miscellaneous musings wild bees and native bees

For the love of bees

I used to be a respectable member of society, but now, not so much. For one thing, I carry test tubes in my pocketses (“What has it got in its pocketses?). And while some women keep little pots of makeup in their glove box, I keep little tins of dead bugs. Then too, my recent book purchase, The Natural History and Behavior of North American Beewolves, is annotated and dog-eared. Meanwhile, I keep buying bigger and bigger lenses so I can photograph smaller and smaller bees.

Although my fascination for all things bee began with honey bees, it expanded when I read papers by Cane, Morandin, O’Toole, Kearns, Greenleaf, and especially Kremen. In that way, my first love, honey bees, led to my true love, native bees. It was from these scientists that I learned the problem of pollination and food supply goes far beyond the reach of Apis mellifera.

We forget about native bees

We tend to forget that before the European honey bee came to the New World in 1622, all plants that needed bee pollination in the Americas were doing just fine—absolutely thriving. Yet these native bees are now in a world of hurt. They have many of the same problems as honey bees, but they also have a gigantic problem that honey bees don’t have: almost total neglect and disregard. People just don’t care.

We also forget that while honey bees pollinate lots of things, they don’t pollinate everything. Many plant species would disappear without their own special pollinators, and there is nothing an infinite supply of honey bees could do about it.

Beekeepers can help

Beekeepers are in a unique position to help educate others about native bees. Most importantly, they’ve lost the miasma of fear that surrounds the word “bee,” and they are willing to concede that an insect can have value. Then too, on some level they understand pollination and bee/plant interactions.

Still, most beekeepers don’t know much about other bees. For some obscure reason, it seems that the general population is more interested in wild bees than are beekeepers. I get most questions about native bees from non-beekeepers—and not, I think, because beekeepers have all the answers but because they are smitten with honey bees alone.

Recently I attended a bee event sponsored by the Olympia Beekeepers Association and The Evergreen State College. It was all about honey bees, and included displays, samples, and a screening of More than Honey. But nestled among all the honey bee tables was one about native pollinators hosted by Glen Buschmann of OlyPollinators. In my unofficial capacity as observer and question-answerer, I would say it was easily the most popular display. People were standing four and five deep to see masons, bumbles, and leafcutters and to collect pamphlets and ask questions about native bees. People loved it.

One good bee leads to another

For beekeepers, though, knowledge of native bees is useful for more than answering questions. I have found that the more I learn about native bees, the more I understand honey bees and vice versa. For example, learning about mating leks helped me to better understand drone congregation areas. Learning about larval defecation in an underground tunnel helped me understand larval defecation in a brood cell. It’s all related and it’s all the same—just different.

So once again I urge all beekeepers to look beyond your charges. It is incredibly satisfying to know a leafcutter when you see one, or a sweat bee, or even to know you’re looking at something new to you. Believe me when I say that in some way you cannot predict, it will make you a better beekeeper.



You never know when that test tube may come in handy. © Rusty Burlew.


According to Bugguide.net this is an anthophora bee, a type of solitary digger bee. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Honestly…until now, if it wasn’t a honeybee or bumble bee, then as far as I was concerned it was a wasp or a hornet…period. To be more blunt…if it wasn’t a honeybee, but it was black/white/yellow and *furry* then it was a bumble bee. Thanks for your little educational tidbits which are easy and fun to absorb.

  • I love solitary bees and bumbles too. The bumbles are easier to find when I walk about. I see the ‘non-kept’ bees as the underdogs of the bee world – there’s many more of them, but not that many people are looking out for them. We’re taking away their homes and food all the time, yet the honeybees get all the publicity.

  • Thank you for all your information on your blog. We are waiting for our bees to come here in KS. This will be our first year beekeeping.

    My 11 year old daughter loves all insects and around 2 1/2 years ago she found out that she could own a beehive. Since then we have been learning all we can and trying to connect with local beekeepers. I started out learning for her sake and a long the way I have found an excitement in beekeeping.

    We have recently talked about building a mason bee home and looking at other native bees in our area.

    We have enjoyed and learned a lot from your blog-thank you for being so passionate about beekeeping. Love all the photos.

