You hear a familiar buzz, and a flash of black and yellow stripes flies across your eyes. Is it a bee? A wasp? One of those! I never paid attention to what kind of insects live in my backyard, but after taking up gardening as a hobby on top of environmental science classes, I grew curious and wanted to learn more about what is buzzing around. Personally, I’ve only seen a few species of bees and wasps, not all of them, but I’ll do my best to cover a variety of species found in North America. How many times will I say “bee” and “wasp”?
Bumblebees (Genus Bombus)
One of the most common bees you can find are bumblebees. This important pollinator has over 40 native species in North America, such as the cuckoo bumblebee (Psithyrus insularis), the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), orange-belted bumblebee or tri-colored bumblebee (Bombus ternarius), brown-belted bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis), American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus), central bumblebee (Bombus centralis), Hunt's bumblebee (Bombus huntii), white-shouldered bumblebee (Bombus appositus), and many more.
Bumblebees can be categorized by the length of their tongue, or also called the proboscis, which are long, medium, or short. This allows the bumblebees to visit certain flowers, but if they were to visit one where they could not get their fill of nectar, some bees will do something called nectar robbing. Finding some weird tiny holes on your flowers where the nectar should be? Then you just might know the culprit!
Something that also clicks with me when I recognize a bumblebee is that they look like little fuzz balls! Just like their whole body, their tongue and mouthparts also are covered in tiny hairs.
Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebee (Image by S. Rae. Scotland, UK CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Tri Colored Bumblebee (Image by Jon Rista)
White-shouldered bumble bee (Image by WA Bumbler)
Common eastern bumblebee (Image by Bob Peterson. Palm Beach County, Florida CC BY 2.0)
Carpenter Bees (Subfamily Xylocopinae)
Have you ever found strange holes in wood with remnants of sawdust, but you know you haven’t been drilling anything recently? Then it’s most likely a carpenter bee! Often mistaken for a bumblebee, the carpenter bee creates cavities into wood- meaning your house may also be a target for their nesting sites. Despite the damage they cause to woody structures, they pollinate just like bumblebees.
Carpenter bees can be very defensive if you get too close to their territory, often followed by the aggressive buzzing noises. It’s likely that you have encountered male carpenter bees at least once. Males can usually be indicated by a white marking on their face, and they do not have a stinger unlike their female counterpart who will be ready to sting if one were to disturb her.
One quick visual difference between bumblebees and carpenter bees is the abdomen. Instead of being an overall fuzzball, the carpenter bees’ abdomen is shiny with no fuzz, and they also have black circles on their thorax (that’s the part before their head!). Some species of carpenter bees lack fuzz on their thorax.
A male valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa sonorina) (Image by Harmut Wisch)
A female valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa sonorina) (Image by Jim Melli)
A male eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) (Image by the Best Bee Brothers)
Sweat Bees (Subfamily Halictidae)
What are sweat bees? I didn’t know about them until I started researching! Sweat bees get their name from the occurrences when they fly around and land on sweaty people outdoors, and they feed on our sweat for the salt and minerals. Well, we can’t judge them for that behavior, being a bee is hard work! Some species of sweat bees, such as the Green Sweat Bee (Agapostemon), are not attracted to human sweat.
These bees have diverse appearances, but most appear quite slender. Some species appear dull or dark while others are eye-popping with their brighter colors like green or blue. Most female sweat bees are able to pollinate using their hind legs (see the Poey’s Furrow Bee image below). Male sweat bees on the other hand…leg…lack the hair to carry pollen around. Most sweat bee species nest underground while others are in decaying wood like the carpenter bees. As adults, sweat bees collect nectar and pollen for the larvae.
Brown-winged striped-sweat bee (Agapostemon splendens) (Image by Jeff Hollenbeck)
Poey's furrow bee (Halictus poeyi) (Image by Tim Lethbridge. Highlands County, Florida)
Miner Bees (Anthophora abrupta)
Miner bees are very similar to bumblebees, but much smaller, and they like to nest underground in well-drained soils with sparse vegetation like clay. The loose soil allows the female bees to create their chimney-like nests, which is why they are also called chimney bees. Miner bees were our important pollinator when it came to crops such as strawberries, blueberries and apples, that is, until honey bees were introduced. They are most active during the spring, perfect for early blooming plants!
As soon as miner bees emerge from the ground, the females are readily building their nests to lay their eggs. Miner bees also are not as territorial as some species like the carpenter bees, so nests that are close together are more like neighbors. Pollen and nectar is collected to create a small ball for the female to lay an egg on before she seals the tunnel. The cycle repeats as the larvae hatch, grow, and feed on the pollen and nectar during the summer. Sounds like a nice family! Well, except for the fact that they are mostly underground and away from our sight.
Bumped miner bee (Andrena nasonii) (Image by USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory from Beltsville, USA)
Chimney-like nests (Image by Hurricane Gustav. Baton Rouge - BREC Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, USA. May 14, 2009. Copyright © 2009 John Hartgerink)
Yellowjackets (Genus Vespula)
Yellowjackets are predatory (will feed on other insects including bees) and aggressive insects that are very abundant in the southeastern U.S. They live in large colonies that consist of the queen, the drones, and the workers. The queen’s role is to lay the eggs (often not fertilized, which will develop into drones and workers), drones prepare to fertilize eggs for the next queen, and workers do other various tasks.
These wasps are capable of stinging multiple times, and they will attack when you get too close to their nest. Drones are an exception, since they are male and do not have the ability to sting. Female insects are terrifying! A yellowjackets’ nest can be destroyed by birds looking for food, so they build a new one every year.
Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) (Image by Beatriz Moisset. CC BY-SA 4.0)
German Yellowjackets are an invasive species in the U.S. (Vespula germanica) (Image by Richard Bartz)
Northern Paper Wasps (Polistes fuscatus)
Unlike yellowjackets, this specific species, the northern paper wasp, lives in smaller, open, paper-like nests with visible cells. When you may expect thousands of wasps, this paper wasp’s nest may only have about 100 individuals. Northern paper wasps can have more than one queen, but there is an established hierarchy amongst them in terms of reproductivity. What is interesting about paper wasps is their ability to recognise faces since each paper wasps’ faces differ, whether they are a friend or a foe. Talk about photographic memories!
Northern paper wasp (Image by © Sara E. Miller)
Thread-Waisted Wasps (Family Sphecidae)
Let’s end the post with thread-waisted wasps. These wasps have quite the unique body structure. They have a long and thin stalk, like a waist, between their thorax and abdomen, and usually have an orange or red band on their abdomen. These wasps are parasitic on insects and spiders, paralyzing them to lay an egg, and once the larvae hatches, they feed upon the paralyzed victim. If you get past their intimidating body (and their long hanging legs as they fly!) and do not disturb them, they could act as a natural pest control.
Gold Marked Thread Waisted Wasp (Eremnophila aureonotata) (Image by cotinis. cc-by-nc-sa)
I’ll talk about honey bees in another post!
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