Wintertime reading

Are you looking for something to read on a cold winter night? Just for you, I’ve put together a short list of my current favorite books. None of the three is about beekeeping, but each title adds depth to the bigger picture—the tapestry of life woven together by flower and bee.

Looking at the larger picture. Photo © Rusty Burlew

Field Guide to the Common Bees of California Including Bees of the Western United States by Gretchen LeBuhn. 2013. As soon as this book arrived in my mailbox, I read straight through it three times. If there were a similar book for every region, the world would be a better place. The author selected the most common genera of bees in her location and for each genus she provides­­ detailed illustrations by Noel Pugh, a genus summary, description, similar insects, food resources, nest particulars, and flight season. She even includes a pronunciation guide.

The introductory material includes bee biology, morphology, and pollination basics in a readable, conversational style that is a pleasure to read. This is an awesome book and the best bee field guide I have ever seen. Field Guide to the Common Bees of California is highly recommended.

Honey-Maker: How the Honey Bee Worker Does What She Does by Rosanna Mattingly. 2013. If you want to be a good beekeeper, you have to know honey bees. And if you want to know honey bees, this is the book to read. I have kept bees, read extensively about bees, crafted a thesis about bees, and write daily about bees, but in spite of all that, I found something new in every chapter of this book.

The sub-title implies the book is about workers only, but it is much more than that because, after explaining a feature of the worker, the author compares her to the drones and the queen and explains how they are similar or different. So in fact, you get the whole picture. The author breaks down the book into three primary sections: the head, thorax, and abdomen and explains the inner workings of every part of the bee.

The book is captivating: for example, when I read the section on how the honey bee wing moves in a figure eight pattern, I found myself following the motion with my hands in a rhythm that reminded me of feathering an oar. And her description of how pollen collected on the right legs is moved to the left legs and then back to the right pollen basket—and vice versa—is fascinating, especially when she goes on to explain that propolis is always kept on the same side it was collected on.

Although Honey-Maker is not a how-to book on beekeeping, after a thorough reading, you can’t help but be a better beekeeper. Honey-Maker is highly recommended.

Bees: A Natural History by Christopher O’Toole. 2013. I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in this book. For one thing, it’s designed as a “coffee table” book—big and showy and not at all appropriate for tossing in my camera bag. Secondly, the photos are not original. For the most part, I’ve seen the photos a thousand times before all over the Internet, and lastly, the text is sprinkled with typographical errors.

All that aside, if you know little about bees in general, the book provides a good basic treatment. The author begins by explaining how bees evolved from wasps, and then goes on to describe the solitary and social groups, the relationship between bees and flowering plants, and finally the association of bees with mankind. The text is easy to understand, and if you haven’t seen the photos before, they’re impressive. Bees: A Natural History is recommended with reservations.

By the way, if you want something more in depth, I would recommend this author’s prior book, Bees of the World (2004), which he co-authored with Anthony Raw. That book is my personal “bee bible,” my go-to book when I need to know something about a particular type of bee. Although out of print, it is readily available on the used market. Bees of the World (O’Toole and Raw) is highly recommended.


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  • I am intrigued by your review of Rosanna Mattingly’s Honey-Maker but can’t find it on Amazon, nor is Google any help. Suggestions?

  • Hi Rusty,
    I ordered, and just received, two copies of Rosanna Mattingly’s Honey-Maker…one for me and one for a beekeeper friend. We are both fairly new to beekeeping, so at your recommendation, I am looking forward to reading it. Many thanks and I’m looking forward to the honey comb series. I enjoy and learn from every one of your postings.