When was the last time you were in your garden, saw a bee, grabbed it and squeezed it? Probably never, right?
Unless you've done that, there's a good chance that if you've ever been stung it wasn't by a bee, said Becky Griffin. And she would know. Griffin teaches classes on bees to children and adults through the Center for Urban Agriculture at the University of Georgia Extension's Northwest District and is a certified beekeeper in Cherokee County, Georgia.
To be sure, all U.S. native bees and the honeybee, which is not native to North America, can sting, Griffin said. "But you would be hard pressed to be stung by one unless you accidentally smushed it or attacked its hive," said Griffin. "Bees are truly not interested in people at all. They are interested in plants and flowers. If you've been stung, it was most likely by a wasp such as a yellow jacket."
To understand why bees typically don't sting, Griffin said it helps to recognize and understand the behavior of different types of bees. Here is her take on the different types of bees, a fly that mimics bees and wasps that you're most likely to encounter in your vegetable or ornamental garden, no matter where you live. The insects described below represent groups of insects, of which there are many varieties.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera)
Honeybees go the extra mile for some pollen. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
These bees, which were imported to pollinate agricultural crops, are easy to distinguish from native bees by their coloring, which is golden brown with black abdominal stripes. The honeybees you'll see are female workers. Look closely at them, and if they've been visiting flowers you will notice yellow pollen on their legs. As the bees collect pollen, they move it across their bodies and to their legs where they place it in little baskets.
Honeybees live in artificial hives maintained by professional or hobbyist beekeepers. Only rarely do they live in wild colonies. Even if you don't think you have a beekeeper in your neighborhood you may still see honeybees. They will fly three-plus miles from their hive to find what they need. Pollination by honeybees only occurs when pollen, for whatever reason, doesn’t get into their pollen baskets.
One the rare chance a honeybee might sting you, she can only do it once. That's because honeybees have a barbed stinger that is attached to their abdomen and digestive tract. Consequently, when the bee pulls away after stinging, her stinger remains with the victim. She literally rips her guts out.
Bumblebees (Genus: Bombus)
Bumblebees are the Mack truck of bees. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
These bees are a little larger than honeybees and have a black body covered with dense yellow and black hair. They can be confused with carpenter bees, but Griffin says there's an easy way to tell the difference: Carpenter bees are noticeably larger than bumble bees.
"I tell my classes that the carpenter bee is like a Mack truck while bumble bees are more like a pickup," said Griffin. Carpenter bees, for instance, have a broad head, whereas bumblebees have a smaller head.
Bumblebees also have hair on their abdomen and carpenter bees don't. If you're thinking you don't want to get close enough to a bee to look at its abdomen, Griffin encourages you to remember that these bees are looking for pollen, not for you as a meal. "This is a great way to educate yourself," she said, adding that it would be a shame to miss out on seeing a great part of nature because of a truly unfounded fear.
Bumblebees get their name from the noise they create when they get into a flower. They make the noise by moving around inside the flower so fast that they literally sonicate the pollen off the flower and onto the hairs on their body. "It's just like they are dancing," said Griffin. Like the honeybee, the bumblebees you see are female workers who groom the pollen back and into pollen baskets on their legs. They live in large colonies in nests they build in the ground in abandoned mammal holes.
Carpenter bees (Genus: Xylocopa)
Carpenter bees can be destructive to both your woodwork and your berries. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
These bees have a bad reputation. That's because they are the ones (the female workers, again) that bore into your wood and make a hole as neat and clean as if it was bored out with a power drill. The presence of sawdust on sills or stoops is an indication that you should look for a hole, which is the female's reproductive nest.
She lays her eggs, females first and males last. The bees emerge from the hole in the spring leaving in single file. The males go out first so they can be ready to mate with the females when they leave the nest.
Many people find the bees destructive. The only thing that seems to deter them is painted wood. Traps of various sorts are available, but these result in the death of the bees.
They also have the reputation of being the robber barons of the bee world, chewing into small flowers into which they can't fit, such as those on blueberries, to get to the nectar before blueberry bees visit the flower. When this happens, they aren't pollinating the flower, they are simply "stealing" the nectar without providing a natural benefit.
On the flowers of other plants, however, they are excellent pollinators. Carpenter bees, like honeybees and bumblebees, have pollen baskets on their legs. They also have a black body with yellow and black dense hairs on their head and thorax and a bald abdomen. If you've ever had a bee swoop out of seemingly nowhere and hover in front of your face looking you straight in the eye, that's a carpenter bee. Your first thought when this happens may be that it's about to attack. It's not. It's just being territorial.
Mason bees (Genus: Osmia)
Mason bees are the sleek members of the bee family. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
These are small, fast-flying bees that have the agility of a tiny fighter jet and have metallic colors including blue, dull green and black. They do not have pollen baskets on their legs. Instead, they carry pollen in hairs on the underside of their abdomens.
