Bees play a crucial role in pollinating plants and contributing to the Earth’s ecosystem. However, there are many different types of bees, each with unique characteristics and behaviors. Learning to identify them can be a valuable tool for gardeners and environmentalists alike.
Bees are fascinating creatures that have been around for millions of years. They are known for their distinctive black and yellow striped bodies, but there are actually many different species of bees that come in a variety of colors and sizes. Some bees are solitary, while others live in large colonies.
These tiny insects pollinate 80% of flowering plants and 75% of fruits grown in the US. While most people think of the popular honeybee when they think of bees, honeybees are only a tiny segment of the thousands and thousands of species of bees found around the globe.
There are around 20,000 types of bees, and only eight species produce honey (none native to the US). Though, over 4,000 bees are native to the US.
One of the most interesting things about bees is their complex social behavior. Honeybees, for example, live in highly organized colonies with a clear division of labor. There is a queen bee who is responsible for laying eggs, while the worker bees are responsible for collecting nectar and pollen, caring for the young, and defending the colony.
Bees are also known for their ability to communicate with one another through a series of complex dances and pheromones. These dances allow bees to share information about the location of food sources and other important resources.
In addition to their importance as pollinators, bees also produce a variety of useful products. Honey, of course, is the most well-known bee product, but beeswax, propolis, and royal jelly are also highly valued for their medicinal and cosmetic properties.
Unfortunately, bees are facing a number of threats in the modern world. Habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change are all contributing to declines in bee populations around the world. I strongly believe it’s more important than ever to appreciate and protect these amazing creatures.
In this article, I’ll be sharing the 15 most common types of bees along with how to identify some critically endangered species.
What are Bees?
A bee is any of more than 20,000 species of flying insects in the suborder Apocrita, which includes the familiar bumblebee and the honeybee, as well as thousands of fly-like and wasplike bees.
Bees are flying insects closely related to flies and wasps, and their known for their keystone role in pollinating the world’s plants. Like wasps and other flying insects, bees separate into two groups social bees and solitary bees.
There are seven bee families that can be found all over the world. These are the Andrenidae, Apidae, Colletidae, Halictidae, Megachilidae, Melittidae and Stenotritidae.
There are around 2,700 different types of bees in the Andrenidae family. In this family group, you can find small, solitary, and ground-nesting bees, such as the mining bees. The Perdita minima also belong to this family; this bee can be found in the southwestern US and measure almost 2 mm, making them the smallest bee worldwide.
Apidae family bees can either be solitary or social. This family encompasses around 5,700 species of bees, making it the most prominent bee family. The Apidae family includes carpenter bees, honeybees, and bumblebees.
The Colletidaer family consists of around 2,000 species. Bees from this family may be called plasterer bees or cellophane bees since they use their mouth to smooth their cell walls with secretions. These secretions then dry into a cellophane-like, waterproof lining.
There are around 3,500 species all over the world that belong to the Halictidae family. Some members of this family are attracted to sweat, so they’re called sweat bees. Unlike other types of bees, the Halictidae members often have a dark metallic appearance, looking like tiny jewels flying through the sky.
The Megachilidae family has around 3,000 types of bees, most of whom are solitary. The largest known bee, the Megachile pluto (Wallace’s Giant Bee) is part of the family, as are the Mason, Carder, and Leafcutter bees.
The Melittidae family has approximately 200 types of bees with limited distribution in Africa. Still, the Stenotritidae family is smaller, as it contains only 21 species that can only be found in Australia.
What’s the Difference Between Social and Solitary Bees
Bees are fascinating creatures that come in many different shapes and sizes. One key aspect of bee identification is differentiating between social and solitary bees.
Social bees, such as honeybees and bumblebees, live in colonies with a queen and various workers. These colonies can contain thousands of individual bees, all working together to support the hive.
One interesting fact about social bees is that they have a highly structured social hierarchy. The queen bee is responsible for laying eggs, while the worker bees are responsible for everything else, from collecting nectar and pollen to caring for the young.
Solitary bees, on the other hand, live alone and do not form colonies. While they may not be as well-known as their social counterparts, they play an equally important role in pollination.
