There are over 20,000 bee species in the world, with about 4,000 of them occurring in North America. Certainly some types of bees are more common than others, depending on where you live and the type of plants you grow. From the tiniest sweat bee to the largest carpenter bee, the diversity of bees found in our yards and gardens is pretty incredible. Today, I’d like to introduce you to several kinds of bees I commonly find in my own backyard.
Why identifying different kinds of bees is important
While you might not think identifying and learning about common backyard bees is important, nothing could be further from the truth. These native pollinators are critical for pollinating both wild and cultivated plants, and sadly, many of them are facing dramatic population declines due to loss of foraging and nesting habitats, pesticide exposure, and various pathogens and parasites. We need wild bees not only because in many cases they’re more efficient pollinators than imported European honey bees, but also because they’ve co-evolved with our native plants. Many types of bees are specialized pollinators, perfectly designed to pollinate very specific plants. Diversity is the key to habitat stability and our native bees are an important part of the equation.
Identifying bees is the first step in valuing them and appreciating the work they do. While most gardeners might be able to identify a bumble bee or a honey bee, there are many other types of bees worth discovering.
Types of bees common to gardens
Since bees are so diverse in their size, color, shape, and habits, identification can be difficult. With the notable exception of the bumble bees, most of our native bees are solitary, meaning rather than living in a hive or colony, females build solitary nesting chambers in the ground or in a hollow stem or cavity. Sometimes several females build their nest chambers close to each other to form a casual social colony, but certainly nothing comparable to the 10,000+ individuals found in a honey bee hive.
Also worth noting is that most kinds of native bees aren’t capable of stinging. And if they do have the ability, they are generally docile and wholly uninterested in stinging humans, unless they’re squished or stepped on. No species of bees are an aggressive threat, unlike yellow jackets and other social wasps which can grow quite aggressive in the autumn.
Unlike plants, which often each have their own common name, bees are grouped together with several species sharing the same common name. Here are some of my favorite types of bees. Each common name encompasses a group of closely related bees within the same genus.
Green metallic sweat bee (Augochlora species):
A personal favorite, these types of bees are like flying jewels! There are only 4 species of this bee on the entire continent, with one species being far more common than the others (A. pura). These quarter-inch-long bees are a brilliant metallic or tawny green and are fairly unmistakable. In my garden, I commonly find them feeding on the blooms of my herbs, such as oregano, basil, and thyme. I also see them quite a lot on daisy-like flowers, including asters, black-eyed Susans, coreopsis, and cosmos.
This little bee builds a solitary nest in a hollow stem or a tunnel in rotting wood. I often find them setting up shop in my wood nesting blocks, too (read more about how to properly use a nest block here). One interesting note is that a near-identical insect, known as the cuckoo wasp, is often confused with this bee. The cuckoo wasp, however, tends to be more turquoise in color. Strangely enough, the cuckoo wasp is a parasite of many of our native bees and wasps, sneaking into the nests and eating their larvae. Tricky!
Bumble bees (Bombus species):
Bumble bees are the bomb! They’re so docile you can pet them as they pollinate! And their chunky and super-fuzzy bodies practically invite you to stop and stare. They’re lovable and bumbling and oh so cute! With about 50 species on the continent, bumble bees are everywhere. Hairy and between a half and a full inch in length, bumble bees can be various patterns of black, white, yellow, orange, and even a rusty brown. Each species has a different color pattern, though many times their variations make it difficult to tell one species from another. Female bumble bee carry balls of pollen on their hind legs. They adore almost every flower in my garden, from coneflowers and blueberries to foxgloves and salvias. They love my milkweeds and can often be found on my agastache and phlox, too.
Unlike most of the other types of bees on this list, bumble bees are social nesters. Mated queen bumbles spend the winter hunkered down in deaf debris. In the spring, they emerge and begin to build a nest in an old rodent burrow, empty bird house, or other cavity, often in the ground. You can even purchase a bumble bee nest box to encourage them to take up residence, just remember to clean it out at the start of every winter. The nests consist of ball-like structures of wax, each containing an egg, glued together into a cluster. It’s really quite amazing if you ever have the chance to see one. Most bumble bee nests contain just a few dozen individuals; not nearly as large as a honey bee colony.
Leafcutter bees (Megachile species):
Oh how I love to watch leafcutter bees work! The females are so industrious, quickly using their mandibles to remove pieces of leaves to take back to their nests in just a few seconds. They use these leaf pieces to build little cups stacked on top of one another. Each cup contains a single egg and a provision of pollen for the larval bee. The leaves they use most often in my garden are Epimediums and Heucheras. Their nests are found in just about any type of little tunnel, from hollow plant stems to masonary holes in the side of your house. A female almost always builds her brood chamber in the empty screw hole of our porch swing canopy. The nest is then sealed with a layer of mud.
These types of bees are about a half inch long, and there are about 140 species in North America. One distinctive feature of this bee is its upward tipped, flattened, stripped abdomen. Females carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen, rather than on their hind legs. In my garden, these types of bees are common finds on Rudbeckia, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum) and asters.
Long-horn bees (Melissoides and Eucera species):
Though less common in my garden, I come across long-horned bees from time to time, often on my sunflowers. These types of bees are known for the males’ long antennae. There are about two hundred species of long-horned bees on the continent. They’re around a half inch long and have hairy legs and thorax, and bands of pale-colored hair on their abdomens. Females carry pollen on their hind legs. These sunflower specialists are often found clustered on the blooms, day and night. Long-horned bees nest in the ground by digging tunnels, with several females sometimes sharing the same tunnel entrance.