They are most active in the spring and get their name from their habit of using mud to close nest cavities. In nature, they look for a hollowed-out stem or a twig. They also will readily come to bee hotels where environmentally conscious gardeners have pre-drilled holes for them.
Like the carpenter bees, mason bees will lay female eggs in the back of the nest first and then the male eggs. After that she will gather nectar and use enzymes to create a food source for the offspring, which will be born the next spring. Finally, she will use mud to seal the opening to the nest. In the spring, the males will emerge first and be ready to mate when the females are born and emerge from the nest.
If you are trying to attract mason bees to a bee hotel, be sure not to cover every bare spot in your landscape with grass or a ground cover. Leave some areas that can become a little muddy after rains or hand watering.
Leafcutter bees (Genus: Megachile)
Leafcutter bees' white fur and sizable jaws make them stand out among their peers. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
These bees are very similar to Mason bees in their nesting characteristics except that they use leaves to close up their nest cavities. They are black with white hairs covering the thorax and the bottom of the abdomen, and many species have large heads with massive jaws to aid in cutting off pieces of leaves to seal their nests. Also like mason bees, they carry pollen on their abdomens and are very fast flyers.
Blueberry bees (Habropoda laboriosa; Southeastern blueberry bee)
Blueberry bees are, as you might expect, a perfect fit for flowers on blueberry plants. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
These bees are about the size of a honeybee but have hair patterns and banding that give them the appearance of a small version of a bumblebee or a carpenter bee.
They get their name because they have evolved with native blueberries, and their bodies have become the perfect fit for the bell-shaped flowers on blueberry plants. While they are excellent pollinators for blueberries, they also will pollinate other plants. Blueberry bees nest in the ground, especially near blueberry plants, once they find them.
Squash bees (Genera: Peponapis and Xenoglossa)
Squash bees, like the Xenoglossa strenua, have trouble pollinating flowers. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
These bees resemble the blueberry bee in that they have evolved to become specialists in the pollinating of the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes squash and cucumbers. They are one of the few bees that fly pre-dawn. Their primary flight times last until mid-morning, and they will fly again near dusk when squash and melon flowers open.
If you see a bee nesting in a squash flower, it's almost certainly a male squash bee as they nest and mate in squash flowers. Females nest in the ground near food sources. Bumblebees also will pollinate squash flowers but tend to linger in the flower while female squash bees do their business and leave. Because the bodies of bumblebees are not designed to pollinate squash flowers, they will have trouble pollinating the flowers, sometimes having to use their legs to balance themselves in the blossom.
The head and thorax of squash bees range in color from black or tan to orange. The thorax is hairy and black with banded abdomen stripes that are black, white, or tan.
Sweat bees (Various genera)
Halictus confusus, a type of sweat bee. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
This is a large group of small bees with some only a quarter of the size of a honeybee. They have come to be known by the common name of "sweat bee" because they are attracted to human perspiration. They are also excellent pollinators and are active into October and even into November.
Because of their small size, they are attracted to small flowers such as the fall-blooming asters of the Southeast. They range in color from black to metallic blues and greens with copper and blue overtones. Some have and stripes or bands on their abdomens. They can be difficult to see because of their small size and because they fly very fast.
Hoverflies (Order Diptera, family Syrphidae)
Hoverflies, also called flower flies, are a large and important group of pollinators and the most numerous of the pollinating flies. There are more than 6,000 species, including many that mimic bees for protection.
Once you realize the difference between flies and bees and get attuned to looking for hoverflies, you will start to see them everywhere. One key difference is that bees have four wings and flies have two. Another is that hoverflies and bees have very different eye structures. Flies, for instance, have huge eyes on either side of their head. Hoverflies are especially attracted to flowers with sweat-tasting nectar. Some of these include mountain mint, asters and hyssop.
Wasps (Order Hymenoptera, suborder Apocrita)
There are over 100,000 species of wasps and, in general, many resemble bees in appearance. In general, wasps have little hair, bright colors and a very narrow waist (the junction between the thorax and abdomen). Most species have black and yellow color patterns. Unlike bees, wasp legs tend to hang down during flight. They are much more aggressive than bees and far more likely to sting. Also, most wasps provide no pollination services. Here are four common types of wasps.
1. Yellow jackets (Genus: Vespula or Dolichovespula)
Yellow jackets, such as the Vespula squamosa, can sting multiple times. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
Yellow jackets are a carnivorous type of wasp and, in general, you will not see them in vegetable or flower gardens unless there is a nearby nest. If that’s the case, you need to kill the nest. These can be dangerous insects for humans because individuals are aggressive, the colony will aggressively defend the nest and because of the structure of their stinger.
Unlike the honeybee, yellow jackets have a lance-like stinger with only a small barb that doesn’t remain in its victim. Consequently, a yellow jacket can sting multiple times in succession. If you've ever been stung by one, you know the sting is painful, and the pain doesn't go away quickly.
