The ABCs of Our Native Bees

PHOTO: Bee on milkweed

Know These Pollinating Wonders

Did you know there are more than 20,000 species of bees worldwide? That’s more than all the mammals, amphibians, and reptiles combined! You may be familiar with bumblebees and honeybees, but Illinois boasts 500 species of native bees—metallic green and blue bees that look nothing like the fuzzy yellow and black icon.

Bees are critically important in pollinating native plants, and the relationship can be complex. For instance, some flowers require “buzz pollination,” whereby a bee grabs onto a flower’s anthers and must vibrate at a particular frequency for the flower to release pollen.

PHOTO: bee collection

To evaluate the best habitats for native bees, the Chicago Botanic Garden has collected bees from all around the Chicago region—green roofs, city parks, and restored prairies. The work of the Garden’s Rebecca Tonietto, Plant Biology and Conservation Ph.D. student, has revealed that bees can thrive in urban environments if we humans help instead of harm their habitats.

Bee informed

  • Only females have stingers. In fact, certain genera have no stingers at all.
  • Bees have five eyes: in addition to the two most prominent, there are three on top of their heads that track light and motion. In fact, when you watch bees, be aware that your shadow may scare them more than you.
  • Only honeybees make honey—food for bee larva!
  • Bee diets consist of pollen as a protein and nectar as a carbohydrate.
  • Bee size ranges—some are bigger than an adult thumb, some are smaller than the width of your pinky nail.
  • The name “Dumbledore” is an Old English term for a bumblebee.
  • Despite what you may expect, bee diversity is most abundant in arid regions like the desert.
  • While some bees do live communally or in hives or colonies, many are solitary—a single female may make her nest in a hole in the ground or in rotted wood.
  • Colony Collapse Disorder is the term given to the mysterious and dramatic disappearance of North American honeybees. It is estimated that if the trend continues, honeybees will completely disappear from our continent by 2035. The direct impact of this for humans would be the loss of most fruits, vegetables, and nuts pollinated by honeybees, with secondary trouble for beef and dairy industries since cattle rely on the clover and hay pollinated by honeybees.

PHOTO: coneflowers

Attracting Bees to Your Backyard

Human beings play an important role in protecting one of nature’s premier pollinators. Here's what you can do to help:

  • Keep a portion of your garden untilled and leave a few broken branches in your yard.
  • Grow native, flowering plants such as black-eyed Susan, Joe-pye weed, and purple coneflower.
  • In late spring, build your own bee condo! It’s easy.