By Erin Marissa Russell
Did you know there are lots of different kinds of bees that may visit your garden? We’ll explain the differences between these bee varieties and tell you how to identify them.
These are the bees that sometimes get called “killer bees” because they are so defensive of their territory. Africanized bees come from a cross between the Western honeybee and the east African lowland honeybee. These bees have migrated from South America gradually north, which is why you can now find Africanized bees in the southern part of the United States.
It can be difficult to identify Africanized bees for sure because they look so similar to European honeybees. (Africanized bees are just a little smaller than European honeybees, however.) Instead, you can rely on behavior to identify Africanized bees.
Once an Africanized bee has been disturbed, it can continue to be aggressive for half an hour. They may also attack without there seeming to be a reason. While all bees will defend their nest and colony, Africanized bees are more likely to be territorial and attack people.
Africanized bees are, of course, capable of pollinating plants. However, because they are so territorial, they are considered invasive and should not be encouraged as pollinators.
The sting of an Africanized bee is not any more painful than other bee stings. However, Africanized bees sometimes gather in swarms made up of lots of the insects. Being stung by multiple bees from a swarm can result in death. Over 1,000 people have died after being stung by Africanized bees.
Blueberry bees are beneficial pollinators for all kinds of flowering plants, though their favorite is rabbiteye blueberries. (That’s why they’re called blueberry bees.) Rabbiteye blueberry plants need buzz pollination, which comes not just from a pollinating insect but from one that vibrates, like the blueberry bee. These bees are also known for pollinating trumpet flowers. You will only see blueberry bees about their business at the beginning of spring.
Blueberry bees look similar to a small bumblebee, with a larger head on their shortened, rounded bodies. Most of the blueberry bee’s body is dark brown, with golden brown coloring on the top of its head.
Blueberry bees do not travel in swarms or nest in groups. Female blueberry bees build underground nests that will be located near the nests of other blueberry bees. Because these bees do not have a colony to defend, they don’t sting unless handled.
Box-headed blood bees get the “blood” in their name from the deep red color of their abdominal area. These bees are medium to large. Females are larger than males, which have less red coloring on their abdomens. The females have thin bodies, a box-shaped head, and light-colored hairs on their back legs.
You won’t find box-headed blood bees collecting pollen like so many other bees do because they are cleptoparasitic. However, they do consume nectar, so you may very well see them buzzing around flowers.
Being cleptoparasitic means that these bees pillage the nests of other types of bees. They start by invading the nests of other bees and destroying any eggs or grubs they might find inside. Then they lay their own eggs in their places, seal the nest back up, and leave. You’ll often find box-headed blood bees in the same area as bloomed furrow bees, common furrow bees, orange-legged furrow bees, and sharp-collared furrow bees, because they like to use the nests of these types of bees.
There are more than 255 different kinds of bumblebees, but most are larger than honeybees at half an inch to an inch long. The round, fuzzy bodies of bumblebees are dark brown or black with orange or yellow stripes. Their loud buzzing sound can be heard at a distance.
Bumblebees are found around the world, nesting in abandoned tunnels used by rodents, the foundations of structures, or in piles of dead limbs. They nest in groups that can have between 50 and 500 individual bees.
A queen bee is the leader of the bumblebee colony. She is the only bee that lays eggs and is waited upon by the rest of the colony. The colony bees collect pollen and nectar for not only their own food but that of the queen.
When bumblebees sting, the stinger does not come off in the victim because of its smooth shape. Bumblebees are capable of stinging multiple times.
Like bumblebees, carpenter bees are half an inch to an inch long with black and yellow coloring. You can tell the difference between carpenter bees and bumblebees because while bumblebees are striped, carpenter bees are black at the tail with a yellow upper body.
Carpenter bees are excellent pollinators, but you may not want to encourage their presence in your garden. They get their name because they nest in wood, and despite their small size, they can be quite destructive. Carpenter bees make tunnels and holes in trees, fences, decks, and even homes that are made of wood. While the tunnels may appear shallow, they can be up to 10 feet long.
Both male and female bees make holes in wood to build their nests, but only female carpenter bees sting. The males instead aggressively defend the nest by dive bombing predators that get too close.
There are many different varieties of furrow bees, all of which are black with distinctive yellow stripes. It can be difficult for even experts to tell furrow bees apart from some other bee varieties.
Furrow bees feed on lots of different kinds of flowers. They like wild flowers like knapweed and thistles as well as flowers with a daisy-like structure that they may find in your garden. (These daisy-like flowers are from the plant family Asteraceae.
Furrow bees are social and have a social structure similar to that of bumblebees. They are under the category of sweat bees, which are attracted to human sweat. Furrow bees may walk on a person’s skin looking for sweat.
Ivy bees are a bit larger than honeybees and have ginger coloring on their thoraxes. On female ivy bees, the thorax is covered in thick, fuzzy hair. On the abdomen, ivy bees have broad stripes of black and yellowish orange. Males are smaller but otherwise look similar to the females.
