The Bees in Your Backyard: Identifying Different Types of Bees

by | Environment

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Did you know that there are thousands of bees that might call your backyard home over a single season?

There are so many more species of bee living within your local ecosystem than the common honeybee. Many people are worried about bee stings, despite knowing of the honeybees’ distinctly defensive disposition – but being unable to identify more than just the honey and the bumble can make gardening frustrating or scary.

With so many bee species around, it can be difficult to identify every bee that shows up in your garden.

Never fear, great gardener, for the bees in your backyard are often harmless. In this HerbSpeak guide, we will be addressing some of the more common bees you might find in this year’s plants. 

More than just their honey, bees are well-known for their social habits, forming distinct colonies and showing concern for their fellow bee if one becomes injured.

They have also been known to attack in coordinated formations, buzzing wings and producing enough heat to cook dangerous wasps several times their size.

Now, we don’t often think of insects having emotions or sentience, but these two things can be enough to make you question that belief. That is also why, for many people, it is surprising when they learn that around 90% of all bees are solitary creatures.

It is only a select few bee species, such as honeybees and bumble bees, that they form uniquely social colonies and display these acts of courage and solidarity.  

How to Identify Bees

You love your garden and all the plants that surround it, but as pollinators make their rounds, you might start to get worried about the types of bees that are showing up.

Will this one or that one sting you? Should you be worried about invasive species or which ones are safe to have around your home?

Learning how to identify bees is one of the best ways you can get to know your backyard ecosystem a little bit better and begin overcoming any fear of the lovely insects you might have.

If you have no idea what kind of bees are buzzing around in your backyard, then you won’t have the full picture about their ecological role. It is one of the many ways we can start feeling more connected with our everyday environment.

With this guide, you’ll learn how to identify different types of bees in your backyard from the humble honeybee to the common sweat bee.

While there are exceptions to every species, bees will typically have a triangular or tear-shaped head with wings that are shorter than their body-length.

The eyes are most commonly large, black ovals on the sides of their head. This face shape is iconic to see with long, often jointed antennae at the top of their heads.

Many types of bees will have fuzzy hairs on their legs for carrying pollen.

Bees VS. Wasps

The difference between a particular wasp and a particular bee varies greatly depending on the species you are inspecting, but a good rule of thumb exists:

  • Bees will typically be rounder and fuzzier, while wasps look like their buff cousin.
  • Bees enjoy pollen and nectar as a midday snack, while wasps will try to steal your
  • Bees are typically gentle and defensive in demeanor, only attacking if they feel threatened by accidental swats to themselves or their nest. Wasps just want to ruin your day for no good reason other than having a fun time.
  • Bees are dainty and tuck their knees in when they fly, while wasps don’t care about appearance and let their legs hang low during flight.
  • Bees are the helpful pollinators of many garden flowers, while wasps are the helpful guard dogs that eat pests; often ones that eat crops. Wasps also pollinate a lot of food crops, contributing to global food security and natural pest control.

Didn’t see that coming, did you?

Bees and wasps are both incredibly valuable for the ecosystem. Bees do get a lot of praise compared to wasps, but that is largely because bees are more docile and won’t typically attack humans unless they feel threatened.

Wasps contribute greatly to the ecosystem, controlling populations of mosquitos and other insects that can carry diseases.

It doesn’t mean you want them near you anymore than before because they are still aggressive, but they should never be needlessly killed.

Bees VS. Hornets

Hornets are essentially the big, buff wrestlers of the insect world. Even many wasps are small in comparison to some hornets, making them appear aggressive and daunting if they begin setting up shop in your backyard.

  • Bees look like they just got out of a nice, up-scale thrift shop with their fuzzy new jackets, while hornets tend to look like their cousins who just rode in on a motorcycle, clad in leather and a helmet.
  • Bees are generally small and fuzzy, like little insectoid teddy bears, while hornets are huge and relatively hairless in comparison, often growing to several inches in size.
  • Bees are typically prey to hornets, who feast on bees, flies, and many other insects and arachnids as they pollinate plants.
  • Bee stings are not often considered dangerous unless the individual is allergic to the sting. Hornets, on the other hand, are so large that the sting can be fatal if provoked to sting. Neither insect is aggressive by nature, though hornets are considered much more defensive of their nest, attacking if they feel the area around their nest is threatened.
  • Bees are typically shorter and more bulbous in stature, while hornets are often large, yet slender creatures.

Overall, hornets are still ecologically important pollinators helping control other pest populations, though invasive hornet species can wreak havoc on native bee populations.

