Did you know there are over 20,000 different species of bees?!
I didn’t either before starting my research for If Bees Disappeared. But now that I do, one of my favorite hobbies is what I call “Bee-ing“. In the way people “Bird” or go “Birding” to search for birds and observe their actions in the wild, I like to search and observe native bee species. Searching for the bees around you can give you a whole new glimpse into the ecosystem you live in! Native bee species can be split up into “solitary bees” and “social bees”.
Solitary Bees are bee species that live alone, making their homes in dirt, stone, and other locations. They forage for food acting as crucial pollinators as they go. These bees are non aggressive and live short lives. Popular solitary bee species include Mason Bees, Resin Bees, and Leafcutter Bees.
Social bees live in hives. They travel from flower to flower pollinating and collecting nectar for their hive. Social bees act as a group and the hive is their organism (not a singular bee). The most popular of social bees are honeybees followed by bumblebees.
Native bees can be both social and solitary and are the bees local to your ecosystem. To find out what bees are in your ecosystem… look around you!
How to start bee-ing? It depends on where you live and the types and lengths of seasons you have (I live in Colorado which is going to have a different bee situation than Los Angeles), but bees are most active typically during the spring and summer. So when the snow thaws, the grasses start to grow, and flowers begin to bloom… you just have to slow down and look. The best place to spot a bee are near bee-friendly plants. Flowers with easily accessible pollen (hollyhock, aster, echinecea, sunflowers) and plants with blooms (rosemary, lavender) will be easy targets for a wide variety of bees.
When you start bee-ing, you will probably notice that the most easily recognizable bee is a honeybee. Honeybees are social bees, living in hives and working as a hive, but they also aren’t native to North America. Honeybees, while not native, are so important to our planets health and if you see a honeybee flying from flower to flower, it is still an exciting thing no matter if there are thousands nearby! One honeybeehive can contain over 60,000 bees! Once you get used to spotting honeybees, start to notice the smaller things about them. One of the most fun things to try to spot are when bees are so covered in pollen, it starts to collect in little balls on their legs. Girl Nextdoor Honey affectionally calls these “pollen pants”, a phrase I’ve adopted from her. These little bees are definitely what we think of when we think of a classic bee!
Another very popular and wellknown bee is the bumblebee! Bumblebees, like honeybees, are social bees however unlike honeybees, they are native to your location. They live in hives underground in hives of between 50 to 500 bees. There are lots of different types of bumblebees, and probably many different species in your own backyard. This is so fun because bumblebees move more slowly than other bee species making them easier to catch a glimpse of with their fuzzy round bodies. The way to differentiate bumblebees is their coloring and size. Below I saw so excited when I saw a Great Northern Bumblebee and it was HUGE! Way bigger than the Hunt’s Bumblebee which is identifiable by it’s orange/red fuzz (though not all bumblebees with this color fuzz are a Hunt’s Bumblebee).
Though not as well known as the honeybee, but still very popular, the leafcutterbee is a native solitary bee that makes its home in stone, dirt, and bee hotels across the world. The leafcutter bee comes in many different shapes and sizes and might be the reason you have near perfectly shaped circular holes in some of the leaves of the plants in your garden. These little bees pollinate flowers and plants and are hard at work keeping biodiversity alive… but they also cut leafs (like their name implies) and use them to make a nest for their young. This nest will safely house the bees until the next spring, when the cycle repeats itself. I strongly recommend getting or making a bee hotel to help native solitary species like the leafcutter bee!
From long antennae, to funny legs, to body color… bees come in all different shapes and sizes! I think this is one of the coolest thing about bees. Some bees just don’t even look like what we think of when we think of bees. I think those tend to be my favorite bees because they’re the hardest to spot. It takes time and practice to spot them… or maybe you’re just super lucky and have a resin bee population in your yard! Here are some cool bee’s I’ve seen that I don’t think look too classically like a “bee”.
There are some imposters though! Be on the lookout! Some flies look like bees. Flies are actually great pollinators and don’t often get enough credit for their ability to distribute pollen. Many have even disguised themselves over time to look like bees. Though I’ve been bee-ing for years, I still can get confused by some of the flies I see. I saw this one fly (below, right) and I’m still not totally certain it’s not a bee…
The fun thing about bee-ing is that while books are wonderful, we also have some “cheat codes” available today. I recommend the iNaturalist app, which is a wonderful app where if you see a bee and you aren’t sure what it is or maybe you just want to test your knowledge… snap a pic! Then upload it to the iNaturalist app and see what type of insect you’re looking at. These images can be used for data tracking and research which means real scientists can sign off on if you correctly identified that bee. This isn’t an ad for the app, I just simply use it and love it!
Probably the best thing to me about bee-ing is not getting to add to my tally of how many bees I saw, or even what type of bees I saw… I love that looking for bees in a garden, on a walk, or on a hike allows me to slow down and really take in the beauty of all the little things that make nature run. From the lichen covered rocks, to the grasses blowing in the breeze, to the flowers blooming, growing, and wilting, to the bees and insects scurrying about… the world is comprised of so many wonderful living creatures all doing their jobs to make it run well. I guess when I look down at the bees and get excited by seeing a tiny little sweat bee on a chamomile flower, I think of how important we all are when we help each other make this world better.
Thank you, bees! All 20,000 different species of you are a delight! Thank a bee today if you see one… but mostly, slow down and try to see the things around you that are easy to miss.