Species such as the leafcutter bee and mason bee are valuable pollinators for crops. Unlike social bees, solitary bees do not have a queen or workers. Instead, each female bee is responsible for gathering food and caring for her own young.
Despite their differences, both social and solitary bees are important for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Bees are responsible for pollinating a wide variety of plants, including many of the fruits and vegetables that humans rely on for food.
Without bees, many of these plants would not be able to reproduce, leading to a decline in biodiversity and potential food shortages.
It is important to note that both social and solitary bees are facing significant threats in the modern world. Habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change are all contributing to declines in bee populations around the world.
By learning more about these fascinating creatures and taking steps to protect their habitats, we can help ensure that bees continue to play a vital role in our ecosystems for generations to come.
How to Differentiate Between Common Bee Species
With over 20,000 species of bees worldwide, it can be challenging to differentiate between them. However, there are several key characteristics to look for when identifying different bee species.
One of the most important factors to consider when identifying bees is their size. Bees can range in size from less than 2mm to over 1.5 inches long.
For example, honeybees are generally smaller than bumblebees, with an average length of ½ inch. In contrast, carpenter bees are larger, measuring up to 1 inch in length.
Color and Pattern
Color and pattern are also essential characteristics to consider when identifying bees. Honeybees are perhaps the most recognizable bee species, with distinctive yellow and black stripes.
Bumblebees, on the other hand, can be identified by their black and yellow or black and orange coloration. Other bee species, such as the metallic green sweat bee, have a shiny green or blue coloration.
Wing and Leg Features
Wing and leg features can also be helpful in identification. For example, carpenter bees have large, almost transparent wings, while bumblebees have smaller wings relative to their body size.
Mining bees, on the other hand, have distinctive orange hairs on their legs. These hairs help them collect pollen, which they carry back to their nests.
Another way to differentiate between bee species is by their behavior. For example, leafcutter bees can be identified by the distinctive circular patterns they cut into leaves.
These patterns are created when the bees use their mandibles to cut out small circles from the leaves, which they then use to line their nests.
Mason bees, on the other hand, are known for their habit of building nests using mud. These bees collect mud and use it to build small, tube-shaped nests in crevices or holes in wood.
It’s important to note that while bees are generally harmless, some species can be aggressive if provoked.
For example, Africanized honeybees, also known as “killer bees,” are a hybrid of African and European honeybees and are known for their aggressive behavior.
If you encounter a swarm of bees or are unsure of the species, it’s best to contact a professional beekeeper or pest control expert for assistance.
Learning to Recognize Rare and Endangered Bees
Bees are an essential part of our ecosystem, responsible for pollinating a significant portion of the world’s crops and plants.
However, many bee species are facing threats from habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change. Among these are rare and endangered bee species that require special attention and conservation efforts.
One of the endangered bee species is the rusty patched bumblebee, which was once a common sight in North America but is now on the brink of extinction. This bee is easily recognizable by its distinctive rust-colored patch on its abdomen.
The decline in its population is mainly due to habitat loss and pesticide use. Efforts are being made to protect this bee, including habitat restoration and reducing pesticide use in areas where it is found.
Another critically endangered bee species is Franklin’s bumblebee, which is found only in a small area of southern Oregon and northern California. This bee has a unique color pattern with black and yellow stripes on its abdomen and thorax.
Habitat loss and disease are the primary threats to its survival, and conservation efforts include habitat restoration and monitoring its population.
Learning to recognize these rare and endangered bee species can help in conservation efforts. By being able to identify these bees, researchers and conservationists can better understand their distribution, habitat requirements, and population trends.
I strongly believe that this information can then be used to develop conservation strategies to protect these valuable pollinators.
It is also important to note that not all rare or endangered bee species are easily recognizable. Some may look similar to more common bee species, making their identification more challenging.
15 Most Common Types of Bees
Honeybees are one of the largest pollinators and probably the most well-known bees. They are small with yellow and black stripes, and they are famous for producing honey.
They are small with yellow and black stripes, and they are famous for producing honey. Honeybees are social insects with large, complex colonies that live in hives. Honeybees play a vital role in pollinating many of our crops, including almonds, apples, and blueberries.
