A publication called Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees is a great reference and includes a number of helpful illustrations. These two show the nesting habits of carpenter and mining bees. Can you tell which is which? There are numerous species within each type.

A publication called Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees is a great reference and includes a number of helpful illustrations. These two show the nesting habits of carpenter and mining bees. Can you tell which is which? There are numerous species within each type.

If you look closely, the hairs on this leaf cutter bee are clearly visible due to the pollen it is carrying on its body.

If you look closely, the hairs on this leaf cutter bee are clearly visible due to the pollen it is carrying on its body.

Mason bees are efficient pollinators of a variety of native plants and agricultural crops.

Mason bees are efficient pollinators of a variety of native plants and agricultural crops.

A hovering carpenter bee can be frightening but will not sting!

A hovering carpenter bee can be frightening but will not sting!

Yellow jackets are aggressive defenders of their nests.

Yellow jackets are aggressive defenders of their nests.

An Important Cause to Celebrate

by Trish Beckjord, RLA

On May 20th this year, the world will celebrate the first ever World Bee Day. The recognition is supported by a December 20, 2017 unanimous resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Wow! That’s a lot of attention for such a little guy! But, as more and more people are realizing, bees are a critical element of many important issues, not the least of which is our own survival. Our food supply – and therefore food security worldwide - mitigation against the changing climate and ensuring the continuation of the biodiversity of many important plant species just name a few of the areas where bees make important contributions. Seventy five percent of all the food we eat is dependent upon bee pollination!

The celebration of World Bee Day seems the perfect time to talk about our own native bees. Did you know that Illinois has between 400-500 native bee species? Like native plants, a native bee is one that lived in the region since before European settlement in the mid-late 1800’s. Our native bees range in size from about one-tenth of an inch to about one inch long. For comparison, most of the honeybees we see are 1/2 to 5/8 inches in length.

Like moths and butterflies, bees go through several stages as part of their life cycle: egg, larvae, pupae and adult, and our gardens need to be designed to accommodate all stages. Here are a couple of interesting facts:

Bees build nests to raise young. Some species nest in the ground and construct tunnels. Others nest in holes such as found in hollow stems, dead wood or rock crevices. This is one of the reasons you should not cut back your garden for the winter or find some place where you allow the cut stems to remain until spring.

Bees are great “bakers.” They prepare a pollen loaf for each egg that consists of nectar, pollen and saliva. The loaf feeds the larvae until it enters the pupa stage. Each egg and its pollen loaf are separated from each other by a partition constructed of materials such as mud and pieces of leaf.

Male bees develop from unfertilized eggs.

Most native bees do not swarm in the same way as the more well-known honey bee. Many are solitary, communal or only semi-social. Because of this they are not aggressive or likely to sting. The latter two types may share the entrance to a nest but are otherwise solitary. Semi-social bees work together to raise young but the colony is only together for a year. Queens and their young do not live in the nest at the same time.

Bees are typically covered with hairs. Like us, some have more than others - Bumblebees might come to mind. The hairs on some parts of their body are branched (plumose).

There are many different kinds of native bees in Illinois.  They include Bumble bees, Sweat bees, Carpenter bees, Plasterer bees, Cuckoo bees, Mason bees, and Leafcutter bees. 

This garden Mason Bee carries pollen on the underside of its abdomen, rather than on its legs. This can be easily seen in this photograph from Beespotter. Hairs on its head and thorax are also clearly visible.

Carpenter bees are often mistaken for Bumble bees. Unlike Bumble bees however, they are not social and build their nests in trees or wood frame buildings. Beginning with a small perfectly circular hole, they drill in about an inch and then turn and construct a horizontal tunnel. They don’t eat the wood but rather use the tunnels for shelter and laying eggs. Carpenter bees are similar in size to Bumble bees (1/2 to 1” long”) but have a black abdomen. Males hover in the air and will come out and “inspect” you if you come close to the nest but, note, they are not able to sting! In fact I’ve been living with carpenter bees for several years who seem to like using my wood fence. As I walk near the nest while I work in the garden they will come out and hover near me just seeming to check me over. The female can sting but is seldom seen and must be handled to be provoked.

For those of you who are reading this who swear they have been stung by a swarm of bees from a ground nest, it may be possible, but it is far more likely that the cause is the ground-nesting Yellow jacket wasp (Vespula spp.) which can be aggressive in defense of its nest. Yellow jackets, a type of paper wasp, live in large underground colonies and sting readily. They have a smooth stinger, so can sting more than once. The sting can be very painful. 

Of course, not every pollinator you see in your garden is a bee or butterfly. Here are some common mistakes.

  1. Some flies such as this Hover fly look like bees. You can tell them apart because bees have four, thin wings (if present), two long antennae and mouthparts for chewing. Flies only have two wings and no long antennae. Hover flies do not sting.
  2. Paper wasps will also look like bees. They will visit flowers for nectar but are mostly carnivores. Like having these invertebrates in your garden; they help take care of other pests and will eat caterpillars too!

Suffice it to say, the well-being of these much feared insects is directly tied to our own. Celebrating World Bee Day gives important recognition to these valuable species that we should welcome into our garden!

Hopefully by now you are learning that the many native bees we can find in our gardens are beneficial insects and important pollinators that should be supported. As I write, I am watching that Carpenter bee hover on patrol outside my window…

References for Further Exploration

Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees

How To Tell the Difference Between Pollinators In Your Garden

Native Bees, IL Department of Natural Resources

Carpenter Bees

Native Mason Bees for Pollination

Nests for Native Bees

Native Bee Biology

Are Bee Hotels the Answer to Saving A Species?