join us

subscribe to our email updates


Bee Inspired!

There are approximately 20,000 species of bees described in the world; 4,000 native bee species in North America and 1,500 native bees species live in California alone!

Anthophora urbana ©2012 L. Saul-Gerhenz. All rights reserved.
A recent inventory in the Mojave Desert ecosystem found 689 species documenting it as a biodiversity hotspot (Griswold et al. 2006).  An amazing 250 species of bees live in New York (including the 5 boroughs)(Matteson et al. 2008. Perhaps 70% of the species are ground nesters, the rest nest in cavities or branches or twigs above ground.

Bees feed only on pollen and nectar or floral oils. This dietary change from their carnivorous ancestors, the wasps, was accompanied by the evolution of branched body hairs, which aid bees in collecting pollen, plus modification of the hind legs with special hairs called “scopa” or pollen basket called corbicula; others have hairs on the abdomen for carrying large loads of pollen. These features typically distinguish bees from wasps. (iii).  Female bees daily collect pollen and nectar to supply her larvae with all the food requirements they will need for up to a year in a single cell or multiple cells depending if she is a solitary or social bee species.

Bees pollinate about 75% of the fruits, vegetables and nuts that we eat every day. This not only affects our dinner plate but the agricultural economy as a whole in America. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has noted that 71 out of the 100 crops that provide 90% of human food are pollinated by bees, and the estimated value of those crops is as much as $200 billion annualy. Honey bees are good at what they do but they can’t do it all. This is why conservation of our native bee species is of utmost importance.

What do native bees do?
Definition of solitary and social
Why do bees visit flowers?
Why are bees attracted to flowers and how do bees locate flowers with nectar and pollen?
The Bee Families
Identifying bees
Bees Vs. Flies
Websites for Teachers and Bug enthusiasts
Understanding Pollination
Enhancing habitat for Bees, pollinators and other wildlife
The Pollination Game
Other Links

 What do native bees do?

They pollinate the 75-80% of the flowering plants in nature on the planet.

Alfalfa bee or alkali bee Nomia melanderi at her nest ©2012 L. Saul-Gershenz

Bumble bees (Bombus) are used to pollinate tomatoes and cranberries grown for human consumption.

Other native bees are used in agriculture for the pollination of crops. The alfalfa bee Nomia melanderi pollinates alfalfa (Medicago sativa) grown for seed and Megachile rotundata is also used to supplement alfalfa seed pollination. Alfalfa is used to feed dairy cows, cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and humans (alfalfa sprouts) due to its high protein content. Worldwide 436 million tons of alfalfa are grown annually (2006).


Bombus sp. © 2010 Diane Wilson. All Rights reserved.

Osmia cornifrons is used to pollinate fruit trees in Japan (Michener 2007).

Most species of bees are solitary not social. Each female makes and provisions her own nests and lays her own eggs versus one female queen like the European honey bee.

 Definition of solitary and social:
This is a California digger bee in the genus Centris (family Apidae), a solitary bee. Link
Centris sp. © Robert A. Behrstock, 2007. All rights reserved.

What does solitary mean?
Not all bees live in large family groups like honey bees. In fact of most bee species, over 90% are solitary bees.

Female solitary bees prepare their own nest in the ground, in cracks or crevices in walls, or in wood. They gather nectar and pollen as food for their own offspring, and provide little or no further care after their eggs are laid.

What does social mean?
Although most bees are solitary or subsocial, the family Apidae contains three distinct groups that exhibit eusocial behavior:  these are commonly known as stingless bees, bumble bees, and honey bees. The family Halictidae also has eusocial species.


Euglossa bee copyright © 2004 Jacob Rus. All rights reserved.

What does communal mean?
Communal insects share a nest site with other individuals of the same generation. This social behavior may be exhibited in one particular stage of the life cycle, Communal insects use sophisticated forms of communication, and gain certain advantages from nesting together. Communal living may help them avoid predation, assist them with thermoregulation, or enable them to find and use resources more efficiently.

Why do bees visit flowers?

To get food! Bees feed on nectar and pollen and plants produce nectar to attract bees in return for pollination services (moving pollen from flower to flower to cross-fertilize so that plants can produce seeds to produce more plants.

This is how plants reproduce. Most plants use animals like insects to pollinate them though some are wind pollinated like grasses.

Why are bees attracted to flowers and how do bees locate flowers with nectar and pollen?
Bombus borealis © 2010 Kurt Hennige. All rights reserved.

