wild bees and native bees

Now is the time to learn a new bee

Inside: It’s not too late to learn a new bee. Each time you do, you will become a better beekeeper with an expanded knowledge of nature and all things bee.

Now that September looms and you’ve completed your crucial August mite management, I want you to take a breather. Relax for a moment and reflect on where you find beekeeping information and how you might deepen your knowledge.

I’ve studied honey bees a long time, taking courses, attending lectures, reading, listening, and completing a master beekeeper program. But none of those pursuits gave me the deep understanding I was searching for. I found that most sources simply echo others without adding anything new nor providing additional explanations. Worse, a lot of the rhetoric is not even true.

If enough people repeat a fallacy, it soon becomes “fact.” This is dangerous. I believe that if everyone is saying the same thing, no one is thinking. I would rather people question conventional wisdom than fall in line behind the last sheep. Try putting your faith in the best line from the X-Files: Trust No One.

Honey bees are not alone

Most of the beekeeping literature treats honey bees as if they evolved in a vacuum. The writers often assume that honey bees are one-of-a-kind insects, unique among the many species. To a certain extent, that’s true. But to really understand them, you need to study honey bees in the context of other insects. To me, the most fascinating things about honey bees are not their differences from other bees, but their similarities.

How many times have you heard that honey bee drones are unique because they have a grandfather but no father? Like about a million? The trouble with that statement is that haplodiploidy—the thing that causes the generational glitch—is pervasive. It’s found throughout the order Hymenoptera, which includes all the bees, wasps, ants, and sawflies. It also occurs throughout the order Thysanoptera (thrips) and sporadically in other orders as well. In other words, one s-load of bugs has that same familial pattern.

Similarly, you will hear that honey bees are special because only females can sting. Okay, but it just so happens that no male Hymenoptera can sting. No modified ovipositor means no stinger, and males are famously short on ovipositors (the parts that lay eggs.)

Discovering the bees you don’t know

Although these sayings are nonsensical, they don’t affect your ability to keep bees. What I find more frustrating is the lack of information about basic bee biology—knowledge that could directly affect your ability to make sound beekeeping decisions.

Nearly all the available information focuses on honey bees in particular, which makes it hard to understand the big picture. But when you find information on bees in general, you can then compare honey bees to other bees to see which things make them different and which things are common. Those tidbits can help you understand the niche honey bees fill.

Honey bees are unique, sort of

The basic structure of bees is remarkably uniform. They differ in things like size, floral preferences, and nesting behavior. But when it comes to flying, breathing, eating, defecating, reproducing, defense, diet, nutrition, disease, predators, and hazards, they are peas in a pod. Bee species remind me of dog breeds: Although they are all slightly different, they are recognizable based on morphology and behavior. Regardless of a dog’s size, color, or demeanor, you’re unlikely to confuse it with something else. Bees are the same.

I didn’t understand honey bees well until I started learning about bees in general. I used to believe that secreting protective coatings (think beeswax) was unique to honey bees, but it’s not. I thought collecting plant resins (think propolis) was unique, but it’s not. I thought aggressive behavior (robbing and fighting) was specific to honey bees, but it’s not.

Worse, I didn’t understand things like larval waste management until I saw it in other types of bees—then it all became clear. Beginner books never explain where all that feces goes, so newbies always ask why their brood combs turn black. Why do we feel the need to skip the icky parts? It is what it is.

A bee’s place in the animal kingdom

Here’s another fallacy that’s worth a look. People like to say that bees descended from wasps, or they say that bees and wasps have a common ancestor. But ask a taxonomist and they will tell you the truth of it: Bees are not related to wasps, bees are wasps. This is easy to see when you look at a taxonomic tree.

For example, Apis mellifera (a species) is in the family Apidae (which includes honey bees, bumble bees, orchid bees, and others), which is in the epifamily Anthophila (all bees), which is in the superfamily Apoidea (bees and Apoid wasps). That means that things begin getting confusing at the superfamily level—not very far up the chain.

The Apoidea is in the infraorder Aculeata (ants, bees, and stinging wasps), which is in the Hymenoptera. The only thing that distinguishes bees and wasps is their diet and the structures they evolved to collect the food. To make it even more confusing, some bees eat meat and some wasps eat pollen.

The first time I dissected an aerial yellowjacket nest, I was transfixed. The combs inside the nest—composed of hexagonal cells—are frequently confused with honey bee combs and it’s easy to see why. The visual similarity is striking and dispenses with another of those irritating snatches of honey bee lore, the one that says that only honey bees build hexagonal cells.

