Recognizing Our Native Unstung Heroes

Figure 1: North American bees

Figure 1: North American bees. Figure courtesy of

When you hear the word “bee,” I bet you think of the fuzzy, honey-making honeybee. But did you know that we have many different native species of bees here in the Midwest and around the country? In fact, there are 4,000 different species of native bees1, and they are the most important pollinators for North America2.

These bees are responsible for pollinating 80% of the flowering trees, shrubs, and plants and are even responsible for pollinating 75% of the fruits and vegetables grown in our country1. So next time you are in the produce isle, say a little thank you to bees.

Figure 2: Four of the 4,000 North American native bees

Figure 2: Four of the 4,000 North American native bees. Images courtesy of

Our native bees come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors (Figure 1 and 2). They also vary in the types of flowers they visit, the nests they make, and even the time of year they are active1. These differences are what makes all of these species able to survive through a little thing called niche partitioning. This is where different species have little to no overlap in how or when they utilize a resource. It reduces competition and allows for multiple species to coexist.

One example of this is the differences in tongue (proboscides) length. Some bees have long proboscides while other have shorter ones. The long ones are good for getting nectar out of deep flowers while the shorter ones are for more shallow flowers (Figure 3). Two species may feed at the same flower, but do it at different times of the day or year. Some bees are generalists and will visit a wide variety of flowers, but there are some bees that are specialized and may visit only a few types of flowers. A few are even more specialized and only visit one species of flower1. You can imagine then the outcome if either the flower or the bee was to go extinct. We lose not one species, but two.

Figure 3: Two different bee species.

Figure 3: Two different bee species. On the left a shallow flower, and on the right, a deep flower. Photos courtesy of and MSU

Nesting behaviors also vary among bee species. All bees take care of their babies, but they do it in different ways. Bumble bees form colonies and meticulously care for their offspring as a group, but most native bees are solitary and cannot care continuously for every baby. Some bees dig in the ground; creating mazes of tunnels ending in brood cells for baby bees (Figure 4). Other species have large jaws that can burrow into wood in order to make brood cells. Painting and staining or treating the wood usually deters them. There are other bees that will utilize holes left by other insects. However they make their nest, solitary bees will fill the brood cell with enough pollen and nectar to grow a single bee1.

Figure 4: Anthophora abrupta, the miner bee

Figure 4: Anthophora abrupta, the miner bee. Three females at their nests. Photo courtesy of Jason Graham and UF

Speaking of bumble bees, there are around 50 different species of them in North America (Figure 5). They are different from most of our other natives in that they are highly social and form colonies similar to honeybees with queens and worker bees. However, unlike honeybees, the old queen and the other bees die at the end of the summer. The new queen is left to overwinter and await spring to begin a new colony. If you would like to try your hand at identifying the bumbles in your back yard, check out

Figure 5: Bumblebee species of Illinois and Missouri identification guide

Figure 5: Bumblebee species of Illinois and Missouri identification guide. How many are in your yard? Image courtesy of St. Louis Zoo

You can even participate in bee spotting. If you would like to learn to identify some common native bees or learn about how to distinguish bees and non-bees, see and

Sometimes, insects that look like bees are not really bees. They are flies (Figure 6). The biggest give-away for a bee-mimicking fly is that they only have one pair of wings while real bees have two. But bee wings have hooks that lock the two sets together and making is appear like they only have one set1.

Figure 6 Bee-mimicking fly. Photo courtesy of

Figure 6 Bee-mimicking fly. Photo courtesy of

Sadly, our bees are in trouble. Disease, habitat loss, pesticides, and even competition with honey bees could be causes for the declines. If you would like to help bees, planting a pollinator garden is wonderful (Figure 6). Afraid of the stingers? Most native bees rarely sting, are incapable of stinging, or their sting is extremely mild. The best way to avoid being stung is when you see a bee, remain calm. Don’t swat at it or make a big fuss. If you leave it alone, it will leave you alone

If you are thinking about planting a garden to help our bees, read the following guides:

Remember to be careful about your pesticide use and make smart decisions when choosing where to get plants. Try to find natural or organic pest controls and purchase from organic greenhouses. Often times, pesticides can linger in the plant tissue and even be passed with the nectar and pollen. Check these sites for a greenhouse near you:

I hope this has peaked your interest in our native bees. They really are amazing, and they need out help. Happy Spring everyone!


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