Native pollinators are critical for pollinating both wild and cultivated plants. Wild bees are important not only because in many cases they’re more efficient pollinators than imported European honeybees, but also because they’ve co-evolved with our native plants. Many types of bees are specialized pollinators, perfectly designed to pollinate very specific plants.
Since bees are so diverse in their size, color, shape, and habits, identification can be difficult. With the notable exception of the bumble bees, most of our native bees are solitary, meaning rather than living in a hive or colony, females build solitary nesting chambers in the ground or in a hollow stem or cavity. Sometimes several females build their nest chambers close to each other to form a casual social colony, but certainly nothing comparable to the 10,000+ individuals found in a honeybee hive.
Most kinds of native bees aren’t capable of stinging. And if they do have the ability, they are generally docile and wholly uninterested in stinging humans, unless they’re squished or stepped on.
Bumble Bees – Bombus sp.
Bumble bees are quite docile. With about 50 species on the continent, bumble bees are everywhere. Hairy and between a half and a full inch in length, bumble bees can be various patterns of black, white, yellow, orange, and even a rusty brown. Each species has a different color pattern, though many times their variations make it difficult to tell one species from another. Female bumble bee carries balls of pollen on their hind legs.
Unlike most of the other types of bees on this list, bumble bees are social nesters. Mated queen bumbles spend the winter hunkered down in leaf debris. In the spring, they emerge and begin to build a nest in an old rodent burrow, empty bird house, or other cavity, often in the ground. The nests consist of ball-like structures of wax, each containing an egg, glued together into a cluster.
Leafcutter Bees – Megachile sp.
The females quickly use their mandibles to remove pieces of leaves to take back to their nests in just a few seconds. They use these leaf pieces to build little cups stacked on top of one another. Each cup contains a single egg and a provision of pollen for the larval bee. Their nests are found in just about any type of little tunnel, from hollow plant stems to masonry holes in the side of your house. The nest is then sealed with a layer of mud.
These types of bees are about a half inch long, and there are about 140 species in North America. One distinctive feature of this bee is its upward tipped, flattened, stripped abdomen. Females carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen, rather than on their hind legs.
Sweat Bees – Halictus sp.
There are about 10 species of sweat bees on the continent. Tiny little bees, they measure a mere quarter- to a half-inch-long. Their small size combined with their black and creamy yellow striped abdomens make them fairly easy to identify. Females will often have a blob of pollen clinging to their hind legs.
Female sweat bees in this group build a solitary nest in a small tunnel-like burrow in the ground, though a few species are social.
Carder Bees – Anthidium sp.
Most of the 20+ native species are found in the southwest.
Around a half-inch long, this bee has a smooth upper abdomen with a clear pattern of yellow or white markings on it. Females carry pollen on the hairy undersides of their abdomen, rather than on their legs. Females build solitary nests in hollow stems and existing cavities in wood.
Mason Bee – Osmia sp.
The mason bee is a very productive pollinator for spring flowering fruit and nut trees and spring berry plants. A female mason bee carries pollen mainly on the underside of her hairy abdomen and scrapes the pollen off within her nesting hole. She carries the pollen dry on her belly and it falls off easily as she moves among flowers. Mason bees are generalists that love to visit a variety of flowers.
Dry, loose pollen carried on the large surface of the mason bee’s belly results in significantly more pollinated flowers. Mason bees are an awesome cross-pollinator because they busily flit back and forth between branches and trees, instead of focusing on stripping pollen and nectar from one location.
Mason bees are solitary, meaning that they do not live in a hive. Female Mason bees build their own nests, gather their own food, and lay their own eggs. With all this work to do, Mason bees are far too busy to be aggressive towards people.
European Honeybees – Apis mellifera
One last bee common to gardens is the imported European honey bee. While they aren’t native to this continent, they’re often spied in home gardens. Unlike the other types of bees listed here, there is only one species of honeybee. It’s been introduced to most parts of the world where it’s used to produce honey and pollinate crops.
Honeybees are about a half inch long with black and honey-colored stripes on their tapered abdomen. Females carry pollen on their rear legs. These bees have a complex social structure, with a queen, female workers, and male drones. They feed on a wide variety of plants, but they’re not as efficient as many of our native pollinators, especially when it comes to pollinating certain native plants. Honeybees often live in managed hives, though wild colonies are found from time to time in hollow trees.