Hornets are considerably more sensitive to perceived threats to their nest, so it is not recommended to leave any near your home, especially while mowing the lawn or doing any other type of yardwork. 

Bees VS. Flies

Some bees – most notably the sweat bee – are commonly mistaken as flies. (1) After all, we are familiar with bees that are yellow and black striped insects, and while some may still bear those markings, there are a lot of metallic sweat bees as well.

All (sweat bees) are small; none are aggressive. Most members of this family are black or brown, but some are brightly colored, notably with metallic greens and blues.

Missouri Department of Conservation

  • Sweat bees are attracted to sweat and perspiration, hence their name, while flies are more likely to be attracted to your snack or sweet drink.
  • Sweat bees are necessary to perform buzz pollination, whereas the flower only releases pollen after being vibrated by the bee’s wings. Flies only visit flowers to drink nectar and will not buzz around on the job quite as much.
  • Sweat bees are typically very small, while flies can be pretty large and round-bodied in comparison.
  • Sweat bees tend to go au natural – meaning they are quite fuzzy – while flies take personal grooming very seriously, with less natural hair present, though they may have fine cilia on their legs.
  • Sweat bees tend to have longer wings, while flies commonly have rounder wings. We aren’t judging either; every bee is beautiful.

Halictids are the proper name for these bees, and they make up one of six bee families. They are far more abundant than most other bee families save for the honeybee, or Apis, species. 

How Many Species of Bees Are There?

There are over 20,000 known species of bees in the world, and scientists are discovering more every day. (2) 4,000 of these bee species are within the United States.

Still, it is estimated that we have yet to discover or even describe 10% of all bee species in the US, which makes for an astoundingly diverse picture.

This is especially true when you consider that honeybees are not even native to North America, though it is important to note they are also not an invasive species. They are simply non-native, having acclimated to the region and able to live wild without displacing other species.

Many of our native wild and crop plants have sets of bees that are so specialized that they restrict their visits to those plants alone. The most important facet of bee conservation is the encouragement and retention of all of our flowering native plants.

USGS.gov

Knowing what bees are important to the local ecosystem, is a great way to guide your native planting efforts.

Do All Bees Produce Honey?

No, not every bee produces honey. In fact, very few do. We commonly call these bees “honeybees” and they are of the family Apidae.

Apis bees, or honeybees, are one of the few social families of bees as well, forming colonies that will work together to gather pollen, ward off predators, and protect the queen.

Bumblebees – from the genus Bombus (really, seriously, how fun is that to say? – do also produce honey, but it is so little that it is often not harvested by humans or managed by beekeepers. Bumbles typically only forage and make enough honey for their queen, who will store the honey in small pots.

These pots of honey become crucial in keeping the bee colony alive. In the spring, when weather is cold and wet, this sweet energy source will provide the bumble queen with enough energy to stay in the nest, vibrating her flight muscles to produce heat for her new brood.

In total, only eight bee species – out of the 20,000 we know today – are recognized to produce honey and are kept for those purposes. Only 11 species are historically known to create honey, if only a small amount for their brood.

Do All Bees Die When They Sting?

You might have heard that when a bee stings you, it also dies. The details are rather gruesome:

When the bee stings you, it inserts the barbed stinger into your skin. Unfortunately, because of the barbs, it is unable to pull the stinger back out and it quite literally rips itself apart in the process of leaving. The bee will leave behind not only the stinger, but also part of its abdomen and digestive tract, along with muscles and nerves. 

Here’s the curious thing: this doesn’t happen for all bees.

In fact, it only happens to the Apis family of bees. That’s right: only honeybees lose their stinger when they sting you, despite all of our efforts to save them.

Thankfully, they are docile and defensive by nature, so they will only sting if they were swatted or you are threatening their hive.

Why Bees Are Important to Your Backyard

All types of bees and other pollinating insects are critical for our ecosystem to not just thrive, but to survive.

They play a significant role in pollinating a lot of flowers from your garden, but they also contribute to global food security by pollinating agricultural and industrial crops. It is estimated that pollinator insects are responsible for pollinating 90% of the world’s food crops.

Beyond that, they also help continue generations of wild plants with each new season, allowing for greater biodiversity, which in turn supports other insects, wildlife, and humans.

A bee in your backyard is not a nuisance – it is a reason to smile, because while it might not look like much, bee butts covered in pollen are quite an amazing fact of nature that allows all of us to continue living on this planet.

Plant native plants. Contribute to biodiversity. Keep the bee booty covered in pollen.

Gently Removing Nests from Unwanted Areas

Let’s start with something you shouldn’t do: you should never ever use bee spray or bug zappers to remove nests or bees from your yard. This is never humane under any circumstances, and sprays or pesticides can harm all parts the environment, from the bees, to the plants and wildlife.

