Book review | 100 Plants to Feed the Bees

Eucera female.

100 Plants to Feed the Bees by The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Storey Publishing, Massachusetts. Copyright © 2016 by The Xerces Society. This review refers to the softcover edition.

Do you need some guidance on what to plant to attract bees? 100 Plants to Feed the Bees is a reference handbook that will help you decide what to plant, where to plant, and what those plants might attract.

Each plant has a two-page spread which includes one to four full-color photographs of the flower and a general description of the plant. Icons in the margin of the first page show what type of pollinators are usually attracted, whether they be honey bees, native bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, or moths.

The second page has paragraphs on the recommended species or varieties to plant, and a separate section on “notable visitors.” Each plant has a US map showing distribution of the plant, and a sidebar section suggests uses for the plant such as hedgerows, wetland restoration, ornamental, or pollinator nesting materials.

The footer section that runs across both pages gives addition planting information such as exposure, soil moisture requirements, bloom time, flower color, and maximum height.

Lots of information in a compact volume

I found myself perusing the descriptions in search of plants to attract native bees. Since my honey bees seem to do their own thing regardless of what I plant, I try to attract wild bees to my garden (aka photography studio) however possible.

The front material includes an overview of the relationship between plants and pollinators. The section on what makes a good pollinator plant mentions ultraviolet light, color phases, nectar guides, fragrance, shape, and phenology. Also included is a section on nutrition and the other rewards plants offer, including nesting materials and nesting habitat.

A number of books surfaced in the last few years that cover these same topics, but I find that no matter how many I’ve read, I learn something new from each new publication. All-in-all I’m happy with this new addition to my bee library, except for one thing.

Okay, so what’s the one thing?

The Xerces Society calls themselves “the global authority on insects and other invertebrates” (see back cover of the book). Bearing that in mind, be sure to turn to page 13 and study the diagram labeled, “Anatomy of a Honey Bee.” The creature shown is definitely not a honey bee, and the arrow pointing to a “pollen basket” does not point to a pollen basket.

The term “pollen basket” generally refers to a corbicula, the kind of pollen-carrying structure used by honey bees and bumble bees. The pollen in a corbicula is tightly packed and shiny. But nearly all wild and native bees have some other type of pollen-carrying structure.

Depending on the species, these alternative structures, called scopae (singular scopa), are found on the tibia, femur, trocanter, abdomen, or back of the thorax. Pollen carried in scopae remains light and fluffy because it is not squeezed together; think of the difference between freshly fallen snow and a snowball. And because it remains fluffy, it is available for pollination, unlike the pollen in a true pollen basket.

The type of pollen-carrying structure a bee has is a major clue to identification. Even a novice bee watcher can see that the bee in the picture does not have the leg shape or pollen-carrying mechanism of a honey bee. I will place this book on my shelf beside the Facts on File edition of Bees of the World (2004), which has a fly on the cover.

A good book nevertheless

In spite of that one little hiccup, I think 100 Plants to Feed the Bees is worth having. I know I will refer to it many times as I begin paging through the 2017 seed catalogs that are already filling my mailbox. The book is available in hard, soft, and Kindle editions.

Honey Bee Suite

Honey bee with pollen basket

You can see the pollen basket on this honey bee. The bee confines the pollen to one part of her leg called the corbicula, a specialized structure where the pollen is tightly packed into a ball. © Rusty Burlew.

Halictus bee on wildflower

This native bee, probably a Halictus, is carrying fluffy pollen the entire length of her hind legs. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • Feel free (well, okay, not “free”) to publish a collection of your photos. They make me smile .

    • Diana,

      I’ve been wondering what to do with my photos. I have tens of thousands, all unorganized and impossible to find. How to get out of this mess, I do not know.

      • You could crowdsource them online to help identify the contents and vote for their favorites, then publish a book “Bees in My Backyard” of the top 100 or so. Might be a best seller!

        • Erik,

          You are funny. People who go ape over wild bee portraits are in the weird and crazed minority. Which reminds me: I had some postcards printed with bee photos. I’ll have to send you one. It’s on my list.

  • “I will place this book on my shelf beside the Facts on File edition of Bees of the World (2004), which has a fly on the cover.”

    That is hilarious!

  • Regarding the corbicula; after leaving some frames with partially drawn comb outside, I noticed that (my?) honey bees were harvesting the wax from them, and actually completely cleaned out one frame in about a week-and-a-half … I have some video of one bee stuffing her “pollen basket” with wax. I can’t recall reading/learning about them doing this. I’ve seen them harvesting propolis from equipment/frames, but not wax … Is this common?

    • Hi Paul,

      Interesting question, but I don’t know much about it. In the short post, “Why honey doesn’t run out of the comb?” I mention putting some drawn section boxes in the hive upside down to see what would happen. In time, the bees tore down those combs and built new ones. But I was never absolutely sure if they just disposed of it or reused it.

      I’ve also had hives where the foundation got too hot and slumped out of the frames and slid down between them. These also get dismantled but I don’t know where the wax goes or how it gets moved.

      Some people say that honey bees won’t re-use wax, but I don’t believe that. They may not reuse it when new wax is plentiful, but when it’s scarce, I believe they do reuse it. I’ve seen “new” burr comb, just built, that looks old and discolored. I always suspect it was made from old wax.

      Still, I’ve never seen bees in the act of moving it around. If you say they transport it in their corbiculae, I believe you. If they chew it and make it pliable, the pollen press on the hind legs could be used to stuff it into the corbiculae just like propolis or pollen.

  • Just before I decided to be a beekeeper, I called our local DNR, & placed an order for nothing but honey bee seeds. You get a mixture of perennials & annuals.

  • On reviewing your description of corbicula, one can wonder how effective the honey bees are as pollinators.

    • Very observant. I have a presentation I love to give about wild bee pollinators vs honey bees. The corbiculae of honey bees definitely is a pollination problem, but it gets compensated for by the shear number of bees in a hive. But statistically, wild bees such as miners, leafcutters, masons, and carpenters are much more efficient per bee, and one of the major reasons is the way the pollen is carried. The pollination that honey bees do comes from the pollen that sticks on their bodies in places other than the pollen baskets, whereas wild bees can pollinate from any part of their body because the pollen is so loosely held. You’ve hit on one of my favorite subjects!

  • Here in South Africa, the honey bees love dandelions. My whole yard are full of it. I used to destroy them and didn’t know about their medicinal value as well. I got two hives and a lot of my bees are foraging on the dandelions. The other day I counted about 12 bees per square meter.

    I love your closeup photos of the bees on the flowers.

  • I just got the book from my local library and scanned through it. I did stop and read on the native thistle, tho. The book says they are disappearing. I have several c. discolor plants growing in my vicinity and wonder if there is some way I could share the seeds. I’ve been gathering seeds to plant more in my yard for several years but haven’t yet (my bad) but it seems like I should get into gear and just do it