Bombus mixtus enjoying the sage blossoms and snowberry in our front yard
Honeybee collecting nectar=Sage Honey this fall
©Tracey Byrne 2017
Did you know that almost 90% of all flowering plants rely on animals, rather than the wind, for pollination? Over 200,000 species of animals act as pollinators. The vast majority of animal pollinators are insects such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies and moths; of these, bees pollinate the largest number of plant species. About 1,000 species of pollinators are hummingbirds, bats and other small mammals (Pollinator Partnership, 2017).
Visit Pollinator Partnership and bee inspired with ways to support all our pollinators
We had both Red Admiral and the Spring Azure butterflies visiting; look how TINY the Spring Azure is, perched on a forget-me-not. The Vosnesenskii bumblebee is our most numerous bombus, and the tiny metallic green bee with striking black and yellow stripes is an Agapostemon, or male sweat bee, a member of the Halictidae family. They are considered solitary but often nest communally in the ground. Also, apparently not good swimmers (I rescued this little guy from the birdbath :^)
The Difference Between Honeybees and Bumblebees
Did you know that there are more than 4500 species of bees that live in the US and Canada, and worldwide over 20,000 species have been identified?
Many urban dwellers have not had enough experience with backyard pollinators to easily tell the difference between bees and wasps. For me, it is similar to how you can tell a cat from a dog, or robin from a spotted towhee–not only do they look different, but their movements and habits are unique.
You can often ID your backyard bugs by where you find them and what activity they are engaged in. You will find medium-sized golden-brown to black honeybees (photos right) busy flying back and forth between flowers, loading up on pollen and nectar, and zipping back to their hive. Bumblebees (photos left) are generally larger and fuzzier that the honeybee, many with black, orange, or yellow stripes. I consider bumblebees to be the “teddy-bear” of bees, and the most photogenic. Honeybees tend to be sleeker and less hairy than the bumblebees, but both carry pollen on their back legs.
Swarming honeybees are docile; they have nothing to protect–as they are merely scoping out the real estate in your neighborhood. The honeybee swarm consists of a healthy queen and upwards of about 10,000 of her workers. Call your local poison-free bee-guy to come collect them, and they will be relocated to a good home.
Of all the bees, we know the most about our domesticated non-native European honeybees, not only for their pollination efforts but also for the food, candles, and medicinal products derived from their honey, pollen, wax, propolis, and venom. Honeybees are the outliers in the bee family. They, along with bumblebees, are social insects, which means that they work together in the hive to raise their young and make honey. Most other bees are solitary, do not care for their offspring, and a whopping 70% of all bees live in the ground.
Bumblebee nests can be found in the ground, in abandoned birdhouses, or in attics. Their nests are nothing like the honeybee's neat and tidy honeycomb (top); instead, they look really primitive, and a bit cobbled together (below). The bumblebee queen hibernates over the winter, so bumblebees need gather only enough nectar and pollen to raise the brood each season. Honeybees must store enough honey and pollen to allow the workers and queen to survive the winter.
Bee or Wasp?
Bees: fuzzy, friendly, busy-but not aggressive, flight patterns are direct. Variations in size and color from golden brown to green to black, thick legs with pollen baskets, nectar gatherers; nest in ground, woodpiles, hives, attics, and walls.
Wasps and hornets: often aggressive, many carnivorous, striking yellow-black or white-black pattern that shouts CAUTION! Shiny, long thin legs (no fuzz or pollen basket-), wasp-waist, annoying at picnics, zig-zag flight pattern, paper nests found in trees or under eaves.
poster by Alex Surcica
Today I spotted a Bombus melanopygus queen, out fueling up on nectar and pollen for her winter sojourn underground. After mating in late summer, bumblebee queens hibernate and emerge in the spring to found a new colony. (This is the bee featured in my header and the Xerces poster bee-child)
You can create overwintering sites for bumblebees by leaving leaf litter and uncut bunched grasses in your yard, as well as large sections of untilled soil in your garden. They also seem to favor birdhouses that have not been cleaned out, rock walls, and woodpiles. If you do find an inhabited BB nest, please do not touch it or move it! It will be abandoned at the end of the summer. Xerces would love to hear about the bumblebee nests in your backyard.
Infographic for you, on how to create bumblebee habitat.
Let's bring 'em back!
How do you tell the difference between a honey bee and a bumble bee? Two of my favorite children's books will turn you into the neighborhood expert:
The "Bumblebee Queen", by April Sayre, is a simple and elegantly told story of the life cycle of the bumblebee. Patricia Wynne's illustrations are lovely, thoughtful, and accurate.
Are you a fan of Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus? If you join Ms. Frizzle and her class to take a trip "Inside a Beehive", you will be amazed at how much information you will learn (and not only about honeybees...) I highly recommend this book to beginning beekeepers of any age.
Visit HoneyBee Suite to see some close-up images Honeybee or bumblebee?
GOOD READS & good deeds
I just finished reading A Sting in the Tale-My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson, and I highly recommend this book. Goulson writes a memoir that is filled with the wonders and discoveries of a curious child in rural England who morphs into one of the world's leading experts on bumblebees. In an engaging Bill Brysonesque style, Goulson describes both the effects of monoculture and habitat fragmentation on native bees, as well as the consequences of introduced/invasive species into an ecosystem.
Dave Goulson is also the founder of Bumblebee Conservation Trust which is a treasure-trove of information, guides, images, and advice (though the focus is on UK bumblebees). Goulson's recent reanalysis of a study on the effects of neonicitinoids, used by the UK's Food and Environment Research Agency, showed that neonicitinoid pesticides in fact ARE threatening bees worldwide. The agency had previously drawn a conclusion that was completely contrary to the results of the study :^(
Street artists from London are working to bring awareness to the plight of the bumblebee and honeybee, and have painted murals in London, Croatia, New York, Miami, and New Orleans.
Hey Seattle–we should do this too! #savethebees
I believe that this is a Bombus mixtus (also known as the "orange-booty bumblebee") tasting our Allium schoenoprasum, or chives.