Flowers produce scents, floral shapes and colors that attract pollinators. They also have pigments and nectar guides that are attractive to bees and others pollinators. Different pollinators are attracted to different chemical scents and colors. Nectar contains the sugars glucose, fructose, and sucrose; flowers with nectars high in sucrose are generally pollinated by large bees, hummingbirds, butterflies or moths. Flowers with low sucrose are generally pollinated by small bees, passerine birds, or bats. Nectars also contain amino acids, lipids, and occasional toxins. There are ten amino acids which are essential for insect nutrition (arginine, histidine, lysine, tryptophane, phenylalanine, leucine, methionine, threonine, isoleucine, and valine). In fact, all the common amino acids are present in nectar. Bees like sweet scents, flies like scents that smell like dung or meat.

Bombus frigidus, Alberta, Canada, Photo Courtesy of © R. Bercha,

Pollen is essential protein for provisioning nests with food and raising larval bees. Very generally, bees are attracted to yellow, purple, and white, colors flies like white and dark red, hummingbirds like red and purple flowers.  For tips on wildlife gardening: However nature is not segregated so you can plan your garden to support multiple trophic levels and kinds of wildlife from the soil up: pollinators, birds, healthy soil community, etc.

 Bee Families

There are seven families of bees, which can be divided into two groups based on the length of their tongues. The short-tongued bees include: Colletidae, Halictidae, Andrenidae, Melittidae and Stenotritidae. Long-tongued bees include Megachilidae and Apidae.

The five more commonly encountered families are considered here:

1. Apidae Family

digger bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, orchid bees, stingless bees, honey bees

(Habropoda, Anthophora, Centris, Diadasia, Melissodes and Euglossa)

Digger bees

Meliissodes sp. - credit ©Hartmut Wisch

Digger bees are solitary bees that dig their nests in the ground. Each female lays her own eggs and gathers her own pollen and nectar to supply each nest with enough food for the year.

She digs her burrow (spring or summer), provisions the cell with pollen and nectar, lays her egg, seals the cell/burrow and the larva develops over a year and generally emerges as an adult the next year long after the female has died.


Where do digger bees nest?

Kelso Dunes, Mojave Desert – nesting habitat for digger bee

Digger bees rear their young within the soil tunnels they construct. Their nests are restricted to certain types of soil type, sun exposure, slope, soil moisture and drainage.

Are digger bees solitary, social or communal?
While digger bees are considered solitary, some nest  in “aggregations” numbering in the hundreds

What kind of flowers do they like?
They enjoy creosote bush, blueberry, Lupinus, sand-verbena, morning glory and so many more of the 270,000 species of plant

Habropoda pallida ©2012 L.Saul-Gershenz, All rights reserved

Fun fact!
Habropoda pallida is a solitary bee and lives in California and southwestern deserts. The female digs each nest 4-6 feet deep in the sand dunes and gathers pollen and nectar to feed a single egg. She seals the nest opening. She will dig another 4-6 foot burrow for each egg.





Bumble bees
(Bombus sp. - Apidae)

Like honey bees, bumble bees are social bees. They live in groups and have a single female bee that lays all the eggs for the colony of bees. The other female bumble bees care for the eggs and larval bees and gather pollen and nectar to feed the larvae. bumble bees will defend the group nest, though in general bumble bees are not aggressive unless directly attacked.

Note that Bombus vosnesenskii has a yellow haired head, while Bombus californicus has a black-haired head.

Bombus vosnesenskii 2012 © John Ascher. All rights reserved.

Bombus californicus ©2010 Ron Hemberger. All rights reserved.









Where do they nest?                                         
Bombus nests may be found within tunnels in the ground made by other animals. Bombus form colonies, which are usually much less extensive than those of honey bees.

Bombus ternarius, Franklin Co., Massachusetts © 2006 Tom Murray

Are they solitary or social or communal?
bumble bees are social

What kind of flowers do bumble bees like?
bumble bees (there are around 50 species in North America) use a method called buzz pollination where they vibrate their bodies to shake loose the pollen from the plant. They pollinate horse chestnut, columbine, wild sunflower, tomato, blueberry, eggplant, and honeysuckle.

Fun fact!
It is believed that the earliest fossil of a bumble bee comes from the Oligocene period, from approximately 30 million years ago.

Carpenter bees
(Xylocopa- Apidae)

©2008 Kolby Kirk. All rights reserved.

Carpenter bees are native bees that live in small social groups.

Where do they nest?
Carpenter bees have certain tastes in wood and prefer good wood, not rotten wood for nesting material. They use alder, douglas fir, redwood, cedar, Baccharis – the desert species like Yucca and Agave.

