This is the third volume of the N.A.P. Hymenoptera of Europe series and represents the most detailed coverage yet afforded to the bumblebees of Europe, northern Africa, the Caucasus and the Middle East. The introductory sections cover ecology (including lifecycle, inquilinism and foraging), morphology, biogeography, conservation, fieldwork, collecting, photography, identification and monitoring. A full checklist of the species and subspecies (arranged within 14 subgenera) is then provided, and a cladogram shows the phylogenetic relationships of the subgenera. The identification keys are dispersed throughout the book, with an initial key to the 14 subgenera, then individual keys to the species of each subgenus at the start of each subgenus section. The keys are illustrated with well-drawn diagrams plus photographs of body details taken using a scanning electronic microscope. With the colour patterns of many European bumblebee species being so variable across their range, there is a strong emphasis on structural characters such as male genitalia and mandible details, and less reliance on colour pattern than would typically be found in the coverage of the bumblebee fauna of a single country. As such, it does not represent (or attempt to be) a field guide, and that is not a criticism because it is important for serious recorders to be careful about not relying too heavily on colour pattern.
The species accounts explain the characteristics and distributions of any subspecies, provide notes on similar species that may create confusion, and provide sections on distribution, habitat preferences, cohabitations, courtship, nesting behaviour, flower preferences and conservation. Each species account has a map with solid circles representing records since 1990 and hollow circles representing older records. Following the species accounts there is a 69-page photo gallery. It is very useful but not fully comprehensive, i.e., it does not cover all the castes and all the colour or geographic variation for all the species. However, it does include photos of some extremely rare species that are pictured for the first time. This is followed by a 34-page gallery of body pattern diagrams for some 240 forms and subspecies that complement the photos, providing some useful information on subspecific and more trivial variation within a species.
This is clearly an essential publication for anybody keen on understanding and accurately recording the bumblebee fauna of the Western Palaearctic. But I was troubled by coverage of the British Isles. The post-1990 British distributions shown in the maps are badly out of synchronicity with the official maps produced by the Bee, Wasp and Ant Recording Society for species such as Bombus soroeensis, B. humilis, B. muscorum, B. subterraneus, B. distinguendus, B. sylvarum and B. monticola and are worryingly inaccurate. Given the quality and accessibility of verified BWARS maps (www.bwars.com) this is perplexing and inevitably raises the question of how the book was researched and how accurate the distribution maps are for other countries. The book states that B. soroeensis is common in Cornwall (p. 277), when the truth is that it has not been seen there since 1982 and was uncommon there long before that date. Some of the habitat and ecological information is also incomplete and misleading when viewed from a British perspective. For example, Bombus soroeensis is a declared a forest species (p. 226) and B. lapidarius is declared a forest edge species (p. 275). Yet it is clear from British data that this is not a universal pattern in Europe. Habitat preferences for many bumblebees can be highly variable and influenced by geographic location, altitude, prevailing land use etc. The same applies to floral preferences. Bombus ruderatus, for instance, shows a particularly strong reliance on agricultural Red clover in Britain and benefits greatly from agri-environmental schemes. This may not be the case throughout Europe but is nevertheless noteworthy. It is a shame that British workers were not consulted during production of the book, and whilst several of us are credited in the acknowledgements, we have struggled to remember having been approached. So, whilst some elements of the book clearly improve upon the published resources available (notably identification), other areas (notably those covering distribution, habitat, foraging and conservation) are often very weak and poorly researched.
This is a good book but not a great book. It represents a lost opportunity to draw together the current information and views available from all parts of Europe in order to describe accurately where the species currently occur, what they do, where they are increasing or declining, and how to conserve individual declining species using the latest information from conservation projects.