A Gardener's Guide to Identifying the Most Common Types of Bees
It's important to know which types of bees are helping your plants thrive.
As insignificant—and sometimes downright bothersome—as having bees in your backyard may seem, they are essential to the growth and production of your garden. "Bees provide pollination to the plants, which in turn will develop into productive, healthy specimens," explains certified Master Beekeeper Bill Hesbach of the Connecticut Beekeepers Association. "If the plants produce fruit, the bounty is enhanced, or in the case of seed-producing plants, the seed crop will be more plentiful. Pollinators also increase the entire ecosphere's health because they pollinate all the trees, shrubs, and ornamentals in the area."
And while some species of bees are known to sting when agitated, not all types of garden bees should be deemed threatening. "Most bees in North America have a stinger, however bees by nature are far less likely to sting when compared to a hornet or wasp," explains Justin Luna, a beekeeper at Galactic Gold. "Bees are pollinators, their primary goal is to seek out nectar, not to attack." Interested in learning more about different kinds of bees and what benefits they bring to your garden? We asked Hesbach, Luna, and Patrick Harrison, a beekeeper at HarBee Beekeeping, how to identify the most common types of bees and how important they are for your plants, and here's what they had to share.
Even though a big, hairy bumblebee might look scary, our experts say it will do nothing but improve your garden. "Bumblebees are generally very large, but can vary in size, and are mostly dark black with a yellow thorax (the body part where their wings connect)," Hesbach says. "They nest in the ground, usually in an abandoned mouse nest but will also occupy birdhouses or any small safe and dry cavity. They forage early in the morning and stay out until almost sunset. You will find them on all plants in your garden, including roses and tomatoes." And since bumblebees are buzz pollinators that use vibration techniques to release the pollen from plants, Harrison says they're better pollinators than other species of bees. Having them around is great," he says. "They rarely sting."
Small and often green in appearance, sweat bees are effective pollinators that aren't known to sting. "In your garden, you may find them on onions and sunflowers," Hesbach says. "They nest in the ground, and their nest opening looks like a little ant mound." And while some bees are selective about which plants they pollinate, Hesbach says sweat bees aren't discriminatory. "They are generalist pollinators," he explains. "They will pollinate almost any type of available flower."
Slightly larger than (but similar in appearance to) bumblebees, Hesbach says that carpenter bees bore holes in fence posts and house trims. "You can often spot them from a small pile of sawdust on your deck or other flat surfaces with wood structures above," he says. "Most notable is their habit of flying close to your face as you approach their nest. They are very territorial and seem aggressive, but they are just warning you." However, despite their assertive disposition, Harrison says that carpenter bees make great additions to your garden. "They are a native bee, so they will pollinate plants that may be going un-pollinated," he explains.
Hesbach says you can best identify Mason bees by their metallic green and blue color. "They nest in old straw stalks or any hollow reed from the previous year," he adds. "You can find them in your garden on peas or mints, but they can be found on almost any plant because they are generalists." And because Mason bees don't live in hives, they don't have to share the pollen they collect with their colony. "Generalists are capable of pollinating many plant species, including almost every common garden plant," Hesbach explains.
The only thing better than an efficient pollinator in your garden, is a bee that produces honey, too. "Honeybees range from yellow to black and are medium in size," Hesbach says. "They have hairy bodies, which makes them easy to identify. They live in hive colonies in trees or are kept by beekeepers." Not only are honeybees excellent generalist pollinators, they collect nectar from flowers and use it to make honey inside their hives. "Honeybees are jack of all trades pollinators," Harrison says. "They are great for your garden and don't sting when they are foraging, only when they are defending their hive."