Sweat bees (Halictus species):
This group of common backyard bees are called sweat bees because they love to land on hard-working humans and lap up their salty sweat. They’re harmless, of course, but they do tickle a bit as they crawl on you. There are about 10 species of sweat bees in the genus Halictus on the continent. Tiny little bees, they measure a mere quarter- to a half-inch-long. For me, their small size, combined with their black and creamy yellow striped abdomens make them fairly easy to identify. Females will often have a blob of pollen clinging to their hind legs.
In my garden, these bees frequent my black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, Shasta daisies, and other summer-blooming members of the aster family. Female sweat bees in this group build a solitary nest in a small tunnel-like burrow in the ground, though a few species are social. Another group of bees known commonly as sweat bees are in the genus Lasioglossum. They’re even smaller (typically less than a half inch) with about 400 species in North America.
Large carpenter bees (Xylocopa species):
I know, I know. Carpenter bees have a bad rap. Yes, they chew out solitary nest tunnels in wooden fences, sheds, barns, and houses, and the males sometimes buzz you in defense of their territory, but the damage they cause is minimal and they’re actually quite harmless. Those show-off male bees don’t even have stingers. I admit they’re a bit intimidating, but these large bees are super cool once you get to know them.
There are just a few species here in North America, so they’re worth appreciating and nurturing for sure. Around an inch in length, they’re among the largest bee species. They are mostly black with a golden brown to yellow thorax, sometimes with a black spot. Their heads are black, sometimes with a yellow spot. Though they’re often confused with larger bumble bees, it’s easy to tell the two apart. Carpenter bees have shiny and practically bald abdomens, while the abdomens of bumble bees are hairy. If you want to deter carpenter bees from nesting in your house, simply paint the wood or use a staple gun to temporarily cover any downward facing wood panels with a roll of window screening each spring.
Small carpenter bees (Ceratina species):
These tiny little types of bees are often overlooked because they’re only about a quarter-inch long. Dark black with a metallic glint, the 20 species of this bee in North America are easy to identify due to their barrel-shaped, blunt-ended abdomen and blocky head. Some species have white face markings.
Small carpenter bees nest in hollow stems or they chew out the centers of shrub stems with softer tissue, including elderberry and brambles. I find them nesting inside last year’s dead hydrangea stems almost every summer. They leave a smattering of sawdust behind as they work. Crazily enough, the female guards her brood chamber after the eggs are laid and will die there in the winter. Her newly pupated young have to push her body out of the way to emerge the following spring. And who says bugs aren’t fascinating!?
Striped green sweat bees (Agapostemon species):
These beautiful little native bees are about one-third of an inch long. There are about 43 species across North America and they’re quite common from coast to coast. I find them all over my Heliopsis flowers every summer. In my garden, it seems to be their favorite plant, along with the oregano when it’s in bloom.
Their beautiful coloration consists of a green metallic head and thorax with a yellow and black striped abdomen. If you see wads of pollen on their back legs, you know you’re looking at a female. These types of bees are fairly unmistakable due to their unique colors. They nest in small holes in the ground, sometimes with several females taking up residence close together.
Carder bees (Anthidium species):
Though the species I most commonly find in my garden is the European wool carder bee, these types of bees, whether native or not, are known for collecting fuzz from plant leaves and using it to line their nest. Most of the 20+ native species are found in the southwest. If you live in the east, like me, you’re more likely to see the non-native wool carder bee.
Around a half-inch long, this bee has a smooth upper abdomen with a clear pattern of yellow or white markings on it. Females carry pollen on the hairy undersides of their abdomen, rather than on their legs. They seem to love the nepeta and foxgloves in my front garden, and the males can be seen defending their territory from other males in the early summer. Females build solitary nests in hollow stems and existing cavities in wood. Admittedly, I’ve never liked lamb’s ear plants, but I have half a mind to plant one in my garden just to watch the females collect the hair from the leaves and take it back to their nests!
European honey bees (Apis mellifera):
One last bee common to gardens is the imported European honey bee. While they aren’t native to this continent, they’re certainly worth discussing here as they’re often spied in home gardens. Unlike the other types of bees listed here, there is only one species of honey bee. It’s been introduced to most parts of the world where it’s used to produce honey and pollinate crops.
Honeybees are about a half inch long with black and honey-colored stripes on their tapered abdomen. Females carry pollen on their rear legs. These bees have a complex social structure, with a queen, female workers, and male drones. They feed on a wide variety of plants, but they’re not as efficient as many of our native pollinators, especially when it comes to pollinating certain native plants. Honey bees often live in managed hives, though wild colonies are found from time to time in hollow trees. The honey bees in my garden are particularly fond of the clover in my lawn, in addition to my borage, oregano, mountain mint, and others.
How you can help all types of bees
If you’d like to learn more about the many ways you can encourage these types of bees and many others, check out this article on what you can do to support our native bees. And for more on identifying native bees and preserving their habitat, pick up a copy of one of my favorite books, Attracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society. Another favorite read is Heather Holm’s Pollinators of Native Plants.
And keep in mind that there are many types of bees not covered in this article. The many dozens of regional bee species call for extra attention from gardeners. Don’t hesitate to find more local sources of information about less prevalent or regional species. The Xerces Society website has lots of terrific information.
Interested in learning more about the beneficial insects in your garden? Check out the following articles:
6 ways to support native pollinators
The best plants for bees
Shrubs for pollinators
Plants for beneficial insects