miscellaneous musings wild bees and native bees

A lesson in beekeeping from a two-celled Andrena

Trying to identify wild bees is a humbling pursuit in which every success is matched with two or three dismal failures. Today was no exception.

Earlier in the week I stopped at the Mima Prairie Visitor Center, armed with my camera and longest lens. I strolled among the mysterious mounds, looking for whatever I might find in the way of bees. As luck would have it, I came across an aggregation of small black bees, many of whom were foraging on buttercups.

When I finally managed to capture some photos, I noticed right away that these creatures, which looked just like small Andrena bees, had only two submarginal cells in their forewings. I was elated. Here was something new to me. A new bee for my photographic collection.

Forcing my observations to fit

I came home, enlarged the photos on the computer screen and spent hours—literally—trying to figure out what this bee was. The very first genus I eliminated was Andrena because Andrena have three submarginal cells, not two.

Trouble was, none of the two-celled varieties looked right, but I convinced myself it had to belong to one of the two-celled genera. I finally decided on a genus (I won’t say which, since it was wrong) and sent it in to BugGuide for confirmation. Bad idea.

Reality check

What is so humbling is not the fact that I was wrong, but the fact that I was so bull-headed. Everything about this bee screamed Andrena, including the shape of the head, the facial fovea, the hair distribution, and the body shape. But did I listen to myself? No. Did I pay attention to my gut feeling? No. Instead I made the bee fit into a genus that didn’t fit at all. I convinced myself that I was seeing the attributes of another genus, even though I wasn’t. I had convinced myself to be wrong.

The bee, it turns out, was in a subgenus of Andrena called Diandrena or, more commonly, the two-celled Andrena. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I’d never heard of such a thing. If I had listened to my misgivings and researched further into the Andrenidae, I would have discovered this anomaly all by myself. Instead I broadcast my ignorance to the world and felt like a complete idiot.

It happens to beekeepers, too

Good comes of embarrassing moments, however. It reminds us that, especially in scientific inquiry, it is easy to want a result so bad we start to see things that aren’t there. We come to conclusions that are not rational. It happens to scientists and investigators all the time: we want a particular answer so badly we believe we see evidence for it.

I’m convinced we are currently seeing a lot of this phenomenon in varroa control. Substance X will eliminate varroa mites. Protocol Y will mean you never have to treat. Subspecies Z is completely immune. Sometimes these answers show potential in the statistics and sometimes they don’t. But it is easy to want to believe in something so much that we convince ourselves it is true, regardless of the facts.

I point this out merely as a reminder that, as beekeepers, we must maintain a healthy skepticism when presented with new concepts, ideas, or gadgets, especially those that will easily fix all our problems. We must be receptive to new ideas, of course, but when our BS detector beeps loudly, we need to stop and listen. Not every new idea is a good one, and it is up to us to sort them out.

Honey Bee Suite

An Andrena on buttercup

A two-celled Andrena (Diandrena) on a buttercup. Everything about this bee screams Andrena. © Rusty Burlew.

The wings veins of a two-celled Andrena

The two submarginal cells are unmistakable in the forewing of this Diandrena. © Rusty Burlew. For more on submarginal cells, see A honey bee, not.

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  • Hey. Another interesting article. Shame no beekeepers are posting comments. It looks like most beekeepers are only in to honey bees facts and stories.

    • Peter,

      I appreciate your comment. Yes, I’ve been doing this 7.5 years, so I know how it works. I get a tiny fraction of the readership on native bee posts as I do on honey bee posts.

      But here’s the thing: I write about the subjects that interest me, and that happens to be all bees and their environments. Plus, I’m always striving to be a better honey bee keeper, and learning about bees in general has helped me more than anything else to improve my beekeeping skills. Bees are more alike than different, so the many tidbits I’ve learned about wild bees often help me to understand what is going on with my honey bees.

      The website is a hobby, so for me to keep it going, I have to be interested in what I’m doing. If the readers are annoyed by the the native bee posts, they should switch to another website. There are thousands upon thousands that will tell you how to keep bees. I try to make my site a little deeper than just “how to” by explaining the whys and the reasoning behind things. But hey, I know it’s not for everyone, so I don’t take it personally when people leave.

      • I also love the native bee posts. In a way I probably find them more interesting than the honey bee posts but that’s probably because I love learning about new things whenever the opportunity arises!

    • While I am sure many of us are attracted to the honey producing part of the business (in my case the few pounds I have collected over the years cost me their equivalency in gold!) I never cease to marvel at the number of different varieties, and shapes, and sizes and looks I get to witness on my oregano once it’s in bloom. It becomes the gathering place for wild bees and wasps of all sorts. I can stay there for hours trying to figure out who is who and, especially, where in my garden they spend the winter.