They prefer to live outdoors where flowering plants are abundant, and they mainly build their nests inside rock crevices, tree cavities, and under objects that may provide shelter.
If you live near natural environments, bees may seek out chimneys, shingled roofs, and wall voids during peak swarming season (summer) for a secure nesting site. Because these bees can go quite big, homes (or buildings) are put at risk of structural damage.
2. Africanized Honey Bees
These bees are also aptly known as ‘killer bees’ thanks to their aggressive behavior. They are a hybrid of a European and an Africanized bee species.
These bees originated in the 1950s in Brazil and eventually made their way into the United States; they now reside in warmer states such as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas.
These bees tend to build their waxy comb hives in the open. However, their nest can be found in smaller, sheltered locations such as grills, cement blocks, or meter boxes. If their hive is disturbed, the bees will abandon it and swarm.
3. Bumble Bees
With over 20 species of bumblebees, you can easily spot these hairy black and yellow flying orbs during warmer months as they are looking for pollen and nectar from flowering plants such as sunflowers.
They are larger than honeybees and have a hairy, round body. They are social creatures and live in small colonies in the ground or in abandoned nests.
Bumblebees are essential to our ecosystem, as they pollinate important agricultural crops such as cherries, avocados, blueberries, tomatoes, and apples.
These bees make their nests in the ground using abandoned rodent burrows and areas beneath wood piles, compost piles, paved patios, and even in the long grass.
4. Carpenter Bees
Carpenter bees have over 500 species worldwide and only five in the United States, three of which reside in California. They are solitary creatures that tunnel into wood for nesting.
Female and male Carpenter bees vary in size and color. These bees are pollinators that forage pollen to feed their young. While some carpenter bees prefer building their nests in natural structures, some may target man-made structures such as fencing, siding, and decking.
Carpenter bees are important pollinators for many types of flowers, and they are particularly attracted to blue, purple, and yellow blooms.
5. Mason Bees
These bees (genus Osmia) are named for their habit of using masonry products like mud to build their nests, made in isolated dark cavities and natural crevices like inside hollow stems, in between stone cracks, and in “native bee hotels” that bee enthusiasts hang in their gardens.
Mason bees are small, fast-flying bees, making them highly productive pollinators. However, these bees do not have pollen brackets on their legs, so they carry pollen in their abdomen’s underside hair. They’re excellent pollinators for fruit trees, including apples, pears, and cherries.
6. Southeastern Blueberry Bees
As their name suggests, these bees are efficient blueberry pollinators – especially southern rabbiteye blueberry, which requires buzz pollination.
Interestingly, the Southeastern blueberry bees have evolved with blueberries, which fit perfectly inside bell-shaped blueberry flowers. These bees also feed on other flowers, like clovers and trumpet flowers. These solitary bees are most active from February-April.
7. Leafcutter Bees
Leafcutter bees are very similar to Mason bees in their nesting habits, except for the fact that they use leaves to close up their next cavities.
Leafcutter bees are extremely neat cutters, so if you notice jagged tears along the edges, it most likely won’t be the work of these bees. They’re important pollinators for alfalfa, carrots, and onions.
Leafcutter bees are black and have white hairs covering their complete thorax and the bottom of their abdomen. They are fast flyers, and they carry pollen on their abdomens.
8. Squash Bees
These bees are named after their preference for nesting around squash plant leaves. They’re solitary bees that come from Xenoglossa and Peponapis and belong to the Apidae family. Like bumblebees, these bees are big and bulky but have long antennae and round faces.
Female squash bees feed on squash, gourd flowers, and pumpkins; they’re excellent butternut and zucchini pollinators. You can find males of this species dart from one squash flower to another in search of mates in the first few hours after sunrise.
9. Digger Bees
Digger bees are hairy and usually Carpenter bees. In terms of size, these bees generally measure around 12 to 18 mm. They are typically brown or black in color and have a furry abdomen
Digger bees are often seen on the ground where they dig into building their nests. These bee tunnels usually comprise one central hollow and smaller storage tunnels for their eggs, larvae, and food. They are important pollinators for many types of wildflowers, including asters and goldenrod.
10. Wool Carder Bees
These bees get their name from their habit of scrapping hair off of fuzzy leaves like mullein and lamb’s ears. While most bee species carry pollen on their hind legs, these bees carry it on their abdomen.