Are they solitary or social or communal?
Carpenter bees are not solitary bees, but are not eusocial either. One female does the majority of the work, and cares for her sisters; this social structure may be a transitional step in the evolution of sociality. However they tend to be gregarious, and often several will nest near each other. Carpenter bees are traditionally considered solitary bees, though some species have simple social nests in which mothers and daughters may cohabit.

What kind of flowers do carpenter beeslike?
They like passion flowers (Zauchneria californica). Carpenter bees are nectar robbers of Penstemon and Salvia. They are good pollinators of eggplant and tomato.

Fun fact!
The species, Xylocopa violacea holds the record for laying the largest egg of any insect.

Honey bee
(Apis mellifera- Family Apidae)

© 2012 Kathy Keatley Garvey. All rights reserved.

The honey bee is an introduced bee in the US but is native to Europe. It is now naturalized throughout the world and is an important pollinator for agriculture. There are eleven species of honey bee in the genus Apis (Cane 2008).

Native bees are not only important as pollinators for agricultural crops, along with other insect and vertebrate pollinators, they also pollinate most of the flowering plants on Earth. Other pollinators include insects such as wasps, flies, moths, beetles and ants and vertebrates such as bats, birds and some other mammals. (Ollerton 2011).

Where do honey bees nest?
All honey bees live in colonies. Honey bees are eusocial -- a colony generally contains one queen bee, a fertile female; seasonally up to a few thousand drone bees or fertile males;[8] and a large population of sterile female worker bees.

Are honey bees solitary or social or communal?
honey bees are eusocial.

What kind of flowers do they like?
Species of Apis are generalist floral visitors, and will pollinate a large variety of plants, but by no means all plants. Of all the honey bee species, only Apis mellifera has been used extensively for commercial pollination of crops and other plants. The value of these pollination services is commonly measured in the billions of dollars.

Fun fact!
Bees communicate with each other by dancing and by using pheromones (scents).  honey bees are responsible for pollinating approximately 80% of all fruit, vegetable and seed crops in the U.S.

2. Megachilidae Family

leaf-cutter bees, mason bees, carder bees and others

(Osmia, Megachile, Anthidium)

Leaf-cutter bees

Megachile ©2012 Hartmut Wisch. All rights reserved.

(Osmia, Megachile) Leaf-cutter bees are solitary bees too! The females carry pollen on hairs on their abdomen.

Where do they nest?
They use cut leaves to construct nests in almost any ready-made cavity, though they prefer using existing beetle tunnels in timber, hollow plant stems and crevices under the bark of dead trees.

Are leaf-cutter bees solitary, social or communal? 



Leaf-cutter bee ©2012 L.Saul-Gershenz. All rights reserved.

What kind of flowers do leaf-cutter bees like?

Leaf-cutter bees are important pollinators of wildflowers, fruits, vegetables and are important commercial pollinators of alfalfa and blueberries.

Fun fact!
Leaf-cutter bees cut pieces of leaf from plants to line and partition the cells of their nests.



Osmia lignaria, ©2012 Alice Caveat (Alameda, CA). All rights reserved.

Mason bees 

(Osmia sp. -Megachilidae) are solitary bees.
The blue orchard bee (BOB), Osmia lignaria is a native bee that nests in cavities in twigs or wood. It is used to pollinate apples and prunes. BOB, as we like to call the blue orchard bee, may visit up to 75 flowers in a foraging trip.

Where do blue orchard bees nest?
Blue orchard bees nest in existing cavities (usually 7 mm in diameter), which may include empty snail shells, under bark and rock and hollowed-out gourds. Some BOBs dig nests in the ground.

Are blue orchard bees solitary or social or communal?
Blue orchard bees are solitary.

What kind of flowers do they like?
Blue orchard bees like Viola (violet), Penstemon, Astragalus (milkvetch), and blueberry flowers. Their pollinating services have sometimes been requisitioned as a replacement for declining honey bee populations out West.

Fun fact!
An Osmia lignaria female lives for four to eight weeks, and can fill an average of four 6-inch tubes in her lifetime, with about eight eggs per tube. Her lifetime work boasts nearly 60,000 blossom visits. This prodigious record has attracted growers to propagate O. lignaria for pollination purposes in fruit orchards.

3. Halictidae Family

Halictidae – Agapostemon sp. (possibly texana).  ©2012 L. Saul-Gershenz. All rights reserved.

Sweat bees, Alkali bee
(Halictus, Nomia, Lasioglossum, Agapostemon)

Where do they nest?
Most species excavate nests in earth, though some tropical species nest in rotten wood.

