These Are The Insects In Your Neighborhood

Book Review: Bees, Wasps, and Ants, by Eric Grissell

I picked this book up because I wanted to know more about insects. Eric Grissell, a research entomologist, is a good source for such knowledge.

This particular book focuses on the order Hymenoptera, which consists (as the title suggests) of bees, wasps, and ants. Also sawflies. (If you want to know why bees and wasps are in the same order with ants and not, say, butterflies, read the book.)

Black wasp on swamp milkweed.
Black wasp on swamp milkweed.

Grissell is a little miffed that so much attention goes to bees and butterflies, while wasps, ants and sawflies suffer neglect (or receive only negative attention). Despite their low profile, these other creatures are an enormous and mostly beneficial presence in the garden ecology (for example, there are 106,000 species of predatory or parasitic wasps, but only 19,000 species of bees).

Not that the author ignores the downsides. His book includes the “Justin O. Schmidt Pain Index”, which ranks the relative pain of various insect bites and stings, ranging from 1.0 (sweat bee: “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity”) to 10.0 (bullet ant: “Pure, intense, brilliant pain”).

New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee
New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee

Bees, Wasps and Ants starts with some Hymenopteran basics and discusses their importance to people and gardens. Grissell makes the case that all of these species provide essential environmental services – not just pollination, but pest control and recycling as well:

… these basic services help the garden function as a natural system and reduce problems such as outbreaks of unwanted pests. If our gardens were stable, with all creatures and plants in balance, we wouldn’t know what a pest was because its numbers would be so low as to be completely overlooked … The best way of improving a garden’s stability is to increase its biological diversity.

Tommy crocus and honeybees
Tommy crocus and honeybees

There is some discussion of attracting a diversity of Hymenoptera. Grissell notes that there are lots of plant lists compiled for attracting bees, but “few compilers seem to think it important to attract parasitic or predatory wasps”. Fortunately, what attracts bees will generally attract wasps as well. As for ants and sawflies, Grissell says they will just show up: “An invitation is not required.”

The rest of the book is taken up with describing the lives of the Hymenoptera, divided into sections on sawflies (“The Garden’s Cows”), parasitic wasps (“The Garden’s Police”), Bees (“The Garden’s Pollinators”), ants (“The Garden’s Recyclers”), and predatory wasps (“The Garden’s Wolves”).

2 Rose with bee

Regarding this part of the book, all I can say is that the vast multitude of ways in which tiny creatures devour each other is truly awe-inspiring in a grisly sort of way. To give just one example, there is a wasp that specializes in hunting trap-door spiders:

The wasp burrows into the soil near a trap-door spider nest, provoking the spider to exit its nest, at which point the wasp overtakes it, paralyzes it, then drags it back to its own nest. The spider’s castle becomes its coffin as the wasp lays an egg [the wasp offspring will eat the spider], exits, then seals the trap-door shut.

Wasps, Oregano flowers
Wasp on oregano flowers.

In sum, this is a book which will awaken your inner seventh grader, making you want to cry “Cool!” or “Gross!” over and over again. (I would add that, based on my experience, your spouse may not appreciate your reading choice passages aloud from this book at bedtime.) It is written in an engaging style, complete with an appealingly nerdy sense of humor.

And as for sex, I will only say that the sex life of the honeybee queen would bring a blush to the cheek of the Marquis de Sade.

Bumble Bee, Wild Bergamot
Bee foraging on Wild Bergamot

If this book has a downside, it is that after the author spends a great deal of time describing the behavior of a particular group of insects, and may then spend a little too much time describing all the exceptions to the general rule. This can become hard to follow.

Overall, though, this book provides an entertaining and useful introduction to a vast portion of the insect world, most of which is too often ignored.


38 Comments on “These Are The Insects In Your Neighborhood”

  1. Jason, this book sounds right up my street, great review and lovely photos too. I wonder if it’s available over here, I shall look on Amazon. There are probably some species that are only native for you, but I imagine we must share a great deal.

      • I ordered a second hand copy on Amazon this morning Jason after reading your review and now very much looking forward to reading it, I like a bit of humour mixed in with science and I am sure there will be lots of overlap too. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Sounds like a great read – in my garden at the moment, I have been marvelling at the hoverflies and wasps which are keeping some control over a type of black aphid that only likes Japanese Maples leaves. They don’t do an especially good job at it (when compared to lady beetles) but given lady beetles only show up once the weather warms, they are a godsend!

  3. Over the years I have taken photos and drawn about every insect, wasp, bee, ant etc that I have found in my garden. I watch and appreciate all that come to the garden. I have in 20 years here only been stung one time. This summer I saw a new wasp in my garden. I only saw it twice and am wondering what it is. Maybe this book would give me some insight. Also I saw a big wasp type go into a carpenter bee nest. I waited the longest time for it to come back out. It didn’t while I watched. I wonder who won that battle. Probably the wasp. Insects are so interesting to watch. Thanks for the heads up about this book.

    • I am very rarely stung, and when I am it is usually after doing something dumb, like stick my hand into a bunch of flowers covered with feeding bees and wasps. It’s too bad that so many of the neighbors are frightened even of the most harmless bees. As you say, they are so interesting if we just get over our discomfort.

  4. Sounds like quite an interesting book, and from your quotes it appears to be written with a good sense of humor. Please pass on to Judy that those are some stunning photos –especially that first one with the black wasp 🙂

  5. My granddaughter went from an ant stomper to an ant lover. She knows which ones bite and which don’t, and befriends the latter, letting them crawl into her hands. When she is older, I’m sure she would enjoy a book like this one.

    I’ve seen wasps drag cabbage worms out of heads of cabbage. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

  6. The photo of the bee on the bergamot is beautiful and engaging…and that is about as engaged as I want to become with this subject. I do appreciate the value to our gardens and welcome the little beasts in. Keeping track of plant names is sometimes a stretch for my poor brain. Adding all this insect info might cause an explosion.

  7. It sounds like a good read–thanks for the review. As a bee/butterfly/moth lover, I do appreciate his promotion of sawflies, wasps and other pollinators. It’s all about balance, isn’t it? The photos are just beautiful, btw!

  8. Cool book. I think reading it will remind everyone why it’s a good thing wasps are not larger, but I’m also interested to find out why sawflies are any good.
    Love the pain scale. That’s the sign of a true bee/wasp enthusiast.

  9. How fascinating, but then insects always are, there are so many species…thank goodness they’re not bigger!
    I have seen what the queen bumbles get up to! Yes…makes one blush!
    We do give more credence to the prettier insects…but then I enjoyed the black wasp, how interesting! Nature is diverse and it’s all perfect, one link in the chain breaks, and the ramifications are felt far and wide!
    I really enjoyed this, such an interesting post, and by the sounds of it, a really good read!

  10. I know so little about insects–this sounds like an excellent book! I used to hate “bugs,” but I’ve come to appreciate their roles in the ecological system and find them fascinating. Nothing will ever make me like Japanese beetles or mosquitoes, though:)

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