  • Well, you’ve certainly helped stoke my interest in the natives. I don’t anticipate studying them as deeply as you obviously have, but even a little knowledge adds to the appreciation of nature in general and helps sell the conservation angle with others. Recently I posted a mystery bee visiting my honeybee hives and think it’s a leafcutter because of its big head. Wish I could have caught it temporarily to get a better look. Which brings me to a question: How would one go about capturing native bees temporarily to get a better look or photos for identification without harming them? I imagine they’re on a tight schedule and it wouldn’t be good for them to be held for long or moved from where they are found.

    • Mark,

      I use a butterfly net, then put a test tube inside the net and capture the bee. I photograph it right through the tube (if it’s the clear type) and look carefully at the forewing veins, if I can. (These help with i.d.) Then I release. Sometimes you can get a photo as it walks out, as I managed to do here. I try to keep the whole business under 10 minutes, if I can.

    • Mark,

      I would say your bee is in the genus Andrena. Andrena are characterized by two patches of thick facial hair running along the inside of their compound eyes. They are solitary bees that live in the ground and are frequently called “mining bees.” She won’t do any harm to your honey bees, she’s just curious.

  • Can you recommend a good book (or website) for identification of eastern US bees? I found one for California bees on Amazon, but I’m in New York state. I think I’ll have to start carrying test tubes – that’s a good idea.

    • Pat,

      I really don’t know. The new one for California is the best one I’ve ever seen, but I haven’t had a reason to look for an eastern one. For a good overview (not a field guide) I recommend Bees of the World by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw. Sadly, it’s out of print but you can find it used pretty easily. It has good basics and lots of photos and diagrams. I have the Facts on File edition, notable for having a photo of a fly on the cover.

  • Personally I’ve always had a great interest in insects, particularly the lovely pollinating creatures. I’ve photographed and wondered at them since I first discovered their purpose of pollinating. I live in Africa and I’ve been up and down the continent, so I’ve seen the diversity and similarities in many different ecosystems. I find it very interesting the slight and sever differences in similar species depending on the flora that require their assistance. Thanks for keeping up the interest!!

    • Glen,

      It’s funny, but I almost bought this poster back in December when I read about it on Twitter. I hesitated because of the regional aspect, but based on your recommendation, I will give it a go. Thanks for the head’s up.

    • Ooh, that looks great. I will definitely be finding room for that on my wall. Thanks for the pointer!

      Also, thanks for reminding me about bugguide. I’d stumbled onto that last year, and spent some time rediscovering it just now.

  • I started a “pollinator” habitat in one of the side margins (now I don’t have to mow there 😉 of my property. There I have planted some wildflowers and what not. I often ruminate there in the mornings with a cup of coffee and watch what is growing as well as coming and going. Last year I saw a leaf cutter bee fly away with a section of leaf from one of the plantings. Amazing and very cool sight. My interest in ALL “bugs” in general has shot up since “messing with the bees”. Now, I find myself not so eager to destroy the web of that spiny-backed orb weaver that resides near my pool.

  • Based on this thread, I bought a few bamboo-tube mason bee houses this spring. Two of the tubes have been claimed at this point – I’ve never been so excited to see a hole plugged with mud! The really interesting thing is that some of the larger tubes have been appropriated by carpenter bees. We have quite a few that live nearby, and it seems they’ve decided these tubes are good enough for nesting. I was surprised, since I thought they’d want to be able to drill that right-angle corridor. If I can time it so there’s not a bee blocking the view, I can shine a flashlight down to the back of the tube, and see a mound of pollen and what looks like larvae on top. They seem quite popular – I’ve counted about 8 tubes with carpenters.
    I did some research, and Hawaiian carpenter bees do like bamboo, but no one mentions anything about “Carpenter bees moved into my mason bee house!”

    • Pat,

      That is so interesting; I didn’t know that carpenters would use them. However, it is my opinion that monocultures of anything are bad, so I go out of my way to have as many different hole sizes as possible which gives me—shall we say—a diverse community. Bamboo tubes are naturally variable, so they have that effect. When I use drilled holes, I start with 1/4-inch and work down to 1/16. This gives me a host of bees of different species, as well as a spattering of solitary wasps, which are interesting in their own right. It also distributes nest building across the spring and summer months, since different creatures nest at different times.

      I’m glad to hear your delight at having completed tubes. This year I have more equal opportunity housing than I’ve ever had, and it is almost full. I’m thinking of making some last minutes additions, so I can pick up the summer and fall bees and wasps. I never thought that everything I built would fill up so fast, but I think it’s the selection of sizes. When you think about it, 1/16 is really small but little bees that look like splinters do their thing and mud it up. I never get tired of looking at the muddy holes.

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