  • Think not on how you didn’t get the right answer immediately, think about how much joy you’re providing to the folks at BugGuide!

    I’ve become interested in identifying my local bees as well as providing forage. I was fascinated to find a drone pool of small bees at my local nursery. Don’t know what kind, but I spend a half hour just watching them. (Everybody else avoided that crazy lady near the heather.)

    You’ve helped fuel this interest. Now to get a camera with good macro ability. I guess I’ll have to mine the archives….

    Thanks for all you do!

    • Marian,

      Great. I hadn’t thought of it that way. BugGuide is probably thoroughly amused at my bungling efforts!

  • Speaking for myself, but surely for others as well, just because I don’t say anything doesn’t mean I’m not here lurking in the non-honeybee posts! I don’t know anything about them so I have nothing to add, really. Nevertheless I enjoy your efforts to bring these other bees to our attention, especially with the amazing photos. Thanks!

  • Thanks for the blog. I had to bounce between this blog and “A honey bee, not” to see the difference. Your stories have opened my eyes to the life around us.

  • I appreciate your interest in opening doors to other bee suites. One never knows what`s to be found behind them. Thanks.

  • I for one find it fascinating. Prior to bee keeping and this site, I knew of three bee types; honey, bumble, and wasp. Keep up the good work.

  • I investigate the antimicrobial activity of bee pollen against pathogenic bacteria.

  • Amazing pictures. The delicate wings are beautiful. Now as a new bee keeper, I am more highly aware of all critters in my garden. This week, digging bees in the cracks of my driveway.

    • Erika,

      It seems like everyone has ground bees in the cracks of their driveway except me! I’m so jealous. By the way, I have the cracks, just not the bees.

    • Dave,

      Yes. That particular publication is one of the best for this area. Right near the beginning it does mention the variable number of submarginal cells in Andrena species which, of course, I don’t remember reading. Time to go over the whole thing again. Thanks for a good reminder.

  • My question is interconnected to your article in that it involves bees. Bees you don’t see because they have left the hive. The bees in question left last year and this year I want to use the old hive which still has some comb which was never used. I’m not sure why they left, one day they were there and three days later they were gone. Will the old pheromone left from the previous tenants scare away any new residents? And what about mixing frames from one hive with those from another hive which was originally new and in no way ever used before? I have some old supers I still want to use. Is there a way to totally clean them out and make them more habitable?

    • Vas,

      They sound like they are fine the way they are. The smell of old wax and old pheromone is what makes them attractive to a new colony. Clean them too much and new bees won’t like them as much. By the way, used brood comb makes one of the best swarm lures you can imagine.

  • I’m a beekeeper who definitely appreciates your native bee posts too. I can’t imagine anyone being annoyed by them. I am grateful for your whys and your thought provoking comments and your humility about embarrassing mistakes and your beautiful photography. Thank you.

  • I like the non-honey bee posts. Now, I look for the natives and recognize a lot more of the ‘flies’ on flowers as being actually bees.

  • I love all your posts! Native bees are fascinating and I’m happy to read about your adventures and discoveries.

  • I love all of your posts Rusty. This is our third year of beekeeping and each year we are increasingly humbled by how much we don’t know and grateful to the bees for somehow keeping on going despite our bumblings! We are interested in all the bees in our garden (and beyond) so enjoy reading what you can tell us about them. I expect, however, you get less comments on your posts about other bees because most of your readership has less experience of them so has less to say; I bet they love reading them though.

  • Hi,

    Are the 2 submarginal cells those dark brown ones? This is all new to me.

    As for misidentification, I keep doing it with wild plants, thinking of what’s rare first, not wanting something to be a common species.

    It’s also a problem in medicine and in med school we keep hearing: what’s common is common, what’s rare is rare, don’t look for a rare disease before you have ruled out all the common ones.

    The mind loves a challenge and gets excited chasing something!


    • Pedro,

      “What’s common is common, what’s rare is rare, don’t look for a rare disease before you have ruled out all the common ones.” That is really good advice. Bookmark that.

      As for wing veins and cells, if I can get to it, I’ll post (and label) a two- and three-cell wing for comparison. I have issues here today: my bees are acting up, wanting to swarm, overall restless…just that time of year.

  • Rusty you are quite right – it nis odd that the interest may seem to lie mainly in honey bees. For my part I am relatively new to bees and find all the posts positively enlightening!! Previous to this morning I had never heard of Andrena bees. Prior to last week I had never heard of digger bees….

    In fact I was having lunch the other day with a couple of friends and one of them mentioned miner bees. I said I had never heard of them and thought he was getting mixed up with mason bees (having just read one of your recent posts on them). Of course once I returned home I searched online and found I was wrong……

    So thanks for the posts – on whatever subject they may be. I always learn something from them and as far as I am concerned that makes them worth spending the time reading!

