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Three buff tailed bumble bees feeding on yellow flowers of buddleia bush
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Review: The Secret Lives of Garden Bees

The Secret Lives of Garden Bees by Jean Vernon

“What would you say if I told you that behind the pretty, fluffy, bug-eyed persona of your garden bees was a secret world filled with single mothers, bee imposters, theft and daylight robbery, cold blooded murder, marauding gangs, forced surrogacy and even exploding genitalia?”
– Jean Vernon

If that opening paragraph doesn’t capture the imagination, nothing will. Welcome to The Secret Lives of Garden Bees, a gorgeous new natural history book by Jean Vernon, wildlife writer for the RHS Journal and gardening contributor in The Daily Telegraph.

It’s genuinely such an interesting book that I found myself not only making notes for this book review but taking lots more for my own personal knowledge. It’s a great book to have at home, especially at the moment when we’re spending so much time at home and in our gardens due to Coronavirus (link to order at bottom of page.)

Natural History Feast

There’s something utterly entrancing about garden bees, from their furry cute-yet-sting-in-the-tail-ness to their seeming ability to defy the laws of gravity & aerodynamics, all humourously assisted by the smile-inducing Latin name for bees which tickles me every time; Bombus!

Buff tailed bumble bees pictured in our garden (photographed by Caroline)

Jean eloquently captures the essence of all there is to love about bees with her obvious love of nature, wildlife and gardening as well as her own love of bees. She also took many of the photographs, giving her book the look and feel of a romping flight through an English country garden from a bee’s-eye view.

Save The Bees – What YOU Can Do!

The Secret Lives of Garden Bees isn’t just a feast for the eyes and intellect, it also includes a useful section, ‘Meet the Bees,’ on what we can all do to encourage the various bee species to thrive.

Jean describes bees as ‘the canary in the conservation coalmine’. Since different species have differing flower, pollen and shelter needs, she describes each bee, how to spot and identify it and what to do to help it survive in our own gardens and open spaces. For example, one of the bumblebee species gets stuck and dies inside the flowers of the acanthus plant so cutting back the flowers can save a whole generation of bees by keeping the Queen alive.

With 270,00 hectares (2,700 square km or 1,042 square miles) of private garden space in the UK – that’s a lot of potential bee habitat – we can do amazing things for bee conservation if we take note and add some bee-friendly features to our gardens.

This is an excellent section for bee spotters, naturalists and fascinated children alike.

Photographic Illustration

The text in The Secret Lives of Garden Bees is highlighted by a glorious collection of photographs of the many species of bee, and the different plants and environments they inhabit. My review copy had four rather blurry photos but this was a printing error and not the case with most of the published books.

My particular favourite is this very furry-legged fellow who reminds me of cowboy in chaps (although Caroline says it looks like a tarantula eating a bee, and wouldn’t go near it with a barge pole!)

Pantaloon bee with furry brown legs standing on garden soil

The furry-legged Pantaloon Bee!

Bees – Did You Know?

Jean describes many of the 276 species of UK bee, of which 24 or 25 are bumble bees. That means there are around 250 species of solitary bees, the altruistic ones we hardly hear about but which are most in need of our help – 3 species have become extinct in recent memory.

What Children will Love

The Secret Lives of Garden Bees is both an adult reading book and a children’s picture book which will overlap all ages. I imagine children growing up using the pictures to identify bees before reading the full text as they become older and more interested in the detail.

  • Is it a bee? Is it a fly?

Apart from the close-up photographs and the ‘Meet the Bees’ section mentioned above, there is a particularly excellent spread comparing the difference between bees and flies (since some flies look incredibly like bees – and for good reason as you will find out in the book!) This was a real hit with Caroline, who studied the differences in detail.

For children who fear getting stung, there’s a reassuring section on bee stings, confirming some of the ‘old wives tales’ we’re never sure are true: only the females sting and rarely without warning – they’ll usually stick a leg up (like a hi-five but not!) to ward you off, and honey bees might even bounce off your face to shoo you away, returning to sting only if you refuse to back away! Kids will find out which bees die after stinging and learn that solitary bees, the ones most of us see in our gardens, have a sting so weak it can’t pierce human skin!

Double page book spread showing omparison image of bee and fly from The Secret Lives of Garden Bees book

Bees, Bees, Bees

There’s lots more children will love too – Caroline enjoyed hearing all these little snippets.

Readers will discover which bees ‘rob’ pollen by making a hole in flowers rather than flying into the flower itself.

They will learn that some bees prefer yellow flowers, some have short tongues, some have long tongues, some like blueberries, that there are even a group of 4 bumblebees that are ginger, and that male honeybees die after mating.

Other really useful and fascinating sections in The Secret Lives of Garden Bees include: –

  • how to make a bee drinker
  • a safe recipe for bee rescue syrup
  • when and how to contact the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS)
  • a season by season bee-friendly garden guide
  • citizen science projects to get involved with
  • notes on the intelligence of plants (how did the bee orchid evolve not just to look like but to smell like a female bee?!)
  • bee-friendly plants to grow

Jean’s book is a comprehensive guide book on bees! See below to buy a copy, and for more information on Jean herself, visit her website.

The only nit-picky thing I would note is purely a soap-box issue of mine; twice in the first 15 pages is the phrase “think about that for a moment.” To me it’s a trendy internet expression that I’m not a fan of, but other than that, this book is a delight.

The Secret Lives of Garden Bees is stunning to look at, fascinating and fun to read and provides a detailed insight into the lives of these mysterious creatures most of us know so little about. It’s a worthy asset to every outdoor, wildlife- and garden-loving family bookshelf.

Portrait of author Jean Vernon sitting on bench with her book The Secret Lives of Garden Bees

Buy The Secret Lives of Garden Bees

Click on the image to order your copy from Amazon.

NB Kids of the Wild received a copy of this book for the purposes of review. All views and observations are my own (and Caroline’s, aged 10).

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