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Those Pesty Bees?

Honey bee on flower  Sunny with Thunderstorms

Although the bee population is on a decline, I'm sure if you have spent any time outdoors, in your garden, yard or patio, you've encountered bees. As Fall starts to approach, we'll start to see much more activity too. I was given to understand that there are good bees (non-stinging/pollinators) and bad bees (stinging/destructive) - so I thought it would be interesting to know which kinds of bees are flying around me!

With the help of some internet research, I've put together a list of some of the groups of the most common types of bees that you are most likely to see. 

Western Honey BeesWestern Honey Bee Sunny with Thunderstorms

These bees were actually imported to North America to pollinate crops. They are relatively easy to distinguish from native bees by their coloring, which is golden brown with black abdominal stripes. 

Honey bees in the United States rarely live in wild colonies. Although you may not know of a beekeeper in your area, honey bees fly for 3 miles or more from their hive  - so you may still see them in your garden. 

Do they sting? Yes, but rarely unless you handle them or get too close to their colony. And they can only sting once.

Are they "good" bees? Yes, they pollinate a wide range of plants and their honey is harvested for our consumption.

BumblebeesBumblebee Sunny with Thunderstorms

Bumblebees get their name from the noise they create inside a flower. They make it by moving around so quickly they "sonicate" the pollen off the flower and onto the hairs on their body. There are 49 species of bumblebees native to the United States. These bees are a little larger than Honey Bees and have a black body covered with dense yellow and black hair. Sometimes they can be confused with Carpenter Bees, but Carpenter Bees are noticeably larger with a broader head. Bumblebees live in small colonies in nests in the ground - often using abandoned mammal holes. Many native Bumblebee species are in decline.

Do they sting? They can but rarely do unless you handle them or get too close to their nest.

Are they "good" bees? Yes, they are non-aggressive and important pollinators of wildflowers and certain agricultural crops like tomatoes.

Carpenter BeesCarpenter Bee Sunny with Thunderstorms

Carpenter bees are sometimes known as wood bees - a name derived from their habit of boring into wood. They have a black body with dense yellow and black hairs on their head and thorax and a bald abdomen.

Unlike other common bees that live in colonies, Carpenter Bees are not social insects and build individual nests into trees or into the frames, eaves or sides of buildings.

Do they sting? Females can sting in defense, but rarely do. Males appear a little more aggressive and territorial, but cannot sting.

Are they "good" bees? Well, yes and no.

They don't have a great reputation. If you've ever had a large bee swoop down and hover in front of your face, it was probably a territorial Carpenter Bee. They can be very destructive to your outside decks and fences - boring into your wood and making holes for their nests. They chew into small flowers, such as those on blueberries, to get the nectar - taking it while not pollinating the plant. 
On the flowers of other plants, however, they are excellent pollinators. 

Mason BeesMason Bee Sunny with Thunderstorms

Mason bees are usually a little smaller than a honeybee, and typically metallic blue or blue-black in color. There are about 140 species of mason bees in North America. All are solitary bees.

Mason Bees get their name from their habit of sealing up the cells where they lay their eggs with a mortar-like application of mud. In the wild, mason bees lay their eggs in small natural cavities such as a hollowed-out stem or a twig. They also will readily come to bee house/hotels where environmentally conscious gardeners have pre-drilled holes for them.

Do they sting?  The males do not have a stinger, and the females will only sting if trapped or squeezed. This makes them an ideal neighbor for the home garden, since they pose little to no threat.

Are they "good" bees? Yes. Mason bees are generalists that visit a variety of flowers, often focusing on those nearest to their nest, so they are great to have near your garden and flower beds. 

Leafcutter BeesLeafcutter Bee Sunny with Thunderstorms

These bees are very similar to Mason bees in their nesting characteristics, except that they use leaves to close up their nest cavities. They are black with white hairs covering the thorax and the bottom of the abdomen, and many species have large heads with massive jaws to aid in cutting off pieces of leaves to seal their nests.

Leafcutter bees are extremely gentle solitary bees. Even though leafcutter bees are solitary, they like company and build their nests near one another.

Do they sting? They can sting but only when handled, but they do not aggressively defend their nests.

Are they "good" bees? Yes. Leafcutting bees are important native pollinators of  wildflowers, fruits, vegetables and other crops. They are used by commercial growers to pollinate crops including alfalfa, blueberries, carrots and onions.

Other common bee species include the Blueberry Bee, Squash Bee and Sweat Bee. All three are beneficial and will only sting if provoked - although the Sweat Bees can be pretty annoying as they are attracted to human perspiration!

All in all, it seems that almost if not all species of bees are beneficial and harmless when left alone. Now I just have to look out for the wasps and hornets!

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  • JoEllen Urasky