wild bees and native bees

Hylaeus bees are easily confused with wasps

Hylaeus female

The finding of a Hylaeus (hi-LEE-us) in my backyard means I have found representatives of five bee families within a stone’s throw of my house. Only six families of bees are present in North America, so I feel honored indeed.

I found this bee totally by accident. A week ago I had been taking pictures of other bees and, as usual, I quickly deleted most. But later on, much to my dismay, I recognized a portrait of a bee in one of my books that looked just like one I had deleted. Oh no! I had made the beginner mistake of thinking a Hylaeus was a wasp, and since I don’t usually keep wasp photos, it was gone. Delete? Yes. Are you sure? Yes. Needless to say, I was furious with myself.

After that, I spent countless hours kneeling in the wild carrot blossoms at the soggy edge of the woods, sweltering in the sunshine, and shooting everything that moved. Yesterday, it finally paid off. The photos are not great, but they are good enough to determine the genus.

Defending the territory

Many tiny bees were all over the flowers, and I made another beginner mistake of assuming they were all they same species. Some bees seemed to be dive-bombing other ones, and I thought it was some kind of mating ritual. But once I got into the dichotomous key, the males kept coming up as Ceratina, while the females turned out to be Hylaeus. So all the dive bombing wasn’t a mating thing after all, but more like a territorial thing, as in, “This is my flower, so bug off!”

I persisted, though, and went through all my photos over and over until I found what I was looking for: a male Hylaeus. So exciting!

Pollen soup

The genus Hylaeus is part of the Colletidae, a family known as “plasterer” or “polyester” bees because they line their brood cells with cellophane-like secretions. The Hylaeus are often confused with wasps because they do not carry pollen on their bodies. Instead, they swallow both pollen and nectar and carry it in their crop. Once in the nest, they regurgitate the soupy solution into the waterproofed brood cells—messy, but effective.

The Hylaeus bees are sometimes called “masked bees” because of the white or yellow markings on the face. The markings appear in both sexes, but they are much more pronounced in the male. Most Hylaeus are solitary bees that nest in stems and twigs, but a few nest in burrows left in the ground by other insects. Hylaeus are one of the few genera of bees commonly found in wooded areas.

Honey Bee Suite

Hylaeus female

Hylaeus female foraging on wild carrot. Notice yellow markings on her thorax. © Rusty Burlew.

Hylaeus female face

Hylaeus female foraging on wild carrot. You can see the white patches alongside her compound eyes. © Rusty Burlew.

Hylaeus male

This is the male Hylaeus. Notice the white face mask and the white bands on his legs. © Rusty Burlew.


This is a male Ceratina dive-bombing a female Hylaeus. © Rusty Burlew.

Another dispute

Drama in the flowers: another attempt to remove an interloper. © Rusty Burlew.

By the way, my three favorite books for learning bee identification are:

The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees

Field Guide to the Common Bees of California: Including Bees of the Western United States

California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists

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  • Hi Rusty,

    Thanks for this post and two quick questions:

    Which field guide did you use for keying out the species?
    Is there a key you would recommend for Midwestern native bees and wasps?


    • Don,

      Honestly, I used all three plus Michener’s Bees of the World. The Bees in Your Backyard covers North America, and I think it is the best all-round guide, especially if you are just getting started. I don’t know of any guides particular to your area, but there may be some.

    • Hey Emily,

      I wouldn’t call them rare because there are about 700 species of them, most of which occur in Australia. We have about 50 species in North America, but I didn’t see any information about Europe or UK in my books. These bees are nearly hairless, which makes me wonder how much pollination they do. But if you look at the first photo above, you can see pollen sticking to her back. They do have some hairs, but they are sparse and short. I

      • Thanks Rusty, that is interesting. Incidentally I got into a minor discussion/argument on Facebook recently with a beekeeper who argued people shouldn’t feel guilty about destroying mason bee nests because they are not good pollinators. I think mason bees probably are good pollinators in reality but it is hard to find authoritative sources confirming this – do you know any?

        • Emily,

          I think it is generally accepted here that masons are far more efficient than honey bees. I’ve read studies and statistics, but I know once I start looking for them they will elude me. I made a note about it, and I will try to send you something.

  • Lucky you. I’ve identified 3 different species round me, and none of them are honey bees

    On a side note, if you install piriform recuva (yes that’s really what its called) it can often recover accidentally deleted photos off the SD card. Saved my neck hundreds of times as a photographer.

  • I just bought The Bees in My Backyard and can’t wait to get it. And I am wandering across the yard to the garden, I am noticing more and more different bees, too! Thanks Rusty!!