    • Alban,

      There is such a thing as official common names. This rubs me the wrong way (long story) but it is what it is, so I’m getting used to it. Anyway, Andrena bees are usually referred to as mining bees. Anthophora are called digger bees. Osmia are called mason bees. Megachile are leafcutting bees. The Colletes are cellophane bees. Bombus are bumble bees. I saw a long list the other day . . . wish I could find it again.

  • Rusty, I may not always post a comment, but I sure do appreciate and read all the fascinating posts on native bees. As a matter of fact, I have been on the look-out for any native bees here in Miami, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find any. I did a little research and saw some pictures of what I might expect to find but no luck so far. I guess I’ll just keep trying. Thank you for ALL the great posts.


  • Rusty,

    OK, I’ll comment. I love watching the little wild bees, altho without more tech than I command, it’s impossible to identify them unless by a distinctive color.

    After an online discussion about a flower identity – a radially symmetrical four-petaled white blossom, which one poster thought might be Snowdrop and another, Sweet Pea* – I just found myself wishing basic science courses taught classification itself as a skill. Anyone can walk around and point to an insect or a weed and say “This is a Cucumber Beetle, this is Chickweed.” But there’s no retention with that method.

    How do we get across the idea that living things are inter-related in a vast, orderly pattern? and that by sorting out the elements – just take wing cells, their number, shape and position – it is possibly to identify quite literally EVERYTHING that grows, flies, burrows, walks or swims? Everything! And how it connects to everything else!
    That idea takes my breath away.

    Don’t feel humbled by your new discovery. Feel proud that you admitted a gap in your knowledge, and learned.

    Corinth, KY
    *It was a white Evening Primrose.

    • Nancy,

      Very true. There’s no reason dichotomous keys couldn’t be introduced in grade school. I saw my first one (wildflowers of Pennsylvania, I think) when I was quite young, but it wasn’t in school. I believe it was in Girl Scouts.

  • Hi Rusty, Just letting you know that I read every one of your posts. I’m new to eastern WA and I’ve seen all kinds of new critters (wasps and bees) that I’ve never seen before. Your posts don’t lead me to positive ID of most of them, but your posts do lead to an appreciation that many that I’m seeing are, indeed, bees. So, thanks for the heightened appreciation!

    On the subject of my two newly installed packages of bees, placed 3 threes apart: they are rallying but it has been cold here and so feeding continues. How are yours doing? Has it been cold there in western WA also? Thanks for sharing your observations.

    • Elena,

      Yes, it was a very cold and wet spring. But it seems summer has finally come, and my colonies are doing great. No complaints. One colony has put up a box of comb honey, but I haven’t checked the rest.

  • Great point!

    Today I was in my back yard and saw a bumble bee, it was smaller than usual ones I see in my garden and it was black. Sadly until I went to get my camera it was gone. I was hoping to identify it.

    I like to observe all bees—honey or not, bee is bee;) but don’t have your knowledge to identify them.

    • Peter,

      You just have to start somewhere. You learn one, then another, and soon you will know more than anyone around. I’m serious.

  • Since taking care of honeybees and observing different pollinators visiting the wide variety of plants, I do take pictures of some of the critters. Although only with a phone since all my photo equipment became extinct with the passing of film.

    • Alan,

      I’ve seen some amazing bee photos taken with cell phones. I need to learn how to do that!

  • Rusty’s post last year highlighting a new book, The Bees in Your Backyard, changed my observations of the bee world…and her posts on native bees continue to educate me. I am a honey bee keeper and this book helped me identify the Andrenas that emerge each May from hot, dreadful clay on my Virginia hillside. I used to look at these bare patches as only erosion challenges. I was amazed to realize that this is the preferred nesting location for these gentle bees. The book also helped me identify the Mellissodes that sleep on the sunflower heads at night…a charming, gentle bee.

    I think part of the barrier to observing and cherishing these bees is that they have no common name and many people find the Latin classification and pronunciation difficult. Much as gardeners find it easier to grow Columbine but are not so sure about Aquilegia Canadensis. This may be why mason bees and miner bees are becoming better recognized…it is is simply easier and less pretentious to remember, pronounce and tell others about them.

    As an additional benefit to identifying these native bees near my hives, I am able to ask bee experts questions with greater scientific precision about possible effects my honey bee pests or treatments may have on the native bees in my yard.

    Thanks for the posts, Rusty. They make me a better steward of all the bees in my world.

    • Kathleen,

      I totally agree with you. I have a photo essay in this month’s Bee World about how we don’t really “own” a bee until we can name it. I believe that when we can recognize and name things, we are much more likely to care about them. That’s why I think identification is so important.

