Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Sharing ‘the buzz’ about native bees

There are an estimated 4,000 species of bees native to North American and range in size from carpenter bees, which are over an inch long, to tiny Perdita bees that barely reach 1/16 of an inch. 

Native bees range in color from black or brown with yellow, orange, white, or pearl-colored markings. Others have body parts in metallic green or blue. Some are furry, while others are almost hairless. 

Bees belong to the insect order Hymenoptera, which means “membrane-winged.  These insects possess two pairs of wings, a distinct “waist,” and mouthparts adapted for biting or chewing. Bees are distinguished by their branched body hairs which are helpful in trapping pollen grains, and their wide leg segments. 

The common names of bees often reflect nesting styles and other behaviors. Carpenter, mason, plasterer, leafcutter, digger, and polyester bees are named for the females’ nest-building techniques, whereas orchard, gourd, and alkali bees are named for their preferred habitat. 

Life cycle

Most native bee species are solitary, each female building individual nest chambers where her young grow up without adult supervision. Some solitary bees build nests near others of their same species—alkali bees, for instance, dig nest burrows in “bee beds” near hundreds or thousands of others. But each individual nest is constructed by a single female working alone. A solitary bee larva hatches, eats, and grows in its brood chamber, nourished by a ball of pollen mixed with some nectar, left by its mother.  During metamorphosis, the body of the wingless, legless larva transforms into a winged adult bee. The adult bee may emerge immediately or wait until environmental cues tell it when flowers are likely to be in bloom.

Male solitary bees live to reproduce. They mate with as many females as possible during their brief, several-day to several-week adult life. Female solitary bees live long enough to build nests and provide for the next generation. Native bee colonies tend to be annual—they survive just one season, unlike multi-year colonies of nonnative honey bees. (In tropical and subtropical regions, however, colonies can live through the year.)  Bumblebees live a social life cycle and rear their young.   A queen emerges in spring and after locating a nest site builds a cluster of brood chambers, lays eggs, and then tends the first generation of larvae. When the first generation of adult bees—all female—emerge four to five weeks later, these workers maintain and enlarge the nest, gather food, and tend the queen and subsequent generations of young.

In late summer, the queen lays a special batch of eggs that produce both males (from unfertilized eggs) and fertile females (from fertilized eggs). Once mature, the males and females’ mate, after which most of the colony dies. Only newly mated females—now queens—survive to establish new colonies the following spring.

Some bee species are parasitic and don’t build nests at all and are named Cuckoo bees. These bees often lay eggs in the nests of other related species. Cuckoo bees parasitize solitary bees by laying eggs in their host’s brood chambers. Their larva kills the host bee’s egg or larva and then eats its food. Female bees that parasitize social bee species trick the colony into raising their young by either killing the colony’s existing queen or hiding in the nest until they acquire the colony’s distinctive smell and can move in alongside the existing queen without a fight.

Polyester bee, photo by Jackie Woodcock

Polyester bees

Polyester bees also known as plasterer and cellophane bees, can first be seen here in the Adirondacks in early March.  These fuzzy bodied bees are solitary ground nesters that resemble a honeybee in appearance and whose nests can often be mistaken for an ant mound with a large entrance.  The action begins as the exposed soil warms, triggering the emergence of male polyester bees.  These new males swarm the ground waiting for females to mate with. These half-inch bees often mate while rolling on the ground or while flying attached together.  Some people might be alarmed to find polyester bees swarming the grounds of their property.

These bees rarely sting. You would have to basically sit on one to get it to sting you.  Please consider waiting a month when they will go away on their own verses using insecticide to remove them. By mid-April most of these bees will be near the end of their lives. They won’t be seen again until larvae go through metamorphosis and emerge late next spring.

Polyester bee nest entrance, photo by Jackie Woodcock

Unlike social honeybees, polyester bees are solitary. After mating, males fly off to sip from freshly opened tree blooms often on willows, until their short life expires. Each female works alone on her own nest, a foot-and-a-half-deep tunnel as wide as a pencil, dug straight down a foot into the ground.  During the day, the female collects nectar and pollen and packs it into the cell along with some glandular material. She lays a single egg, suspended over the food. The female digs throughout the night to create new brood cells and lines the cell with polyester secreted from her abdomen or Dufuour’s gland mixed with chemicals in the bee’s saliva.  She then spreads it onto the cell wall with her paintbrush-shaped tongue. This polyester seal allows this bee to nest in damp soils or periodically flooded areas due to this waterproof barrier as well as providing protection for the developing bees from fungal disease. The female bee then plugs the cell entrance with soil, packing it down with the tip of her abdomen before she begins to dig another cell.  She will lay approximately 20 -30 eggs in a life cycle. The female polyester bee’s eggs hatch into larvae, eat the pollen and enter hibernation, staying in the cocoon underground for around 11 months throughout the summer and winter. The following spring, the larvae pupate, turn into adult bees and emerge from their nest. Once outside of the nest, the average lifespan is a brief 4-6 weeks. 


Bees and many flowering plants have a symbiotic relationship: Flowers provide bees’ food; bees pollinate the flowers, allowing the plants to reproduce. Adult bees live on sugar-laden flower nectar and gather fat- and protein-rich pollen to feed their young.  Bee feeding preferences vary depending on the length of the bee’s tongue.  Short-tongued bees prefer open flowers such as sunflowers, asters, mallows, and cactus. Long-tongued bees can reach into deep flowers like lupines, columbines, and orchids. Short-tongued bees that are small enough to crawl inside tuberous flowers can also get nectar along with long-tongued.

Many bee species are not picky and can be found foraging from any open blossoms. Some species, such as squash bees, are more particular and stick to flowers of just one family or group of species thus they are found solely on squash and pumpkin blooms.  Another picky bee is the tiny Mojave bee who rely solely on one species of flower. All native bees display flower constancy, foraging efficiently by concentrating on one flower species per foraging flight.

Most flowering plants rely on animal partners to carry their pollen from flower to flower, though some, including cone-bearing trees and grasses, use the wind.  Plants produce bright-colored, easily visible blossoms, enticing fragrances, and nectar to attract pollinators. Their pollen grains sport bumps and prickles that adhere to pollinators bodies, aided by a static charge on the bees’ hairs.  Bees are the most important group of animal pollinators because they deliberately gather pollen. A female bee on a single foraging flight may visit thousands of flowers, in the process dusting each with pollen from other blossoms of the same species. Some species of plants help bees by signaling when a particular blossom has been pollinated: a change in petal color or by folding up.

Without bees, native flowering plant populations decline, as do birds and other animals that eat bees. Whole ecosystems can fall apart without plants.  Animals and birds lose food and shelter and soil erodes, degrading water and air quality as well. 

People can help these amazing pollinators by minimizing pesticide use, putting up and maintaining bee boxes and bundles, and landscaping with bees in mind to restore habitat in backyards, parks, golf courses, farms, and wild areas.  You can order a bumblebee box or Mason and Carpenter bee condo from SkyLyfeADK  and be part of Operation Pollinator Rescue.  Please e-mail us for more information – skylyfeadk@gmail.com – subject Bee habitat and which habitats you are  interested in.  

Together we can make a difference!

Top photo: Carpenter bee, David Hablutzel/pixabay



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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.

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