Wool carder bees can be easily identified due to their distinctive pattern of yellow spots on their sides and can be commonly seen at riverbanks, wetlands, woodland, and cliffs. Wool Carder bees like to find existing holes to make their nests in, such as hollow stems and dead wood.
11. Long-Horn Bees
Though these bees are less common, they can be found feeding off sunflowers. The Long-horn bees are recognized for the males’ long antennae; they are around a half-inch long and have hairy legs, hairy thorax, and bands of pale hair on their abdomens.
Female Long-horn bees carry pollen on their hind legs. These bee nests can be found in the ground by digging tunnels with (sometimes) females sharing the same tunnel entrance.
12. Sweat Bees
These bees are small and slim and are commonly found around flowers. They are attracted to human sweat and are a common sight on hot days. Sweat bees are important pollinators for many types of flowers, including daisies, sunflowers, and asters.
While this may seem bothersome, sweat bees are essential pollinators for many wildflowers and crops. They are attracted to the salts in our sweat, but they are generally non-aggressive and do not pose a significant threat.
13. Yellow-Faced Bees
These bees are members of the sweat bee family but are much larger. They have a distinctive yellow patch on their faces and prefer to nest in the ground or in rotting wood. Yellow-faced bees are important pollinators for many types of flowers, including wild roses and clover.
14. Cuckoo Bees
These bees are known as “cleptoparasites” because they lay their eggs in the nest of other bees, often bumblebees. They are small and usually have a shiny black or green body.
Cuckoo bees are important pollinators for many types of flowers, including lupines and vetch. They’re found throughout most parts of Australia.
15. Alkali Bees
These bees are named for their preference for nesting in alkaline soil and are native to western and southwestern United States.
They are social insects, and their nests can be quite intricate. Alkali bees are important pollinators for many types of wildflowers, including phacelia and buckwheat.
Tips for Supporting and Protecting Different Types of Bees
Bees are essential to our ecosystem, playing a crucial role in pollinating plants and crops that provide us with food. Unfortunately, bee populations around the world are declining due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change.
However, there are many things you can do to support and protect bee populations in your garden and beyond.
Plant a Bee-friendly Garden
One of the best things you can do to support bees is to plant a bee-friendly garden. You can plant a wide variety of flowers, herbs, and vegetables that are attractive to bees.
Some great options include lavender, sunflowers, wildflowers, and herbs like mint and thyme. Be sure to choose a range of plants that bloom at different times throughout the year to provide bees with a continuous source of food.
When choosing plants for your garden, try to avoid hybrids that have been bred for showy flowers but may not produce as much nectar or pollen. Instead, opt for heirloom varieties that are more likely to attract bees and other pollinators.
Provide Nesting Sites
In addition to providing food, bees also need safe places to nest. Many species of bees, like mason bees and leafcutter bees, nest in hollow stems or holes in wood.
You can help by installing bee houses or creating a bee-friendly environment in your garden. This can include leaving some areas of bare soil for ground-nesting bees, or providing a pile of leaves or twigs for bees to burrow into.
When installing bee houses, be sure to choose a location that is sheltered from the wind and rain and gets plenty of sunlight. You can purchase pre-made bee houses or make your own using materials like bamboo, hollow reeds, or blocks of wood with holes drilled into them.
Avoid Harmful Pesticides
Many pesticides are harmful to bees and other pollinators. Even products that are not specifically designed to kill bees can have negative effects on their health and behavior.
When possible, use natural pest control methods like companion planting, crop rotation, and handpicking pests. If you do need to use pesticides, choose products that are specifically labeled as bee-friendly and apply them in the early morning or late evening when bees are less active.
By taking these simple steps, I believe you can help support and protect bee populations in your community and beyond.
Not only will you be doing your part to protect the environment, but you’ll also be rewarded with a beautiful and thriving garden filled with buzzing bees.
Other Bee Guides from Planet Natural:
Melissa Pino is a biologist, master gardener, and regular contributor for Planet Natural. Melissa’s work focuses on promoting environmentally-friendly practices, helping people create healthy gardens and finding ways to achieve overall health and wellness.