Are they solitary or social or communal?
Some species are solitary, while others exhibit varying degrees of social behaviour. Every nest is founded by a lone female. In the social species, the daughter remains with the natal nest, and constructs new cells and forages for food.

What kind of flowers do sweat bees like? 

Female Agapostemon sp. Pollen collectors on hind legs, CA. © 2006 Peter J. Bryant

Calystegia (morning glory), Rudbeckia (black-eyed susan), rose gentian, goldenrod and aster are favorites of the sweat bee.

Fun fact!
Some species of halictids are crepuscular--active only at dusk (e.g. in the subgenus Sphecodogastra of Lasioglossum); are truly nocturnal (e.g. in the genus Megalopta) and fly only at night. Nocturnal bees have greatly enlarged ocelli (eye spots).


4. Colletidae Family


Yellow-faced bees, masked bees and plasterer bees

(Colletes,Hylaeus, )


Colletes sp. ©2008 Gary McDonald, Jun 28. 2008. All rights reserved.

Where do colletids nest? Usually nest in the ground and sometimes nests are constructed in stems or in logs with beetle holes.

Each colletid female plasters the subterranean gallery of her own to serve as home for her brood. The interior surface of the burrow is lined with a thin, glossy, translucent material produced by the bee. The habit of coating their galleries gives this bee the common name “plasterer bee”.

Are colletids solitary or social or communal?
They are solitary.

What kind of flowers do colletid bees like?
Pepperweed, goldenrod, Acacia, and Baccharis (coyote bush), Encelia (brittlebush).

Fun fact!
Most of these bees are specialists on a groups of plants and over 50% of all bee species living in Australia belong to this family.

Watch a good colletid video at

5. Andrenidae Family

Andrena sp. ©2012 Hartmut Wisch. All rights reserved.

Mining bees
(Andrena, Perdita)

Where do mining bees nest?
These bees nest in tunnels underground

Are they solitary or social or communal?
Mining bees are solitary.

What kind of flowers do mining beeslike?
Goldenrod, Azaleas and apples, wild bergamot, Asclepias (milkweed).

Fun Fact!
Andrenid bees have chewing-lapping mouthparts used to manipulate and collect flower products such as nectar and pollen. The protruding ‘lapping’ mouthpart is shorter in mining bees than honey bee. This lead to the mining bees' common name of "short-tongued bees."

Some species of mining bees are generalists and some are specialists. Some plant taxa, such as Camissonia, are highly dependent on Andrena for pollination. Many Andrena forage mainly during twilight hours, but some forage in the pre-dawn or early morning (Stephen et al 1969).

Most Andrena are solitary nesters, and they often nest in large aggregations. A few species nest communally, where two or more females share a nest entrance but build and provision their own nest cells. All Andrena nest in the ground; they often prefer sandy soil near or under shrubs. Their brood cells are lined with a waxy material secreted by the female (Michener 2000).

In general, North American mining bees are small to medium sized (0.3 to 0.7 inches) and are black or dull metallic blue or green colored. Most species are moderately hairy and have pale bands of hair on their abdomen (Michener 1994). Females have large, velvety facial foveae (depressions) and large scopa (brushes of hairs for holding pollen) on the upper part of their leg, seemingly in their “armpits” (Michener 2007).

Identifying bees

 These are all fantastic resources!

Bees Vs. Flies

Is it a bee or a fly? Look at the antenna and count the wings to tell bees and wasps from flies!

Bumble bee mimic Laphria engelhardti in the robber fly family Asilidae

Laphria engelhardti © photo by Margarethe Brummermann All rights reserved

 Some flies mimic bees to escape being eaten by predators such as birds.

Syrphid fly, Central Park, New York © 2006 Lloyd Spialnik. All rights reserved.


Websites for Teachers and Bug Enthusiasts

Understanding Pollination

Activities for Kids!!!