With little wild forest left to these insects, it’s difficult for them to find a place to call home, and humans have consistently destroyed their habitat, then strangled them out of yards, leaving them nowhere to go for their next generation, contributing greatly to bee population decline.

Now, let’s move onto a must, under any circumstances: anytime you are near a beehive, you should wear appropriate protective gear, as bees can be dangerous in large numbers if angered, or if you are allergic. If you are trying to directly interact with the bees – for instance, moving their nest – you shouldn’t, unless you are experienced and licensed to do so. Typically, this means that you must be a beekeeper.

If you need to relocate a hive, always contact a local beekeeper. If you aren’t able to find a local beekeeper, they may not have their information publicly posted. Check with your community for local beekeepers in your area or surrounding areas.

Why you should avoid pest control services: while some pest control companies claim to use only humane methods of removal, the only truly humane method of removal is relocation without killing the brood.

Many bee sprays directly target the bees nervous systems, killing them and the queen, killing a significant number of bees in the total remaining population.

Beyond that, pesticide use is highly toxic to not just the pests it is utilized on, but thanks to rainwater washing away chemical residue, it is also contaminating our water supplies and harming aquatic wildlife populations as well.

Let’s recap:

  • NEVER use sprays
  • NEVER use bug zappers or swatters
  • NEVER hire a pest control service to “remove” the bees
  • ALWAYS use a beekeeper for humane moving of the nest
  • ALWAYS interact with bees or hives with appropriate safety gear

Why is It Important to Identify Different Kinds of Bees?

Bees are incredibly important for ecological stability, ensuring our food crops remain pollinated, along with our garden favorites. (3)

Wild and managed bees are key pollinators, ensuring or enhancing the reproduction of a large fraction of the world’s wild flowering plants and the yield of ∼85% of all cultivated crops.

Eduardo E. Zattara

25% fewer bee species were reported in the early 2000s compared to sightings before 1990, despite a 55% increase in community reporters.

This decline is one of many reasons why it is important to be able to identify the bees in our backyard. You can contribute to a global conservation effort by simply identifying and reporting bee sightings in your own backyard, helping keep scientists abreast of new population numbers.

Keeping track of the data and mapping patterns in the bees’ decline can help us pinpoint where changes to our ecological habits would be most helpful. With this data, conservation efforts can take place all across the world, helping save every type of bee – not just the humble honeybee.

(Most Common) Different Types of Bees

Below is a list of several of the most common different types of bees. Keep in mind that there are over 20,000 individual species of bee known in the world, however, all bees have a three-segment body consisting of a head, a thorax, and an abdomen.

Find out which one is buzzing in your garden:

Honeybees (Apis)

The most well-known bee with the best publicity, these bees are excellent honey producers. Imported from Europe in the 1700s, these bees are not native to North America, but are also not invasive, having integrated well with other pollinators.

  • Size: 1.2 cm long
  • Description: honey-colored yellow and black. Fuzzy legs, with a somewhat smooth abdomen and two pairs of wings.
  • Nesting: Social, large colonies

Bumble Bees (Bombus)

These fuzzy critters look like the teddy bears of the bee world, though they have stingers like other bees. While they are often found happily buzzing around clover and flowers, collecting pollen on their hind legs, they also bumble around in the air clumsily.

  • Size: 1.5 to 2.5 cm long
  • Description: The fuzziest of bees with a classic yellow-black patterning for most species, typically a little rounder than most bees.
  • Nesting: Social, medium colonies

Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa)

Carpenter bees are one of the louder species of bees, with an audible hum or buzz as they fly. These bees are not as fuzzy as other types of bees, leaving many people to mistake them for rather large flies or beetles.

  • Size: 2 cm long
  • Description: Black bodies with a smooth abdomen and fuzzy thorax. Some species have white or yellow markings. Wings may be metallic and elongated compared to other types of bees.
  • Nesting: Solitary, burrows into dead wood or bamboo.

Leafcutter Bees (Megachile)

This type of bee has a slender body compared to other bees but are still able to carry pollen. Much like leafcutter ants, they chew leaves and bring it back to their nest.

  • Size: 1 cm long
  • Description: Smooth, striped abdomen with hairs on the lower half. Can be black and white or pale yellow and black in coloration.
  • Nesting: Solitary, in slender tubes and hollow sticks

Longhorn Bees (Eurcera, Melissodes)

Commonly known as a type of honeybee, these fuzzy, yellow-faced critters are well-known for their extravagantly long antennae. These bees are in the same family as the honeybee (Apidae). These bees have known to be more active in the dark, pollinating flowers before sunrise.

