wild bees and native bees

The seven families of bees

Since the advent of gene mapping, the classification of bee species has changed. Just a few years ago there were eleven families of bees, then nine, now seven. Even so, there are more species of bees—about 20,000—than species of mammals and birds combined, so that’s a lot of bees.

Dividing all those species into families with similar traits helps us to understand them. And for me, seven is a number I can handle, whereas 20,000 . . . not so much.

If you live in North America, you only have to think about six of the families, because one of the seven appears only in Australia. And of the six, you are already familiar with the one I mentioned yesterday, the Apidae.

In alphabetical order, the families are:

    1. Andrenidae
    2. Apidae
    3. Colletidae
    4. Halictidae
    5. Megachilidae
    6. Mellittidae
    7. Stenotritidae

I like alphabetical order because the last one, the one “down under” the rest, is the one found only in Australia.

Did I mention that I’m an ace when it comes to mnemonic devices? I got through several layers of education by remembering things like how to spell “arithmetic” by reciting, “A rat in the house might eat the ice cream.” The order of the planets before we lost Pluto was, “My very educated mother just served up nine pizzas.” And the chemical formula for sulfuric acid was: “We weep for little Willy / for Willy is no more / ’cause what he thought was H2O / was H2SO4.”

To distinguish Boyle’s Law from Charles’ Law (physical laws of pressure and temperature in gases) one only has to remember that if you link Boyle with heat, you’re wrong. Even in graduate school there was a story that helped me remember the scientific name of Chinook salmon, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, although it was lascivious and more-or-less unprintable. But I digress.

The Andrenidae are all mining bees. Most of these bees are active in the early spring and have only a very light sting. Andrena bees can be readily distinguished from other bees by the velvety patches of hair on their faces.

The Apidae family comprises honey bees, stingless bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, Diadasia bees, long-horned bees, orchid bees, and the ground-nesting Anthophora bees.

Comprising two genera, the Colletidae are often referred to as plasterer bees because they line their nest cavities with a waterproof secretion. The bees in the genus Hylaeus are unique because the females carry pollen in a crop inside their bodies.

The Halictidae are the so-called sweat bees (the Greek hals means salt). They are mining bees that are often brightly colored in metallic blues and greens. The alkali bees are also part of this group.

The Megachilidae family contains all the bee genera that carry pollen on the underside of their abdomens. Familiar members are the mason bees, carder bees, and leafcutter bees.

Inhabitants of the drier climates, the Mellittidae are mining bees that often collect floral oils in addition to pollen and nectar.

And finally, the small Australian mining bee family Stenotritidae is populated with bees known to be exceptionally fast fliers. If you think Australia is lucky to have an extra family of bees, it just isn’t so. Although they have the Stenotritidae, they totally lack the Andrenidae.

So there you go, seven families. Now all we need is a mnemonic so we can remember their names.


Andrena prunorum

Andrena prunorum in a blackberry flower.

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  • Thanks for the post. You have thrown down the gauntlet and now we most take up the seven families challenge.

    Three unrelated memory aids, (sorry, had to do it):

    Port & Starboard: A bit of red port left in the bottle.
    Phases of the moon: DOC (letter D first quarter, O is full, letter C last quarter)
    And: Annie Algae met Freddie Fungus and they took a Lichen to each other.
    (Groan away, but I like it.)

    • Glen,

      Very good. My port/starboard thing has always been that left and port both have four letters.

      Never could remember phases of the moon, but I used to teach beekeeping at DOC (department of corrections) so this will work for me!

      I love Annie and Freddie! I’ve always remembered the composition of lichens without help, but this is better.

    • Reed,

      Okay, I like it! That was quick. I’ve been looking at those letters all day and didn’t come up with anything. Worse, when I looked at yours, I said H? What H? I had to go back and look at the list. Whoops.

  • I know I’ve mentioned before that you are a great teacher but I am a terrible student, so my taxonomic skills are just about up to “honey bee/not a honey bee”.

    But I recently attended a zoom talk on pollinator lawns where the speaker went through slides saying things like “halictid on [name of plant]” and “Megachilidae on [name of plant]”. And instead of just completely glazing over and zoning out, I was able to nod sagely and say to myself, ah, yes, I’ve heard of those. For which you deserve ALL the credits.

    • Roberta,

      Good for you! I’ve spent countless hours, days, and weeks in classes and seminars learning how to identify bees. With the hours I’ve put in, I could have been a Ph.D. several times over. But, truth is, I still space out sometimes, especially one someone is explaining the shape of some obscure ventral segment you can’t even see. However, would I do it again? Absolutely. Bees are just the coolest thing.

      • They are and it’s great to read from your cohort of student bee lovers. I enjoy hearing the compassionate and well-intentioned struggles of us humans when confronted w the mysteries of bee life!