Are you confused by the wide variety of bees visiting your lawn and garden, or even worried that some may be nesting in your home? Of course, they were all busy collecting pollen. But many species look the same and can be easily confused.
Some, like carpenters, may become pests by drilling holes in wooden building materials to build their nests. But they’re often confused with bumblebees, which don’t build nests or be a problem in wood — unless they protect their nests.
Others have mistaken wood-burrowing species for soil tunnels, but again, these are no threat to fireplaces and homes.
Some are solitary, while others are social. Some can sting, but more are stingless and docile. All of these are important pollinators of our plants, flowers and trees. Some of our native species are now even threatened with extinction.
So before you take action to eliminate bee sites, take the time to learn how to identify the most common types of bee in your garden. Most are harmless to people and their homes, leaving them alone is more beneficial to your local and global ecosystem – they have important work to do!
Here’s what we’re looking at:
Native North American Bees
With over 4,000 species, North America’s native bee can be found anywhere flowers bloom.
Unlike the bees imported by European settlers in the 1620s, most native species are socially solitary, nesting in basements and not producing honey. But there are always exceptions!
As key players in most ecosystems, they play a vital role in the pollination of all flowering plants, from food crops to wildflowers. They are particularly suitable for propagating native plants such as blueberries, lingonberries, squash and tomatoes.
They fly from flower to flower, collect loose pollen on their body hair, cover their legs with it (so-called “pollen pants”) or care for it in pollen baskets on their legs or belly.
Collected pollen is a naturally rich source of protein and serves as a food source for larvae growing in the brooding room.
The nectar slurped by the adults provides the high-octane fuel, and mothers often collect enough to mix with the pollen to form the egg-laying “pie.”
Most species are short-lived, lasting only one season – just enough to mate, build nests and lay eggs.
Commonly Confused Backyard Species
Bumblebees belong to the honeybee family of the genus Bumblebee, and North America is home to about 50 species—most people will be familiar with at least some of them.
They range in size from 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches and are covered with short, pointed hairs that are usually black and often striped with orange, white, or yellow.
They are very social, with colonies consisting of a queen and multiple workers — sterile female and male drones.
Male drones are stingless, but queen bees and worker bees can sting, although they are generally not aggressive. Females stab their own nests when provoked, while queens usually only sting other queens.
Dirt nests, bumblebee species often nest in existing soil cavities, such as abandoned rodent burrows. Others simply nest in the ground and cover it loosely with straw and plant debris.
Once a spot has been chosen, the queen builds wax jars filled with honey to sip on while tending her eggs. She also built a larger pot filled with a mixture of pollen and nectar. On this mix, she lays her first clutch of about six eggs – the eggs that will grow into sterile workers.
Once the first group grows up, they lay more eggs for the rest of the time, while the worker bees do housework and collect pollen.
Worker bees are usually smaller than queen bees. Because of this, you rarely see really big buzz bombs after spring — they lay their eggs at home.
Females born after the first litter are not sterile, and they mate soon after emerging from the nest, adding more workers and drones. Colonies grew rapidly during the summer, with as many as 200 workers, although closer to 100 was the norm.
All workers, drones, and old queens died in late summer; the only survivors were a new generation of queens. Before winter sets in, new queen bees mate before finding a safe, sheltered place to sleep to escape the cold weather.
However, our native bumblebee is under siege. According to the Xerces Society, more than a quarter of species are at significant risk of extinction. Try not to disturb the nest as much as possible.
Carpenter belongs to the genus Xylocopa, with seven species found in Canada and the United States.
They are about 1/2 to 1 inch long, and most have black wings and bodies with yellow or orange stripes. Some men have a white facial patch. There are also species with iridescent wings and bright blue or green body hair.
Due to their similarity in size and color to bumblebees, the two species are often confused.
The easiest way to visually tell them apart is to look at their bellies. The bumblebee’s abdomen is covered with dense short hairs, while the carpenter’s abdomen is bare, possibly with a metallic sheen.
Carpenters also have wider heads compared to bumblebees.
Males are known for their docile nature, not stinging but preferring to be around intruders. Females will sting, but only if roughed or provoked.
When living alone, a single female does all the nesting work and collects pollen and nectar for her eggs.
Their preferred nesting site is old bare wood. The female uses a file to knock out an entry hole, and then builds a series of connected chambers, or channels, in which she lays an egg on a strip of nectar and pollen.
After laying each egg, she encloses it in a chewed piece of pulp and makes another pollen loaf for the next egg. These will take about seven weeks to hatch.
In late summer, new adults pollinate suitable nests and hibernate until spring, when the cycle begins again.
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Borer, Ground, and Miners (Agapostemon, Andrena, Colletes, Halictus, Lasioglossum)
Several families of Hymenoptera ground bees occur in North America, including Agapostemon, Andrena, Colletes, Halictus, and Lasioglossum.
These species range in size from small to medium, usually between 1/4 and 3/4 inch in length, and include the common Colletes inaequalis, as well as sweat bees from the Halictidae family, miners from the Andrena family, and from the subfamily Apiidae.
Like many other species, they vary in appearance, with brown or black wings, black bodies, and stripes of orange, tan, yellow, or white. Some can have hairless or hairy abdomens, metallic brass, green or blue bodies, or iridescent wings.
Not aggressive, only females will sting, although they rarely do, and only sting if roughed up.
These ground-nesting birds are socially solitary and prefer to burrow in dry soil — not wood — to build their nests.
Each female finds a suitable south-facing spot (usually a lawn or bare spot in a garden) and then works to dig an entrance and a series of breeding tunnels.
She piles freshly dug soil around her entrance and stores pollen and nectar for her offspring. C. inaequalis even line their nests with a cellophane-like secretion that forms a waterproof barrier that also helps protect the eggs from fungal diseases.
They only mate, nest and lay eggs for six to eight weeks before dying, while late-season eggs develop safely in underground nurseries, ready to hatch the following spring.
Backyard bees have several enemies that can help control the population:
Birds of prey include bee-eaters, spotted flycatchers, chickadees, shrikes, and woodpeckers.
They also prey on insects such as the crab spider Musomania vatia, as well as dragonflies, robber flies and wasps.
Mammals and rodents such as bears, voles, foxes, minks, shrews, skunks, and weasels eat all flying adults and the contents of their nests.
What’s the Buzz?
Now that you can confidently identify some garden bees, you can distinguish potential pests from purely beneficial ones.
Keep in mind that carpenter bees have bare abdomens, while bumblebees are hairy and ground nests are not the same as burrowing in wood. are important pollinators.
Do you have any questions or concerns about garden bees? Drop for Answer The Question a line in the comments below.