5 Bees You Don't Need To Be Afraid Of
Get to know the most important pollinators on the planet, and learn how to welcome them in your yard.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IGOR VOROBYOV/GETTY
Bees are responsible for pollinating one in every three mouthfuls of food and drink we consume—a big job for such little creatures. There are roughly 4,000 species of bees native to North America, many of which are far more efficient pollinators than imported European honeybees. But many of these native bee populations are suffering, largely due to diseases, loss of habitat, and exposure to pesticides. Supporting bees, in whatever ways we can, is in our own best interest. Learning to identify them is a good first step in doing just that. Here are five groups of common native bees to watch for in your garden.
BEE PHOTOGRAPHS BY JESSICA WALLISER
These amazing bees use pieces of leaves or flower petals to construct their brood cells, where new generations of bees develop. Females use their sharp mandibles to cut circular pieces of leaf tissue. The pieces are then rolled into cylinders and separated into individual brood cells with round “caps” between them. Each cell contains a single egg. These brood cells are constructed in existing cavities, either natural (such as hollow plant stems or old insect burrows) or manmade (such as nest blocks, vacant nail holes, or holes in outdoor furniture). There are about 140 species of leafcutter bees in North America; all are solitary nesters and are very docile. Measuring between 0.4 and 0.8 inches long, leafcutter bees have flattened abdomens with pale-colored bands of hair. Often slightly upturned, the tip of the abdomen is tapered to a near-point. They collect pollen on a patch of hair on the underside of the abdomen.
These common bees are a mere 0.2 to 0.4 inches long and hairless. They are bright metallic green, blue, or copper-colored and can often be found foraging for nectar on members of the aster and carrot plant families, among others. The four North American species of green sweat bees are a familiar sight in home gardens. These solitary nesters excavate brood chambers in rotting wood or preexisting cavities. Females carry pollen on hairs located on their hind legs. Bees in a similar genus, Agapostemon, are also bright metallic green, but they have a black-and-yellow striped abdomen.
This genus consists of 21 North American species. These tiny little bees are only 0.1 to 0.6 inches long. They appear to be black, though upon very close inspection, they may have dark green or brassy coloration. Sparsely haired, they often have yellow markings on the face. Small carpenter bees are solitary nesters that excavate nests in dead plant stems; their jaws are not strong enough to chew through solid wood (unlike their cousins, the large carpenter bees in the genus Xylocopa). Females can often be found flying in and out of dead sunflower, elderberry, and blackberry stems as they build their brood chambers.
Easily recognizable, North America’s 40-plus species of bumble bees are responsible for pollinating a host of crops, including tomatoes, blueberries, and melons. They use their flight muscles to vibrate their thorax and shake pollen from anthers in a process called “buzz pollination.” Bumble bees are fairly large (0.4 to 0.9 inches long) and covered in hair. Depending on the species, they may have yellow, white, black, or orange markings. Females carry pollen gobs on their hind legs for transport back to the nest. Bumble bees are social nesters, forming colonies of several dozen individuals. Only the mated queens survive the winter in hibernation. In spring, these queens emerge and begin to build new nests in old rodent holes, abandoned birdhouses, or other vacant cavities. Once her initial brood has matured in this nest, the queen stops foraging and remains there to lay eggs while female workers take over foraging duties. The nest consists of ball-like brood cells, each containing one or more larvae.
With about 10 species native to North America, sweat bees are named for their attraction to salty human sweat. Don’t worry: Sweat bees are harmless and docile. Small insects, measuring only 0.2 to 0.6 inches long, they have striped abdomens and dark heads. Females carry pollen on dense hairs found on their hind legs. Sweat bees are active from early spring until late fall and can be found foraging for nectar on many types of flowers. Their nests are made in loose, sandy soil. Though most species are considered solitary nesters, they are semi-social in that the first generation often remains in the brood chamber to help rear a second generation. Other species build large nests with hundreds of workers and several queens.