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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.