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Gardening, but not just for bumblebees

A book that promises information about gardening for bumblebees delivers much more.

Gardening for Bumblebees: A Practical Guide to Creating a Paradise for Pollinators by Dave Goulson. Penguin Random House.

Usually, when I review a book, I buy the electronic version. For this book, I bought the hardback as I thought to use it for reference for my garden. There can be differences in how useful a book is in different formats, and unfortunately, this book is an excellent example.

Dave Goulson, the author of The Garden Jungle among other books, is a Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. While he specialises in bumblebees, he has an eye for all kinds of invertebrates. This text, as indicated in the title, concentrates on pollinators. The first couple of chapters emphasise the importance of pollinators, including that there’s much more to pollinators than honeybees.

A few of the early chapters are more mayfly-like than bumblebee. The chapter on pollinator decline having a fleeting lifespan of a couple of pages. However, it makes sense to keep it brief. Given the limits of what you can do in your garden, there’s no call to overload the reader with information.

The chapters get longer from chapter six onward, starting with an identification guide for pollinators. You get a brief description of the pollinator, beginning with the bumblebees, along with a short note on their habits and some handy colour photos to help identify what might appear in your garden. It’s here that an ebook on a greyscale Kindle loses some value, though you can always access the book on a tablet or computer.

After tackling bumblebees, honeybees and solitary bees, Goulson moves on to flies. If a bumblebee is a charismatic invertebrate, then flies are the invertebrates with an image problem. Here, Goulsons photos show how attractive many hoverflies are. The other fly that gets a picture is the Dark-edged Bee Fly, a fly that has the habit of hovering like a hummingbird long enough to encourage you to get your camera out, but not long enough to get it in focus.

Goulson also covers wasps and beetles alongside the more popular butterflies and moths. As a collection of species, chapter six is a valuable introduction to the diversity of invertebrates that can inhabit a garden.

Chapter Seven is the middle third of the book, the best garden plants for pollinators. Arranged by botanical family, the plants are headlined by common name, with a botanical name and a star rating for how likely they are to attract pollinators. There’s also a brief description with tips on how to plant and grow the flowers. Comfrey, Phacelia tanacetifolia blue tansy, viper’s bugloss, Hydrangea serratifolia, Catmint, Giant hyssop, Lesser calamint, and Marjoram get the five-star rating. Still, there’s plenty of others to give options for planting rather than prescriptions.

Botanists will notice that a few of those plants are not native (to the UK) species. This makes sense for a few reasons. One is that pollinators are often not geographically locked to the same places as the plants they pollinate. Just because a bee wouldn’t expect to encounter a specific plant in the British Isles, it doesn’t mean it’s unsuited for tackling a flower that its Mediterranean cousins might visit.

Another reason is that if the garden is to have a long term future, it must satisfy the gardener. Ken Thompson has made the point elsewhere that wildlife gardening shouldn’t be a pain in his book No Nettles Required. Instead of telling the reader they must plant this or that, Goulson’s catalogue is best read as a list of pollinator-friendly suggestions that could replace less welcoming flowers. Goulson points out the list isn’t exhaustive, and there are likely to be successful plants that haven’t been studied yet.

The next chapter discusses bee-friendly trees and shrubs and neatly leads on to the discussion in another chapter of the need to provide food across the year. The remaining chapters tackle where to source the plants and get them into the garden by sowing seed or propagation.

The book is a success because not only can Goulson write engagingly and sympathetically, but because he knows what he’s talking about. If I ever write a ‘plants for pollinators’ blog post, I’d start by going through his work and the papers that cite it.

I see just two things missing from the book. One is that it focuses on pollinators, which I’ll concede is a lousy comment on a book subtitled A Practical Guide to Creating a Paradise for Pollinators. What I mean is that while this is an excellent guide to gardening for pollinators, there are many other invertebrates that could be welcome in a garden that don’t get mentioned. I’d be delighted if this were to be a companion volume in future.

The other missing item is an index. To show why this is a problem, I’ll give an example. My wife asked what Goulson said about echinacea. There’s no index in the back, so I had to work out where in the book it was listed. The plants are listed (usually) with their common name, so first, I had to learn that the common name for echinacea is coneflower. I’d never heard it called that before. Next, I needed to know what plant family it was in, the Asteraceae, and then work out what the common name for the Asteraceae is. That’s the Daisy family. Then she gave a few more plant names. 

For a few plants, I had to refer to Wikipedia to find out their name and family. An index would have been a much simpler way to find the exact page. If you have the ebook, then ‘find in text’ eliminates having to use an external source. It’s a pity to recommend the ebook as the better version because the hardback is a thing of beauty. It doesn’t just look good. The cover is very pleasing to the touch.


I’ve no doubt I’ll be using it as a reference for gardening, with a stack of post-it notes marking key pages. But I think this is a deceptively deep book. If the garden is a success in drawing in pollinators, I suspect it’ll be the insect identification chapter that gets most dog-eared from use in the long term. My only complaint about the book is that there isn’t more of it.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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