'The Bees in Your Backyard' – An Interview with the Authors

A Leafcutter bee (Megachile) rests on a cactus flowers. Cacti are excellent pollen and nectar sources for many desert bees.
Authors Joseph Wilson (left) and Olivia Messinger-Carril answer a few questions (below) to provide some insight into their book.

"The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America's Bees,” by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril, is an introduction to the approximately 4,000 bee species found in the United States and Canada. It includes detailed descriptions for identifying and studying bees; more than 900 full-color photos of bees; and tips for attracting a diverse bee population to your yard and garden.

Bee Care Center Researcher Kim Huntzinger notes that “The Bees in Your Backyard” is an invaluable resource for students and home gardeners alike. “There has been a need for a book about all the different kinds of native bees you might encounter in your own backyard and greater surroundings; especially a need for a book that can be approachable and accessible to all interest levels – from the expert to the beginning student to the backyard gardener,” Kim says. “Not only do these two authors have an extensive knowledge of native bees, but they have mastered the art of being both mesmerizing scientific speakers and delightful storytellers. The book is full of pictures, facts, experience, and tales of adventure that I hope will pique your curiosity to explore the bee world around you.”

Tell us a little bit about your background, as it relates to bees and writing this book.

Olivia: I have been studying bees for nearly 20 years. One of my first jobs in college was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory (the ‘Bee Lab’) in Logan, Utah. I worked there throughout my undergraduate years, and also while completing a master’s degree on the bee biogeography in Southern Utah. Later, I moved to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where I studied a specialist bee and its host plants for my Ph.D.

Joseph: I have been interested in insects for a long time. Early in my college career I volunteered in the Bee Lab in Utah, pinning and labeling bees, and eventually was hired as a technician. I temporarily paused my work on bees while I pursued a Ph.D. studying the evolution and biogeography of some nocturnal wasps, but returned to working with bees (and wasps) after completing my degree.

Tell us about the photos in the book. Would it be possible for homeowners to take similar photos to identify the bees in their yard?

Joseph: There are more than 900 photos in our book, and Olivia and I were able to take 90 percent of them. Some bees are found only in certain parts of the country so we contacted photographers from those regions to see if they would contribute some of their pictures for areas where we couldn’t go. Taking pictures of bees can be complicated, but very rewarding. Olivia and I both use a digital SLR camera with macro lenses, but decent shots can be taken using modern cell phone cameras or point and shoot cameras. In fact, some of the images included in the book were taken with my iPhone. We actually have a section in the book with tips on how to get good bee images, and what homeowners might want to try to get pictures of for identification purposes.

Tips for Photographing Bees

The largest and smallest bees in North America are Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa, on the right, on a quarter) and Small Mining Bees (Perdita, on the left). To capture such amazing photos, Olivia and Joe provide some photo tips below. These are just a sampling of the tips in their book:

  1. A digital SLR with a macro lens (100mm is good) is ideal for close-up photos of bees, but the cameras that come with many smart phones these days will work if you don’t want to spend the money.
  2. Remember that bees have incredible eyesight and are experts at spotting movement. (It could be a bird coming to eat them!) Move slowly when approaching your subject and keep your shadow off of them. If you’ve found a plant that is frequently visited by bees, set up a tripod and wait for them to visit so that they don’t spot your movements as much.
  3. Try to think about lighting; many bees are naturally dark shades of brown and grey, or are all black. As such, try not to backlight your subject, or the detail will be lost.
  4. Because bees move quickly, it can be hard to get a photo ‘on the wing’. Consider catching your subject with a net and putting it in the refrigerator for 10-20 minutes first.  Set it back on the flower and as the bee warms up, you can more easily snap pictures.

Would you say that this book is more for beekeepers, researchers, and bee experts, or more for the novice who wants to be more knowledgeable about what’s happening in their yard?

Olivia: Our hope is that this book will be useful for anyone with an interest in bees or general natural history. We wanted a comprehensive guide for those people without a strong background in the sciences, who were still interested in these amazing creatures. At the same time, we also hope that beginning biology students as well as those working on more advanced degrees might finally have a simple reference that they could use as they begin their studies in bee biology or pollination ecology.

What is the most fascinating thing about bees that you learned researching and writing this book?

Olivia: The thing I find most fascinating about bees is the relationship that they have with flowering plants. The evolutionary dance these two organisms have done for millions of years manifests in the most beautiful ways — most notably as the gorgeous, and also wonderfully scented, flowers we so admire. What makes it so amazing, to me, is the love/hate nature of it; bees are necessary for pollination, but at the same time when bees steal pollen and take it back to their nests for their own progeny, they are an unmistakable threat to seed set in flowering plants.

Joseph: One of the most interesting things for me is how so many bees have dietary preferences. Many bees only collect pollen from specific flowers, even when others are in bloom. It was interesting to discover, as we researched this book, the wide array of plants that different bee groups prefer to forage on.

What is one common myth about bees that you have tried to dispel in the book?

Joseph: Some of the common misconceptions are that all bees make honey (Only honey bees do.), or that bees live in large hives. (Most bees are solitary, and 70 percent of them nest in the ground.)

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