  • And then you have those of us who read you BECAUSE we love how you are reliably ensorcelled by the many other bees. Wings are my current mini-obsession, trying to learn the names of the veins and corresponding cells. I’m making some progress, and when I start feeling overwhelmed I look at a dragonfly’s wings. Dragonfly wings help me acknowledge that bees may have more complicated wings than flies or butterflies, but it could be a lot worse.

    Keys with either – or choices drive me nuts, (o.k., a short putt, I know) cause there are all these surprising exceptions. Diandrena – what a hoot. Depend upon me to pass along your post. Rusty, when you find you can recognize all the bees, guess you’ll just have to start on grass and sedge identification — or help with the book on who’s who of local bees (no agenda).

    Many thanks for sharing your stretching. GB

    • Glen,

      Ensorcelled? I had to look it up.

      So you didn’t know Diandrena either? I thought I was the only one. BTW, thanks for the spell check.

      • Or ensorceled — yeah thank my spouse for that one, but it sure fits.

        If you were the only one you know who didn’t know about the two-celled Andrena, you hang out with some pretty elite companions.

        PS Thanks to Pehling for his reference. Glad he is in your circle. I am years and acres behind you guys with bee i.d. – my brain has collected more chlorophyll than pollen. GB

  • I’m no beekeeper but I am a bug watcher. Even with your articles, since I never seem to have my phone/camera with me, I’d not be able to tell what bee it was what when I saw​ it. It’s very interesting to read about tho.

    • Debra,

      I usually have to see them enlarged on the screen to tell them apart. Most are really tiny and hard to see even if you do know them.

  • Very nice pics! Thank you for sharing. I’m a newbie beekeeper. I only have 1 hive atm. I find interest in all bees. I catch myself looking at the dandelion seeing if any of my honey bees are foraging around. Usually I do see them and also other varieties of bees are there too. I am amazed by them all.

    Again thank you for sharing these photos. A great talent!


  • Rusty thank you for your informative posts. I’m a new beekeeper, my 2nd year, I know very little about honey bees, and almost nothing about native bees. I am so happy to see honeybeesuite show up in my inbox because I know that it will be interesting, informative, and well written. Thanks again, looking forward to the next post !

  • I think your website is great, and the non-honey bee articles just as interesting as those on our stripey friends… 🙂

  • Well I enjoy all of your articles. So this one taught me something I didn’t ask to learn, but these native bee posts of yours open my eyes a little bit each time! Thanks for writing!

    • I love this line “taught me something I didn’t ask to learn”.

      Rusty, I didn’t ask to learn about not-honey-bees, but your pictures make them beautiful and your words make them fascinating.

  • Rusty, the articles you do on native bees like these has opened my mind to a world much larger than what I ever thought the bee world was. My knowledge has become richer since reading your blog. Thank you.

  • The native bee posts are the reason I subscribed. I’m fascinated by the variety of bees that exist that I used to categorize as “little bugs” 🙂 I often go out to check my hives and end up kneeling in the weeds trying to ID a tiny bee that is always super camera shy! Thanks so much for focusing your time and lens on the natives!

    • Li,

      Really? You subscribed because of the natives? I get so many unsubscribes after native bee posts that I stopped subscribing to my unsubscribe list. Does that make sense? I would rather not know.

  • Great Article. I like reading all the articles not just about honey bees. I see you mentioned in the comments section further up about photos being taken with a cell phone. I saw a chap taking picture with his cell phone and on the front he had tied a 10X hand lens with an elastic band, worked really well I was very surprised with the results and tried it. It worked well but you need to move in and out the focus, which can be hit and miss.

  • I agree with several others​ who have commented. I sometimes wish there was a “like” option so I could give positive feedback and show my appreciation succinctly.

  • The only way to identify most native bees, especially the little blackish andrenids and similar small bees is to kill them and get out the dissecting scope. Bee taxonomists are necessarily in the unfortunate situation of having to kill what they love (usually in cyanide tubes) and then drag out Michner’s Bees of the World and similar weighty tomes, and get down to some arduous work with dichotomous keys. Nowhere as easy as with butterflies, which are more readily photographed and have much more obvious diagnostic traits than do bees.

    • Joe,

      The key here is the word “most.” Some bees are easy to identify if you know what to look for. Yes, Michener and a good scope are always on my desk, and unfortunately we have to kill bees in the interest of learning about them. Many of us don’t use cyanide anymore (although it makes good specimens) because there are several serviceable alternatives. And using dichotomous keys isn’t as bad as you make it out to be, once you know the vocabulary.

      There are many good reason to help people learn to recognize bees down to genus, and for most genera, a simple field guide can work wonders.