Six ways native bees differ from honeybees

People often use the term bee when talking about any kind of buzzing creature outside --- it could be a honeybee, a bumble bee, a mason bee, a sweat bee or even a wasp or yellowjacket.

However, it's important to differentiate between the different kinds of bees. That may be difficult since the U.S. has about 4,000 species of native bees, but there are still several clear differences between native bee species and honeybees.

Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are in a league of their own. As for honeybees and native bees, there are six key differences that we will discuss.

(It's not a bee --- 5 types of wasps, hornet and yellowjackets you may see in Iowa)

1. Indigenous bees

The European honeybee (Apis mellifera) originated in Europe --- or some say northern Africa --- and was only brought to North America by settlers. The vast majority of these bees are still domestic, although some have escaped and established wild colonies, called feral colonies.

Native bees are just that, native. These are bee populations that have always lived in North America, and like any insect or animal, they have certain places where they can be found. Of the approximately 4,000 native bees species in the United States, about 200 species are native to Iowa.

2. Solitary vs. social

If you look up a photo of a bee, many are placed by hives. However, only a few species of bees actually live in colonies. These bees are called social bees. The vast majority of bee species live solitary lifestyles.

Honeybees are the quintessential social bee, living and working as a group. Bumble bees are the only bees native to the U.S. that are social. However, honeybees live in colonies year-round, whereas a bumble bee colony is seasonal. At the end of summer, only the fertilized queen bee will hibernate through the winter, and she will lay eggs to start a new hive.

Photo of a bumble beeopens IMAGE file

Bumble bee foraging

The vast majority of native bees then are solitary. They will get together to mate and then will separate again. The female will lay her eggs, provide enough food for the larva to eat when it hatches and will then leave her offspring alone.

(Learn more about native bees from the Xerces Society.)

3. Home sweet home

Honeybees live in hives filled with honeycomb that is used to house brood cells as well as honey and pollen for food. Bumble bees live in colonies in cavities found in hollow trees, walls or underground.

Solitary bees build their own nests, specifically for laying eggs. Some native bees nest underground, and they need bare patches of ground where they can dig. That's why it's so important to not mulch every inch of your garden. Leave some bare ground so these tiny pollinators have a place to nest.

Some species of native bees use hollow stems or holes in trees in which to lay their eggs. Inside these hollow areas, they will create brood cells, lined up in a row, in which to lay their eggs. Some species will make their own holes in which to nest by chewing through wood with powerful jaws.

Photo of sawdust pileopens IMAGE file

Sawdust pile created by a carpenter bee creating a burrow for its brood cells

There is one type of bee that does not build a nest though. Cuckoo bees parasitize the nests of other bees, either killing the host's larva before laying eggs or laying an egg that after hatching will eat the host's food and/or larva.

(This USDA Forest Service and Pollinator Partnership publication called "Bee Basics" is a fantastic resource.)opens PDF file

4. Not so scary

Because honeybees have a hive to protect, the worker bees have stingers. They use these stingers as a last resort, because they die after stinging, when they feel threatened.

However, most solitary bees don't have a hive to protect, so they very rarely would sting a human. Even if they did try, some native bees are so tiny that their stingers are too small and weak to even penetrate human skin.

5. Beautiful flowers

Honeybees are considered generalists when it comes to foraging. They will gather pollen and nectar from any plant that is in bloom, which is one reason that honey comes in so many different flavors. The honey produced by honeybees changes dependent on which flowers the bees used for foraging.

Some native bees are also generalists, but many are called specialists, because they need a certain plant or family of plants to forage from. Usually, these bees' hatching schedule coincides with when their host flowers are in bloom. Some examples of specialists are squash bees --- foraging on squash, pumpkins and zucchini, blueberry bees and cactus bees.

6. Vibrant colors

Although we usually think of bees having black and yellow stripes, like honeybees, and flies as being bright and metallic, many native bees have vibrant coloring.

Photo of a blue beeopens IMAGE file

Blue orchard mason bee

Native bees can be dark brown, black, metallic green or blue or striped with red, white, orange or yellow. Sweat bees, of the family Halictidae, are some of the most colorful with shades of blue, copper and gold.

So, next time you're thinking about bees, take a moment to stop and realize that there are a whole lot of bees out there. Each is different, has its own social habits, has its own vibrant beauty and has its own merits.

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  1. Vern on March 20, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    What other bees can you collect honey from?

  2. micha on March 19, 2019 at 5:01 pm

    Very Interesting!
    I’ve had a growing interest in bees lately, and have been following honeybee keepers the past 2-3 years. I was just at an Eco rally and someone had a sign..’Native Bees, not Honeybees’,, opened my mind!
    It’s also true that native species are a lot less susceptible to colony collapse,, especially if they don’t live in colonies!

  3. Ron on September 24, 2018 at 9:53 pm

    I am not from the US but nevertheless your article has been fascinating to read! Thank you for that.

  4. Glenda Parrish on April 14, 2018 at 10:20 pm

    I just finished your article how bees. differ from honey bees. How common are solitary or Mason bees in Iowa. Actually how common are they in say Cherokee County?

    • kiley on April 17, 2018 at 8:17 am

      Great question! They are very common! We often overlook them, but there are 299 species of native bees currently listed in the state of Iowa. There are only seven species of honeybees total, so there are far more solitary/native bees out there than many of us realize. They would be just as common in Cherokee County.