Bee ID: How To Make Sense Of The Buzz In Your Garden

cover.bumble bee

Aren’t they cute?

One of the many things I love about gardening is working alongside my many fuzzy, buzzing friends. Dutifully arriving on the job each morning, the bees hover beside me, yielding as one mass each time I shift position in the garden. Sometimes, I’ve been brave (or stupid) enough to touch one of the downy creatures, and they’ve allowed me to stroke them. Feeling the tiny vibrations of all that industriousness never ceases to amaze me.

bumblebees

HONEYBEES GET ALL THE ATTENTION

There are over 4,000 species of bees in North America that make their hives in cold and warm climates, wherever flowers bloom. There is even a boreal bumblebee that lives in the Arctic Circle. The only area that native bees cannot be found is in places where extreme cold persists all year round.

Still, honeybees seem to get all the press these days,  Yes, they’re great at making honey and are effective pollinators, too. But, they’re no good at cross-fertilizing tomatoes or eggplants, which only native bees can do. And pumpkins, watermelons, blueberries and cranberries are also more efficiently pollinated by native bees, many of which have developed specializations in these areas.

ABOUT OUR NATIVE BEES

Native bees come in all sizes and shapes and in a wide variety of colors. There are the common black, yellow, orange and red striped bees. But there are also shiny metallic species in shades of green, blue or gold, fuzzy white bees with white eyes and deep black bees. There’s even a pure green bee, to name just a few.

metallic green bee

Metallic green bee

Furthermore, the various species of bees differ much like humans do. They can be highly social (like bumblebees) or loners (like miner bees.) They build different styles of nests in different habitats (the pure green bee, for instance, only builds its nest under the bark of rotten logs). Most importantly, the bees differ in the types of flowers they enjoy pollinating.

HOW BEES GET ALL THAT POLLEN HOME

Most bees have furry bodies and feathery hairs designed for trapping loose pollen from within the flower. And many species are equipped with pollen baskets on their hind legs or under their bellies to help them transport it back to their nests. As a result, while working, bees frequently brush themselves to dislodge the pollen from their fur and into their baskets.

bee covered with pollen

Bee covered with pollen

Long tongues help some species of bees penetrate deep into the heart of flowers to draw up the nectar, while other species are equipped with shorter tongues for skimming along the flattest of petals. All bees have a great sense of smell and can distinguish between different patterns and colors. And great memories help them to return time and again to the flowers offering the greatest pollen rewards.

DECIPHERING THE BUZZ IN THE GARDEN

Here are a few species of bees I encounter regularly in my gardens in Maryland as well as in my neighbors’ gardens in different parts of North America. 

My garden, mid-summer

BUMBLE BEESBombus

There are about 46 species of bumblebees in North America. Big and furry, these short-lived bees are mostly black with one to four yellow, white or bright orange stripes. Bumblebees nest in shaded areas on the ground in cavities, or in thick grasses, compost heaps, under sheds and in trees and bushes.

I’m a particular fan of Bombus impatiens, known as the  Common Eastern Bumblebee. These bees are generally friendly and their steadfast devotion to pollinating my flowers earns them big points in my garden.

bumble bee

My favorite, Bombus impatiens

CARPENTER BEES

I know. Even the thought of them scares you. Mainly black with fuzzy stripes, carpenter bees are well known for their woodworking skills. To the dismay of homeowners, they use their powerful jaws to burrow into wood to build their nests. However, it’s helpful to note that they prefer untreated wood over structures that have been painted or varnished.

carpenter bee 2

Carpenter Bee

The carpenter bee species native to the eastern United States, Xylocopa virginica, is often mistaken for the bumblebee, but there are a few key differences. Whereas bumblebees are fuzzy all over, carpenter bees usually have a hairless abdomen that looks almost glossy. Unlike the highly social bumblebees, carpenter bees are generally loners and the males can be downright aggressive.

CUCKOO BEES

A parasitic bee, the cuckoo bees get other bees to raise their young by entering into their nests and changing out their eggs. Predominantly colored in red, yellow and black, their near hair-less appearance often causes them to be confused with wasps. Despite their bad behavior, they are excellent pollinators of flowers, which make them a beneficial addition to the garden.

mini cuckoo bee

Cuckoo bee on yellow flower

FLORAL SPECIALISTS

When you really need something done, you call a specialist. And, many native bees are experts in extracting pollen from specific flowers. Squash bees are one of the best known of these types. Although they resemble bumblebees in general size and color, you can always tell them apart by their behavior. Squash bees specialize in pollinating the flowers of squash, pumpkin and zucchini. And they begin work at the same time the flowers open in the early morning.

squash bee

Squash bee

MINING BEES

As their name suggests, these wild bees like to mine. They specialize in digging long tunnels underground to build their nests. Most mining bees are solitary in the sense that each bee digs her own nest and feeds her own young.

Unfortunately, since they live underground, mining bees are easily destroyed by many gardening practices. These include tilling, plowing or spading and of course any spraying of insecticides.

mining bee

Mining bee, Andrena barbilabris

MASONS AND LEAFCUTTER BEES

Native bees can be ingenious builders. Mason and leafcutter bees take advantage of already-existing holes in hollow stems or dead wood to construct their custom homes. Mason bees prefer using mud to build their nests. And leafcutter bees prefer leaves, which they cut specifically for the purpose of lining the walls of their hives.

leafcutter bee

Leafcutter bee

BEE IMPERSONATORS

Finally, there are a number of bee impersonators that are too numerous to cover here. But one deserves particular attention. That is, yellow jackets. Given that they are similar in size and appearance, these aggressive insects are sometimes mistakenly called bees. However, yellow jackets are actually wasps. I don’t recommend petting them in your garden.

For an extensive list and photos of bees native to the United States and Canada (as well as other insects), check out BugGuide.net. Interested in knowing the difference between bees, wasps and hornets? Click here for my post on how to tell them apart.

 

 

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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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