Solitary Bees -
by Ted Benton -
A Book Review

I should firstly say that I have Ted Benton’s excellent book, 'Bumblebees'.  At the time I purchased this detailed hardback (of about 600 pages), it was officially out of print, and very difficult to get hold of, and so the copy I bought was second hand.

I was thus delighted to see that Ted Benton has written a book about solitary bees. 

As soon as I read the introduction, I knew it would be an informative factual guide, yet written in Benton’s warm accessible style - despite his obvious authority in his subject.

“Rather later in the year, tidy-minded gardeners might be disappointed to see neatly cut round or ovoid holes in the leaves of their prize roses. 

This is the work of the appropriately named leaf-cutter bees (Megachile species).  However, this disappointment is a very small price to pay for the pleasure of sharing one’s garden with these fascinating insects. 

It is a rare treat to watch the female cutting out the shape she needs, and flying off with it to line a brood cell. 

Soon she will return to the flower-bed to collect pollen among rows of stiff hair on the underside of her abdomen.” - from the Introduction.

Ted Benton Solitary Bees

What the book contains

  • Within the introduction, Benton helps us accurately answer the question “What is a bee?”.  There follows some helpful tips, for example, to enable the reader to discern the difference between a fly and a bee and a wasp and a bee, purely from observation. 

    For the more serious ecologist/entomologist/biologist, Ted supports the information with the requisite anatomical detail and terminology, and labelled diagrams.
leafcutter bee
  •  Throughout the book, extra notes and diagrams are supplied within the margin, so as to aid understanding and illustration, whilst not detracting from the main body of the copy, specifically, he provides:

    - Definitions and explanations of technical points – for example:

    a species that gains its nutrition at some stage in its life-cycle by feeding on the food-stores of another".

    "Pollinium (plural pollinia)
    an adhesive mass of pollen grains suspended from the column of an orchid flower".

    - Additional photographs and diagrams.

  • Diversity and Recognition

    - With explanation outlining how to identify first the classification and genus, by examining behaviours and habitats, specific characteristics (such as features seen on legs, facial markings etc), a section of colour photographs.

buffish mining bee

  • Bee Lives

    A great chapter, highlighting the behaviours, habitats and lifecycles of different solitary bees, again with photographs.  I love some of the descriptions of specific behaviours, and particularly enjoy reading confirmation of my own observations, for example, the territorial behaviours of male wool carder bees. 

    Also, there is plenty of information to provide clarity to observations. 

    For example, I have observed (and filmed) mason bees Osmia bicornis engaging in mating behaviour, although I have now learned that some of the behaviour observed may not have been mating at all – indeed, a male may mount a female for as long as 10 minutes and engage in a number of behaviours (such as stroking her antennae with his own, placing his front legs over her eyes). 

    However, this does not mean the female has accepted him – she may yet shake him off!  Only if the female accepts him, will the male then be allowed to mate with her (again, mating will last several minutes). 

    After mating, an ‘anti-aphrodisiac pheromone’ is applied, to make the female less attractive to other potential mates!

  • Cuckoos
    A chapter, with photographs, outlining parasites of solitary bees, their behaviours and mode of attack.

red mason bee

  • Bees and flowers
    Exploring the interaction between different flower shapes and foraging preferences and methods of solitary bee species (including methods of collecting and carrying pollen). 

    It was indeed interesting (although perhaps not surprising) that some of the behaviours exhibited by solitary bee species, are similar to those witnessed in social bee species. 

    For example, in social species, workers may leave chemical signals on flowers they have visited. 

    It seems solitary bees, such as the Macropis europaea, engage in similar behaviours – and in particular, this behaviour may be linked to the mating behaviours of that particular bee species
  • Finally, there are chapters about the conservation of solitary bees, (providing important information about challenges, habitat requirements etc), keys to the genera of bees (with glossary), and finally of course, references and further reading.

coastal leafcutter bee

This is a nice addition to my library. Benton’s book is described as a ‘Naturalists Handbook – Ecology and Identification’

As such, it will be of great assistance and interest to those studying ecology and natural history, as well as those with a passionate amateur interest in observing and learning more about these wonderful - and often overlooked pollinators.  Solitary Bees (Naturalists Handbooks) is available from Amazon UK