (non-natives). Some bees are specialists and cannot survive or rear offspring without specific native plants. 

Charts and graphics provide key information – the plant’s desired habitat, soil type, exposure (sun or shade), time of flowering, whether butterflies visit or are able to breed, whether food or nesting habitat is provided for birds and so on. Well-chosen photographs show the flowering and form of each plant. 

At the back of the book, more useful data: 

-A list of actions that will benefit bees (leave areas of bare soil, leave or add downed logs, leave leaf litter, provide a succession of flowering plants, plant forage plants in masses to create better visual attractants) or not (don’t till soil, don’t compact soil, don’t destroy rodent holes, don’t plant only annuals, don’t use pesticides). 

-As well as a glossary of terms used to describe bees or plants, a list of websites and a comprehensive bibliography. Holm’s first book, Pollinators of Native Plants, takes a wider look at beneficial insects (bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and beetles) and their interaction with the plants they need. Both books are available from Return of the Native.