Typical yellow jacket workers sometimes can be confused with honeybees. They are about the size of a honeybee but in contrast to honeybees have yellow or white markings, their bodies are not covered with tan-brown dense hair and they do not have pollen baskets on their hind legs. They are generalists in the food they seek, often showing up unwanted at outdoor meals or picnics, especially if you are grilling hamburgers or hot dogs. In nature, they are looking for any kind of "meat" they can find. Ants are just one example of the prey they seek.
2. Paper wasps (Family: Vespidae)
Paper wasps get their name from the way their build their nests, which are made from their saliva and plant material and have a papery appearance. Because the nest looks somewhat like an umbrella, they are sometimes called umbrella wasps. They like to build their nests in protected areas of homes such as door frames, window sills and eaves.
Females are especially active in the fall and may wander into homes and look for high places such as cathedral ceilings to build a nest. Like other wasps, if the nest is threatened they will aggressively defend it.
There are approximately two dozen species of paper wasps in North America. Typically, paper wasps have narrow brown with black wings and yellow markings. Some species have color patterns resembling yellow jackets and can be confused with these pests. Like yellow jackets, their sting is painful and their nests should be removed. For the garden, paper wasps are considered beneficial because they are pollinators that feed on nectar and other insects, including caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae.
3. Potters wasps (Family: Vespidae)
Potter wasps are related to Mud Daubers and get their name from the way they build their nests, which are small, resemble a small pot and are placed on vines and twigs. Nests are sometimes even found on homes on places such as bricks or window screens. Like paper wasps, these are beneficial wasp because they pollinate flowers and feed on a variety of caterpillars, which they paralyze with their sting and then feed to their larvae.
Unlike paper wasps, these wasps are not aggressive towards humans. There are more than 200 genera of potter wasps and more than 3,200 species. These are attractive wasps, with most of them being black or brown with yellow, white, orange, or patterns or a combination of these colors.
4. Hornets (Family: Vespidae)
The stinger of a hornet is often visible. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/flickr)
Hornets are a type of wasp. One way to distinguish hornets from other types of wasps is that hornets have a thick body and lack the distinctive thin waist generally found in other wasps. They are in the same subfamily as yellow jackets but are larger than yellow jackets and are often black and white, whereas yellow jackets are black and yellow.
European hornets have started showing up in North America and are as big or bigger than carpenter bees. In fact, they are large enough that their stinger is visible. Hornet nests are papery and often high in trees. These pests will mobilize the entire nest to defend it if they believe the nest is threatened. Homeowners should be aware that these are dangerous insects. They should know that if they kill an individual it can give off pheromones that will alert the nest and may cause hornets in the nest to attack. These pheromones can even stick to clothing. Hornet nests should be removed.
How to attract different types of bees
Every vegetable garden needs flowers to attract bees, other pollinators and beneficial insects. This is a principal that Griffin said she relentlessly preaches in her role as community and school garden coordinator
"What I usually recommend is a mix of natives and then plants that we know from research give bees what they need," Griffin said. "Mostly I emphasize a succession of blooms."
Mason bees are her "poster child" for the value of having flowers that bloom during as much of the year as possible, as mason bees still fly when it's colder. "If we have a warm day in January where we are hitting 52 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, then native bees such as the mason bee could be flying. And they are going to be looking for floral resources. If nothing is blooming in your yard or garden they are going to look elsewhere or they are going to be in trouble. So, if you can plant things that are going to bloom as early in the spring as possible and as far into the fall as possible, then you are going to attract more insects to your garden and your food plot in general, and you’re going to have a better population of really neat insects to watch."
How do you determine the mix of flowers to plant, no matter where you live?
If you're not sure which flowers bees will like, contact your agricultural extension service for information. (Photo: James Petts/flickr)
"I would ask your extension service," Griffin continued. "What they are going to recommend to you is based on research." Griffin thinks it's better to ask the extension service this question rather than garden centers because sometimes garden centers may recommend what they have on their benches or what is easy for them to get. "On the other hand," Griffin emphasized, "a lot of pollinator plants are really easy to grow from seed."
The University of Georgia, for example, is in the process of developing a pollinator blend specifically for Georgia. "I'm sure it's the same with other states in the Southeast," Griffin said. While that blend could work in other Southeastern states, Griffin said blends created in one region likely won’t do well in other regions because local pressures from diseases and other causes vary widely in different parts of the country. That's why Griffin said homeowners should check with their local extension service. "Every land grant university should have research-based information for their citizens," she said. With any luck, they may also have a research-based pollinator seed blend for your state.
It help you identify bees, you also can visit the web site Bees of Georgia, but don't be misled by the reference to Georgia. Bees, wasps and other insects listed on the site are commonly seen in many places. "The researcher who built this site just happens to be in Georgia," said Griffin. The website was created by Mark Schlueter, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Georgia Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville.