wild bees and native bees

A honey bee, not

Briefly each spring, this bee fools me into thinking she’s a honey bee. For me, the first clue that she’s not a honey bee is her size: she’s slightly smaller, but unless you have both species right next to each other, it can be hard to notice the difference. Yesterday, as I was watching my honey bees go nuts over a blooming boxwood shrub, I spotted this lone Andrena bee in the midst of all the honey bees.

Andrena on boxwood.

Andrena on boxwood. © Rusty Burlew.

But size alone does not tell the whole story. Another clue is those hairy legs. Instead of having corbiculae (or pollen baskets) on her rear legs, she has densely hairy scopae or brushes that she uses to collect pollen.

Andrena showing hairy legs.

Andrena showing hairy legs. © Rusty Burlew.

Wing veins are an important part of bee identification. The wings are very similar throughout the different bee families, but there are subtle differences. Once you learn the name of the different cells, they become easy to recognize.

All bees have a marginal cell, which runs along the outside edge of the forewing, but the cells are different shapes and sizes depending on the species. The stigma is a structural part of the wing and, in the case of Andrena, it is quite prominent. Bees have either two or three submarginal cells, which are under the marginal cell and adjacent to it. The basal and recurrent veins also have distinct shapes. Here in the Andrena, both are relatively straight.

Andrena wing showing veins and cells.

Andrena wing showing veins and cells. © Rusty Burlew.

Andrena bees have facial depressions between the compound eyes and the antennae (called facial foveae) that are covered with dense, velvety hairs.


Andrena hairy facial depressions. © Rusty Burlew.

Another easy-to-spot item is the pygidial plate at the end of the abdomen. This is a sure-sign of a ground-dwelling bee. The female uses this flat, triangular plate like a spatula or trowel. With it, she tamps down mud and smooths the walls of her tunnels.


Andrena pygidial plate. © Rusty Burlew.

Bee identification is difficult, but in the last two years several new books have made it easier to learn. If you can get a bee into its proper family, you’re doing good. If you can figure out the genus, you’re doing great. Getting down to species is more difficult, but once you learn which bees live in your area, you can often figure that out too.

My two favorite books are Field Guide to the Common Bees of California: Including Bees of the Western United States (California Natural History Guides) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. But don’t let the California business discourage you. Depending on who’s talking, there are only six or seven bee families in the world (some authors combine two of them). Of the families, all but one live in North America. In each family there are several major genera and some minor ones. Either of these books can help you learn the families and major genera, even if the exact species doesn’t live in your area.

Both books have good wing diagrams and both give you clues to identification—little tips about things to look for. The field guide has many first-rate illustrations, while Bees and Blooms has more photographs. Bees and Blooms also includes many planting tips for building a bee garden. I use them in tandem and keep both in my truck along with a butterfly net, a hand lens, and some test tubes with stoppers.

For me, learning about native bees was a natural offshoot of beekeeping, and it’s an endeavor I highly recommend. Whenever I learn something about bees in general, it deepens my understanding of honey bees. You can learn from the differences and the similarities as well . . . plus it’s just plain fun.


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  • Thank you, Rusty!

    It is SO awesome to learn that scholars have painstakingly noted and named the parts of insects and catalogued the differences between such parts as “marginal” and “sub-marginal” cells in various species.

    And what do you know, the caudal segment of a trilobite is, not the “tail” but the “pygidium”! That will help me remember this point about ground bees.

    Would give anything to SEE a ground bee right now. Or even the ground 😉


  • Pretty sure these are the same bees I saw on the dandelion patch that sprawls from my yard into the apiary. They were busy working the flowers near the hive entrance, so I knew they were not the residents. I walked about 25′ away to another patch and saw one of “my” girls working a flower. When her pollen bags were full, she scooted away and I watched as she went inside to drop off her load. Next time I’ll take a pic and compare to what’s above. Thanks again for the tools!

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