Bees are gentle creatures who do so much for the garden. All they ask in return is some pollen and nectar! If you have some bustling bees in your garden, distinguishing between the different types of bees can help you make sure you’re planting the right types of flowers for them. Let’s find out what fuzzy flying visitors you have in your garden!
Bees are one of my favourite community members. These fuzzy yellow and black creatures work hard to pollinate my garden and make it bountiful and beautiful. Whenever I’m out working in the garden and a bee stops to admire a flower alongside me, I take a moment to admire the bee.
BC is home to nearly 500 species of bees. In fact, it’s the province with the highest diversity of bees in all of Canada. I consider myself very lucky to live in such a bee-friendly place and have seen all kinds visit my garden. But I myself am no true bee expert.
Today, I had to bring in the bee big guns! Lori Weidenhammer is the President and Co-Chair of the Native Bee Society of British Columbia. I’ve talked to Lori before about bees and she helped me out when writing The Regenerative Garden. She is also the author of Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees. With those credentials, you can see she knows quite a bit about these little ladies!
She was kind enough to talk with me again and provide tons of excellent bee info so you can figure out which of the little creatures belongs to your garden.
This post will cover…
The Types of Bee Families
Every bee belongs to one of the six bee families. Just like plants, they fall under a family, genus, and species. For instance, the yellow-face bumblebee species is part of the bumblebee genus and the Apidae family.
- Apidae: this includes bumblebees, small carpenter bees, digger bees, sunflower bees, nomad bees, and honeybees. It’s a very diverse category of bees found across the world.
- Megachilidae: consists of mason bees, leaf cutter bees, and resin bees. Sometimes, they’re referred to as the furry belly bees as they carry pollen on their abdomen as opposed to their legs.
- Halictidae: includes furrow bees and sweat bees. This is a very diverse group of bees and one of the most common bee groups seen in BC. It includes metallic and non-metallic bees.
- Andrenidae: consists of mining bees and fairy bees. They’re solitary and ground nesting bees.
- Colletidae: includes plasterer bees, polyester bees, and yellow-faced bees. These bees coat the walls of their nest with special secretions which is where they get the name plasterer bee.
- Melittidae: consists of melittid bees, many of which collect floral oils. A small bee family, many of these bees are native to Africa. They’re solitary and nest in burrows in soil or sand.
6 Different Types of Bees You Should Know
In the world, there are over 20,000 species of bees. So, for obvious, reasons, we’re not going to go over them all! Luckily, Lori is here to tell us which bees are the best to get started with.
When people think of a bee, most people instantly picture a honeybee. Originally native to Europe and Asia, they were imported in the 1800s to North America. Now, they’re one of the most common bees people will see in their backyard.
“The way to identify a female honeybee is by looking at that back leg. The tibia has a flat triangular structure,” says Lori. “I often think honeybees look like they’re full of nectar because they have this amber colour and brown or black stripes on their abdomen. They carry pollen on their back legs in little pollen packs. You can see the pollen basket which is a shiny part on the flattened part of the back leg fringed by long hairs called setae.”
Out of all the species in the world, only nine actually make honey. Honeybees are a little out of the norm when it comes to evolution. They can store food for long periods of time in the form of honey. And that’s why you can find them all over the world! They’re easy to put into hives and their nests can be moved which is unusual for bees.
Honeybees have large colonies of 1000s of bees with one queen, male drones, and worker bees.
“Honeybees and bumblebees have queens, but most bees are solitary. Female solitary bees are just single moms feeding their babies,” says Lori. “With bees in general, it’s mostly the females that do all the work. They lay the eggs, they provision the nest, and they sometimes make or find nests. The males are just there for mating and eating. Sometimes males have a protective role and will guard a patch of flowers to bounce other bees out so their bees can breed and feed in their chosen area.”
Bumblebees are another nesting cavity bee with much smaller colonies of 50 to 500 and one queen. In the spring, you’ll begin to see the queens looking for sites to establish their nest. While they primarily nest underground, they will also nest in bird nests, hollow trees, and anything big enough for their babies.
Lori notes, “If there’s a place in your garden where a mouse has made a nest or hole, in the spring the queens will come out low to the ground to look. While searching, it looks like a sniffing or trolling behaviour as they look for a suitable nest. Once they go down in the hole, the queen starts making wax pots and laying her eggs.”
