A Guide to the native bees of Australia by Terry Houston

Review by Ken Walker

The book, “A Guide to the native bees of Australia” is divided into two parts (Part 1: 87 pages; Part 2: 159 pages). Part 1 is titled “Overview of bees and their biology” and is designed to introduce the reader to the morphology, evolution, behaviour and ecology of native Australian bees. Part 2 provides an in-depth, key based identification guide to Australian bees as well as wealth of information about members of each Family.

I very much enjoyed reading Part 1. The “Form and Function” chapter introduces the reader to what Terry calls the “bee’s tool-kit”. It provides an explanation for the many anatomical structures important to bee identification. Unlike many similar taxonomic character guides, Terry has included 12 images that are photographs of real body parts (eg. head, body, mouthparts, legs, wings and male genitalia) rather than the usual line diagrams. The detail is absorbing and informative. Terry combines these images with discussion on separation of the sexes and functional use of body parts. A fundamental taxonomic and function-al divide in all bees is whether they possess a “short or long” tongue. These two tongue shapes are imaged and functionality ascribed to each tongue type. Terry then refers back to the uses of different tongue lengths through the remainder of the book.

Terry’s interweaving of form and function provides the reader with an alternative means for bee identification using what is termed “Traits analysis”. Rather than relying solely on morphological characters to effect an identification, bees can be identified through a range of ecological or behavioural traits that can lead to its Family or genus or even species names. For example, Terry explains that Verticordia plants have oily pollen held in place by a ring of hairs. Few bees can harvest this oily pollen except for species of Euhesma which lick the pollen from the styles and swallow. Each species of Verticordia has its own specific species of Euhesma so knowing the species of Verticordia will provide a species identification its Euhesma bee visitor.

I have always said that Terry has a “knack” for finding bee nests when in reality it is his combination of experience and patience that has delivered this “knack”. His intricate, experienced and detailed knowledge of the complex patterns of bee nesting across the five bee Families will open up a new world of bee biology for many readers. Understanding can lead to appreciation which can lead to conservation. Leaving bare patches of earth in a garden or park is essential to provide bee nesting spaces.

Other sections in Part 1 include: Importance of native bees; Bee life cycles; Sexing bees; About males and mating; Stings; Colour patterns, mimicry and crypsis; Sociality; Nests and nesting behaviour; Cuckoo bees; Seasonal-ity; Associated organisms; Conservation of bees; Historical account; Collecting and preserving bees; to name but some of these intriguing sections.

Part 2 is an identification guide to the five Families and 58 genera of Australian native bees – although many of the common and unusual species are discussed and illustrated. A unique aspect of this book is the “key” to the five bee Families as it is not in the usual dichotomous key for-mat but rather is spread across two pages in a 12 characters x five Family matrix. The benefit of such a character/Family matrix is that the reader can directly compare the same character across all five Families at the same time. The reader can also choose the character(s) they are most comfortable and confident to use. Even getting to Family level identification provides so much information about your bee.

The remainder of Part 2 goes through each of the five Australian bee Families and provides taxonomic, dichotomous keys to all known bee genera except for the Family Stenotritidae which has only two easily distinguishable genera. Keys are based on Michener 2007 with some modifications.

Necessarily, to use these keys will require the user to be able to view the specimen under a microscope or hand lens and to have a good working knowledge of the morphological characters that were originally imaged and ex-plained in Part 1. These keys are not for the fainted heart-ed or the casual observer but with experience and if used correctly, then the identification of all Australian bee Families and genera (even many species) is possible with this book. Under each Family, Terry provides comprehensive taxonomic, ecological and behavioural information for Subfamilies, Tribes, genera and many species. Etymologies, the Greek or Latin derivations for many of the scientific names, are provided as well as a guide on how to correctly pronounce these names. Terry lists the number of species within each genus and any known floral or nesting preferences.

Most images are of live specimens which show many behavioural bee characteristics. I did a quick count and found about 450 images (Part 1 – 140; Part 2 – 350). Of these images, I found only 3 or 4 images that were at least half page size. Most images are smallish, sometimes 6 or more images per page. While the bee is visible in these smaller images, the usefulness for identification purposes is reduced. Some images I would like to have seen as a full page image. For example, the Laurence Sanders image of a leaf cutter bee (Megachile macularis) carrying a piece of cut leaf about to enter an underground burrow where a sizeable wolf spider was sitting at the entrance of that bur-row (p. 53). This discovery was the first to show a cohabitation of a bee and potential predator – why didn’t the spider attack the bee? This image deserves a half or full page to allow the reader to appreciate the significance of the photo.
Finally, there is an extensive glossary of scientific terminologies used in the book.

I would thoroughly recommend this book to curious naturalists and all the way to seasoned melittologists like my-self. Everyone will learn something, perhaps many new things, from Terry’s 50 years of “simply messing about with bees”.
Michener, CD 2007. The Bees of the World. 2nd edn. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Dr Ken Walker, Museums Victoria

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