  • Plant a pollinator or wildlife garden. Take notes on which insects visit the plants and which plant parts the insects are found on.
  • GO ORGANIC! Plant a vegetable garden and surround it with pollen and nectar sources for the pollinators. Keep a journal of the insects that visit the plants, pollinator, plant feeders, predators and biocontrol insects. Make recipes from the vegetables you grow. Keep records on which plants do best in your garden.
  • Keep a visual nature journal with drawings or digital pictures.
  • Walk a transect every week and take observation notes on visitors at flowers, leaves, stem, on the ground. Look for signs on the plants and on the ground.
  • Time flower visits of different pollinators or at different times of day or on different flowers and compare,
  • Compare the body parts of different bees and insects. Develop hypotheses about the function of these body parts (mouthparts, legs, hairs).
  • Leave bare patches of ground for ground nesting bees. Make nest boxes for cavity nesting bees Link to resources

Enhancing habitat for Bees, pollinators and other wildlife:


  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Entomological Monographs
  • Cane, J. H.  2008. Bees (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Apiformes).  Encyclopedia of Entomology. Vol. 2, pages 419-434. Springer Verlag, ISBN978-1-4020-6242-1. John L. Capinera
  • Cane, J. H.  2013. Gardening for Native Bees in Utah and Beyond. Utah State University Extension and Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Laboratory. ENT-133-09, January 2013
  • Goulet, H. & Huber. J. 1993. Hymenoptera of the world: an identification guide to families. , pp 668 (pdf)
  • Griswold, T., Higbee, and S., Messinger. O. 2006. Pollination Ecology Final Report for Biennium 2003,Clark County, Nevada (2004-2005). USDA-ARS Bee Biology & Systematics Laboratory Utah State University Logan, Utah 84322-5310.
  • Klein AM, Vaissiere BE, Cane JH, Steffan-Dewenter I, Cunningham SA, et al. 2007. Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proc. R. Soc. B.vol. 274 no.1608:303-313.
  • Matteson, K. C., J. S. Ascher, and G. A. Langellotto. 2008. Bee richness and abundance in New York City urban gardens. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 101(1): 140-150(11.
  • Michener C. D. 2007. The bees of the world. Johns Hopkins University Press, New York, NY
  • O’ Toole C, Raw A. 1991.  Bees of the World. Facts on file, New York, NY.
  • Stephen, W. P.,  Bohart, G. E. and Torchio. P. F. 1969. The Biology and External Morphology of Bees, with a Synopsis of the Genera of Northeastern America. Oregon University Press.
  • Thorp, R.  W.,  Horning, Jr. D. S., Duning, L. L. 1983. Bumble Bees and Cuckoo Bumble Bees of California (Hymenoptera: Apidae).Bulletin of the California Insect Survey, 23:1-79. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Wolf, A. T. and Ascher, J. S.Bees of Wisconsin (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Anthophila)

The Pollination Game

Volume 1 Number 8 - October 1993
Richard Price and Julia Willison

Spanish Version / French Version

By getting students to play the part of a flower they can learn in a fun and active way about how flowers are pollinated.  It's not expensive to make a bee and flower kit, it just takes a little time and imagination.  Below we have listed the materials we used to make our kit.

For the flowers:

  • Petals. These can be made out of cardboard.  You need to make 8 individual petals
  • Stigmas.  Woolly hats or balaclavas
  • Anthers. 8 woolly socks
  • Pollen. 32 ping pong balls with velcro stuck on.  The velcro is to help the ping pong balls stick to the "stigma", "anthers" and "bee".  We painted half the pingpong balls yellow and the other half orange to distinguish the pollen in the two flowers.
  • Nectar 2 drinking containers with straws in.  Bicycle bottles are good for the bee.

You can make the bee's outfit as simple or elaborate as you like.  We used:

  • a woolly jumper
  • black and yellow striped trousers
  • a hat with antennae
  • sun glasses
  • wings made out of wire coat hangers and a pair of nylon tights

How to Play the Pollination Game

First build the flowers.  You need nine students for each flower:

  • four for the petals
  • four for the anthers (get them to put the woolly socks on their hands)
  • one for the stigma (get one of the students to put the woolly hat on their head)

You can use fewer students by getting those students who are holding the petals to also be the anthers.

Stick the pollen (pingpong balls) to the anthers, make sure you keep the colours separate on each set of anthers.  Ask the students to arrange themselves as a flower and put the nectar in the centre.

Discuss with the students why they think bees visit flowers and what they think happens when they do.

Bring in the bee!  Ask the bee to buzz over and visit one of the flowers.  Transfer the pollen from the anthers to the bee.  Discuss with the students what they think happens next.
Ask the bee to visit the second flower.  Transfer the pollen from the bee to the stigma, and the pollen from the anthers to the bee.  Discuss with the students about what is happening and what will happen next.

Encourage the students to visit the botanic garden to observe different pollinators at work.  Contact BGCI for the Busy Bees activity sheet.

Other Links





Bees pollinate about 75% of the fruits, vegetables and nuts that we eat every day.

Funding for the Bee Page provided by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund

Create your own bee habitat with's Bee Box!

Learn more

© 2009-2019 SaveNature.Org