Did you know that worldwide there are over 20,000 known species of bees? In the US alone there are over 4,000 that are native to North America. Unless you study bees (or are obsessed with them like those of us at Tranquil Hive) it can be difficult to identify the different species. However, there are several that are common in the back yard garden that you should know about.
Let's start with the friendly bumble bee. Bumble bees are larger than honeybees and have more hair. They are between a half and a full inch in length, can be various patterns of black, white, yellow, orange, and even a rusty brown. As with honeybees, only females are foragers, so they are the ones who you see carrying balls of pollen on their hind legs. They tend to be gentle but can sting when harassed. They do warn prior to stinging by raising their leg as a sign they are getting annoyed. Bumble bees live in colonies underground in old rodent burrows. They are absolutely fantastic pollinators and are not too picky about what they pollinate.
Carpenter Bees are next, and they get a bad rap. Ok, so they do chew a tunnel in wooden houses, sheds, porches, ect. They will buzz at you to defend their territory, but they are pretty awesome bees. In fact, the damage they cause is very minimal (all things considered) and they are great pollinators. In fact, 15% of all agricultural crops are pollinated by this wonderful bee so they are pretty important! People often confuse the carpenter bee with the bumble bee but if you look, they are quite different. Carpenter bees are mostly black with a golden brown to yellow thorax and their heads are black, sometimes with a yellow spot. Carpenter bees have shiny and practically bald abdomens, while the abdomens of bumble bees are hairy. While many people get scared when carpenter bees buzz at them while defending their hive, remember that it is the male who is aggressively defending it and they don't have a stinger. They are all buzz and no sting.
The last bee you may find (if you are lucky) is the honeybee. There is debate as to whether honeybees are native to North America. One school of thought is that they went extinct and then they were imported again from Europe. Others believe they were simply brought over with the first settlers. Either way they have become vital pollinators. Honeybees are about a half inch long with black and honey-colored stripes on their tapered abdomen. They are not as efficient as many of our native pollinators, especially when it comes to pollinating certain native plants. Honeybees often live in managed hives, although there are wild colonies found. As with other bee species, only the females forage and carry the pollen back to the hive. Males are for procreation only. At the end of their usefulness, they are kicked out of the hive to die.
There are many other types of bees and others that we mistake for bees all the time. Get to know your pollinators and enjoy their company. Plant a variety of flowers that produce nectar at all different times of the season for them. If we work with them and know the signs when they are getting agitated, it is a better world for all of us.