Ivy bees are a type of plasterer bee because of how they make their nests. It can be hard to tell ivy bees apart from other types of bee based on their appearance alone, so instead you can use behavior as an identifier. The best way to identify an ivy bee is to take note of the time of year when you see it. Males emerge at the end of August, while females emerge at the end of September.
There’s another interesting behavior that may clue you in to ivy bees in your garden. There’s such competition between the males for female attention that you may see a “mating ball”—a cluster of male bees in competition for the attention of a single female.
This is a category of bees encompassing about 240 different species.
Leafcutter bees are quite small, some just a fifth of an inch long. They look like small honeybees with their tawny and black stripes. However, their heads and jaws are larger, which isn’t surprising as they use this part of their bodies to chew out sections of foliage that they take back to their nests. The nests of leafcutter bees are typically holes in dead wood or rotten trees.
Leafcutter bees are great at pollination. Instead of packing pollen on their legs as some bees do, leafcutter bees carry pollen on their hairy stomachs.
These bees will only sting if they are provoked, and the pain of the sting is much milder than that of a honeybee sting.
There are about 400 different species of long-horned bees. The name comes from the long antennae of the male bees.
Gardeners love mason bees because of their high pollination rate. There are 139 different species of mason bees, each with varying sizes. However, most mason bees resemble carpenter bees with metallic black and blue markings.
Mason bees are solitary and do not nest in colonies or travel in swarms. Female mason bees build their tube-shaped nests out of mud, in which they lay their eggs.
Mason bees don’t only collect pollen on their legs. Instead, they carry it all over their hairy bodies.
Because mason bees are such good pollinators, some gardeners install mason bee houses to encourage them to stay in the garden. These friendly bees will only sting if handled.
There are 1400 different species of mining bees! They are solitary insects and don’t travel in swarms or nest in colonies, though the females may construct their nests near to other mining bee nests.
Mining bees are important pollinators for plants like apples, blueberries, and cranberries.
As the name suggests, mining bees make their homes underground. You can see where they have been nesting by looking for little mounds of earth that resemble worm castings. They make their nests in sandy soil or in areas like lawns, border beds, or even flower pots.
There are 700 different kinds of nomad bees. These bees are often misidentified as small wasps.
Like box-headed blood bees, nomad bees are cleptoparasitic, which means they invade the nests of other bees, destroy the eggs and larva inside, and set up shop with their own eggs.
Pantaloon bees got their name from the appearance of the female bees, which have orange pollen brushes on their back legs that make the bees look like they are wearing little orange trousers. The males do have longer hairs on their back legs, but they don’t have the pantaloon effect that the female bees have. The males may look silvery white in the sun.
Pantaloon bees are medium to large and are mostly a golden brown color. Their abdominal area is decorated with stripes of golden brown and black.
These are sometimes called cellophane bees or polyester bees because of how they line their nests with a waterproof substance.
Squash bees are known for pollinating all kinds of cucurbits, from squash to pumpkins and gourds. There are 13 different varieties. These bees wake up early, and you can often find them working just after dawn breaks.
Squash bees of all kinds resemble honeybees in coloring, with gold and black stripes. However, squash bees are a little larger than honeybees. And whereas honeybees have smooth legs, female squash bees have hairy hind legs. If you look closely, you’ll notice that squash bees have a rounder face than honeybees. While all these ways to identify squash bees are present, the difference between squash bees and honeybees is very slight, so they are often misidentified as honeybees.
While honeybees may also pollinate the cucurbits that squash bees are named for, the squash bees do not pollinate any other types of flowers. Only female squash bees will sting, and they usually must be disturbed in order to sting.
Sweat bees got their name because they’re attracted to human sweat. There are more than 500 different types of sweat bees. These bees tend to be small, from one quarter inch to three quarters of an inch long.
Some sweat bees have metallic green and blue coloring, while others are brown and black. Some sweat bees have stripes.
You’ll find sweat bees in countries around the world, but they congregate most in the temperate regions. These bees make their nests in colonies underground and gather their food (pollen and nectar) both for themselves and for the colony as a whole.
Female sweat bees are the only ones that sting, but when they do, they’ll keep transferring venom to their victim until they’re removed. You can reduce the pain of a sweat bee sting by removing the bee quickly after it first stings you.
This is the iconic honeybee that most of us think of when bees come to mind. They’re also called European honeybees. These bees are often raised by beekeepers for their honey and pollination.
Western honeybees have brown stripes on their bright yellow bodies. There are 20 different varieties worldwide.
Honeybees live in colonies ruled by a single queen bee, which the worker bees feed and care for. She is the only honeybee that lays eggs.
Only the worker honeybees will sting, which they will do to protect their hive. Honeybees have a barbed stinger that remains in the victim after they are stung. The bee dies after stinging its victim.
These are all the different kinds of bees you may see in the garden. As you’ve learned, some of these bees are beneficial pollinators while others will not have much effect on your garden. Some (Africanized bees) are even dangerous. That’s why it’s a good idea to be able to identify the types of bees you’re seeing in your garden.