Expand your pollinator horizons

A few years ago, I suggested to my readers that they try to learn at least one bee or wasp species every year. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you become familiar with just one additional species and learn something about it, you will likely become a better beekeeper. Yes, that sounds like a stretch, but I know it’s true.

I know it’s true because I’ve seen it happen over and over. I know many native bee enthusiasts, and many of them are also beekeepers. Each of them has a deeper, more nuanced understanding of bee life than those who have limited their focus to honey bees alone. They are fun to be with because they see possibilities, similarities, and differences where others do not.

Just do it: learn a new bee today

Many readers of this site have written to me expressing wonder at all they’ve learned since embracing the other bees in their gardens and apiaries. I cherish these mentions and hope I’ve had a small part to play in their bee journeys.

So once again, I suggest going out and learning a new bee or wasp. It doesn’t need to be identified to species, genus is good enough. Is it a bumble bee? A leafcutter? A sweat bee? If you have detailed photos, I or someone else may be able to name the species. Perhaps it’s a golden northern bumble bee, a broad-handed leafcutter, or a ligated furrow bee. Learn to recognize it. Find out where it nests, when it is active, and what plants it prefers.

Now is a great time to go outside with a camera and take a look. The fall species are becoming active right now, the bees that specialize on fall blooms like asters, goldenrod, sedum, and joe-pye weed. Go out and find one. Tell me about it, if you want, and don’t be surprised if you become hooked. Learning the bees is the most captivating thing I’ve ever done and many of my long-time readers agree.

It’s never too late to learn a new bee.

Honey Bee Suite

Learn a new bee: This small bee, discovered while beespotting with beekeeping friends, is in the genus Stelis. Stelis bees, also called “dark bees,” are parasitic on other bees in the Megachilidae family, such as mason bees. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Featured image: The cover photo, taken in my driveway, shows a mating stack of three Heriades (Neotrypetes) in a composite flower. These trysts are momentary, so you need to move fast to capture them. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

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  • Hi Rusty;

    It was too hot in August until last few days to place MAQs. Hoping that I hit it up ok. The colonies are strong and still bringing in alfalfa nectar. As an aside, one queen that was a supersedure queen never really ramped up, so thinking I should combine with the stronger colony below (I have a double screen board between them) I hate to kill a healthy-looking queen, but what do you recommend? In Eastern SD.

    • Alan,

      I also hate to destroy a queen. But if you’re correct about her not ramping up correctly, it might not be a good idea for an entire colony to depend on her throughout a South Dakota winter. You would hate to lose the whole colony because of a weak queen.

      • There are many benefits of destroying the queen of the colony no matter if it is strong or weak. Let’s say you want to harvest royal jelly then destroying the queen ensures more yield of royal jelly.

  • So true Rusty, thank you for repeating this today. I remember you saying to get the book Backyard Bees a few years ago. Now my yard is a living sanctuary for all, even slugs.???? Thanks for keeping it real. Just spotted a few while out walking here in Switzerland today. Also bee hunting is a lot of fun.

  • Isn’t it strange that to learn about Apis mellifera it helps to study the other 19,990-ish bees, but to learn about bee anatomy about all you can find online are Honey bee diagrams? Glad I found Michener, McGinley & Danforth: The Bee Genera of North and Central America. It’s great to use the pdf, but it would sure be nice to have it reprinted.


    Still waiting for the new “Common Bees of Eastern North America” by Wilson and Carril. Aparently I pre-ordered that, it’s release date is Sept. 21, 2021.

    • Lisa,

      I have a pristine hardcopy of The Bee Genera of North and Central America, given to me by a beekeeper who had it given to him. It’s my treasure!

      I too keep waiting for “Common Bees of Eastern North America.” Publication has been delayed more than once.

      • That is so lucky! You can tell the best bee books by how much they cost now. I also have access to a real book. It’s so much easier than digital for me.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I find hobby honey beekeepers often become fans of the natives, primarily when they plant something (like bee balm) only to have other bees find it more appealing than honey bees.

    I find I can’t see the really small ones, but the bumbles I can! Around here B ternarius is endemic! I look forward to collecting in areas where other species are prevalent.

    Thanks for your writings in 2 Million Blossoms!

  • Thank you for this wonderful reminder Rusty! And for boiling things down into simple terms for us lay-folk!

  • Thank you for sharing this informative blog. I hope that you will share more blogs in the future. As you love to write about beekeeping so I would like to share with you this awesome educative website “WikiBeekeeping”.

  • The english language covers a big area in the world and with it come cultural approaches, e.g. for beekeeping. I would recommend to also find info presented in other languages, on youtube there are a number of excellent documentaries (I discovered a few in German) which you can choose english subtitles for. There are quite a few different approaches and learning more based on older and different traditions is being better prepared!