“On bumblebees, sometimes you can see them carrying pollen on their back legs. You can see the pollen grains, which come in a rainbow of colours. Bees carry pollen on different parts of their body according to what species they are.”
One of the most common bees in BC is the yellow-faced bumblebee, Bombus vosnesenskii. It has a yellow face and shoulders on a mostly black body, and then the females will have a yellow stripe near the tip of the abdomen and the males will sometimes have more yellow on their sides and abdomen.
Other common types of bumblebees include yellow-fronted bumblebee (Bombus flavifrons), fuzzy-horned bumblebee (Bombus mixtus), and black-tailed bumblebee (Bombus melanopygus). But depending on where you’re from, you’ll see different types of bumblebees.
Mason bees are a type of solitary bee that nest in smaller cavities. They’re known for using mud and other materials to make their nests.
In BC, you’ll likely spot the blue orchard mason bee, Osmia lignaria. “They come out in April and May and pollinate the fruit trees like cherry and apple trees,” says Lori. “Sometimes, they’re also called the hairy belly bees since they collect pollen on their belly.”
“This is the bee that people make little condos and holes for. The bee goes into the tunnel and lays an egg, then goes and collects mud to make a wall. Then, she’ll lay another egg on top of more pollen that she’s gathered and makes the wall. And that goes all along the tube.”
In the same family (Megachilidae) as the mason bee, you have leafcutter bees. A type of solitary bee, leafcutter bees nest in cavities and collect parts of leaves to wrap their larvae in.
“You will often find these bees making holes in your rose leaves, They cut pieces of leaves, and like a mason bee, will nest and lay eggs in tunnels with these leaves. But don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt the plant! It’s just their way of gathering material in the garden,” says Lori.
Sweat bees get their name as some members of the genus actually lick human sweat to get minerals. These bees love plants in the Aster or Asteraceae family, as do leafcutters.
In BC, you’ll likely come across the Texas striped sweat bee, Agapostemon texanus. “A Texas striped sweat bee is a very charismatic, shiny bee that you will see in your garden,” says Lori. “The female is completely green and the male’s abdomen has yellow and white stripes on the back.”
A solitary bee, nomad bees are kleptoparasites. Waspy looking, they’re actually parasites to different bees. They will take over nests and use up resources collected by other bees.
“There’s a whole series of bees known as cuckoo bees. And just like cuckoo birds, they lay their eggs in the nest of other bees and take them over,” says Lori.
What Is the Best Thing We Can Do for the Bees in Our Garden?
The bees need our help more than ever! From the winter of 2018 to 2019, honey bee numbers dropped a drastic 40%. Many crops and flowers rely on bees for pollination, meaning we will start to see the impact even on our grocery shelves.
“Most native bees cannot store food,” says Lori. “They need something to be blooming all the time since they are out gathering nectar and pollen. So that’s why it’s really important to have something blooming early in the spring to the first frost. If they don’t have those flowers blooming, then they’re out of luck.”
Besides succession planting and adding native plants, you can also include a bee bath in your garden as a place for bees to stop and catch a drink and a bug hotel for solitary bees to make a nest in.
You can also join citizen science projects and take pictures of bees to help scientists find out how many bees are hanging out in your neighbourhood. The iNaturalist project is a great place to start (check out The Native Bee Society of BC’s Bee Tracker Project on iNaturalist here.)
Check out local organizations like the Native Bee Society of British Columbia where you can connect with experts in your community about how to help local bees.
Lori’s book, Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide for Saving the Bees is out of print, but you can check it out at your local library.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Different Types of Bees
The most common bees a gardener would come across include bumblebees, honeybees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees, and nomad bees.
Bees that nest directly in the ground are known as mining bees. Over 70% of bees nest in the ground. You’ll also find sweat bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, digger bees, bumblebees in underground cavities, and nomad bees taking over mining bees’ nests.
Throughout the world, there are over 20,000 species of bees. In North America, there are 4,337 native bee species.
Thanks again to Lori from the Native Bee Society of British Columbia for talking to me all about bees! Be sure to check them out for talks by bee experts and their workshops. And if you’re in BC, consider contributing to their bee tracking project.