  • Size: 0.8 cm to 1.2 cm
  • Description: Rounded, stout bodies like a bumble bee but shorter. Some species are fuzzy with a smooth abdomen, while others are black bodied with yellow bands. Known for their long antennae.
  • Nesting: Solitary, in small in-ground burrows

Sweat Bees (Halictid)

These bees are diverse in their appearance, but they earned their name by their strong attraction to salty perspiration. They can be easily identified by a strong, curved vein on their wings with form a V-pattern when at rest on their backs.

  • Size: 0.3 cm to 1.2 cm
  • Description: Hairy metallic green, blue, or black with green-yellow patterns. Some are black and white with smooth abdomens.
  • Nesting: Solitary, nesting underground or in rotted wood

Miner Bees (Andrena)

Miner bees, also known as chimney bees, got their name because they will burrow to create nests in clay, creating chimney-like structures.  

  • Size: 1.4 cm to 1.7 cm
  • Description: Fuzzy black and cream yellow with a hairy body and almost metallic wings. Typically lacks any kind of striped pattern.
  • Nesting: Solitary, tunnels dug from hardened clay

Mason Bees (Osmia)

Interestingly, these bees create their own masonry by using cob or mud inside the nest. This earned them their name “mason bees” and they span a wide range of colors. When their behind is covered in pollen, it is often enlarged, making them much more noticeable.

  • Size: 1 cm to 1.6 cm
  • Description: Commonly seen with metallic green or blue bodies with sparse patches of hair, but some are known to be rust-red or black. They have large wings, and six large, hairy black legs.
  • Nesting: Solitary, mud-based masonry nests

How You Can Help All Types of Bees

Honeybees are not the only bee species at risk, though humans tend to care about them more as their honey is a sweet treat for us as well. While it’s easier to get them into the public eye of importance, all bees need help. (4) Educating yourself on your local bees and being aware of their importance is one of the first but most important steps you can take to start a daily conservation effort.

There are so many ways we can each help bees:

  1. Encourage bee booties full of pollen by planting a bee-friendly garden.

By planting a bee garden, you can create a habitat corridor with plants that are rich in pollen and nectar. You don’t need a ton of space to grow bee-friendly plants — gardens can be established across yards and in window boxes, flower pots, and planters.

The Bee Conservancy

  1. Plant native plants. You can often find lists of native plants for your area through your local conservation organization or state wildlife resources.
  2. Go chemical-free for not just the bees, but the whole environment. It’s not about being new age or jumping on a bandwagon, it’s about preserving the ecosystem for future generations of life.
  3. Collect bee data by becoming a citizen scientist. There are many organizations that exist that benefit from people like you recording sightings of insects and other wildlife.
  4. Build bee homes or purchase a native bee nesting box from a bee conservation organization. This helps encourage bees to nest in your area, benefiting gardens and saving them energy and time to build a nest. Not only does this provide them with a home, but it also encourages them to nest away from house eaves and decks, keeping them away from human danger.
  5. Keep that tree, because angiosperm trees flower and the blooms feed thousands, or even millions of bees in a single season.
  6. Support local beekeepers. This goes a long way in sustaining local agriculture rather than supporting industrial farming. Even if you don’t need a little extra honey, donating to these individuals not only lets them support their family a little better, but you directly support their hives.
  7. Let you garden grow out because wild is beautiful, but also because all of those “weeds” are critical pollinator plants. Early spring weeds are often the only food source available to bees, so by letting your garden grow wild, you can greatly increase their chance of survival over the year.
References
  1. Missouri Department of Conservation, Halictid Bees (Sweat Bees), https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/halictid-bees-sweat-bees
  2. gov, How Many Species of Native Bees Are In the United States?, https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/how-many-species-native-bees-are-united-states
  3. Eduardo E. Zattara, Marcelo A. Aizen, Worldwide Occurrence Records Suggest a Global Decline in Bee Species Richness, https://www.cell.com/one-earth/fulltext/S2590-3322(20)30651-5
  4. The Bee Conservancy, 10 Ways to Save the Bees, https://thebeeconservancy.org/10-ways-to-save-the-bees/

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About Destynnie K. Berard
I am a lifelong naturalist who believes a good sense of humor is essential to staying happy. ★ After traveling for years, I settled in New England, falling in love with the diverse landscape the Northeast has to offer, and began pursuing conservation in earnest. ★ My career background is in enterprise marketing and communications, which provides me with a unique perspective of ecological relationships.

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