A brief introduction to Native Bees in California and their importance in our ecosystems
In California we have 1600 species of native bee! California is considered an ecological hot spot in the world and is home to many insects found nowhere else in the world! Most people can identify European Honey Bees which were brought to America from Europe. The European honey bee is present all over the world. Honey bees are not native to California. Bumble Bees are the only social bees which are native to North America. ('Social' means living in a colony, like a hive.)
Scientists have found that Native Bees pollinate much more efficiently than Honey Bees. Honey bees are pollinators of agricultural crops and pollinate many non-native plants. Native bees can be very selective in what they feed upon, having evolved with the landscape they are in, and often live in close proximity to native flowers which they feed upon.
Many of these 1600 species of native bee can live in our gardens - and by planting native California flowers and shrubs we can encourage them.
There are some key differences between our native bees and non-native European Honey Bees. While honey bees are social, live in hives and cooperate with one another, most of our native bees are solitary, live in wood or underground tunnels and do not make honey.
Hard working native bee females mate, make nests, collect pollen for their young and lay eggs. Male native bees live to mate.
Native Bees are master pollinators and studies show they can pollinate tomatoes and fruits far better than honey bees.
Native bees come in various shapes, colors and sizes! There are Sweat Bees (they actually like to drink sweat for the minerals it contains), Digger Bees, Mason Bees, Carpenter Bees, Bumble Bees, Mining Bees, Leaf Cutter Bees, Long Horned Bees (Medium to large body bees, this group gets their names from the long antennae of the males. Females of this species do not have long antennae.)
The native bees take their names from their behavior and their appearances. The female valley carpenter bee makes her nest in decaying, untreated natural wood, hence the name 'carpenter.' Female Valley Carpenter Bees can look intimidating with their large (1 inch long) black bodies, however, it is all for show; they have no sting!
Native bees differ in the seasons they appear, habitats they prefer, and flowers they favor. They are essential for pollinating our wild lands and form an integral part of a thriving natural ecosystem. They are amazing and highly efficient pollinators!
Carpenter Bees. Carpenter bees got their name because they chew through wood in order to make nests. There are large and small species and both have hairs on their back legs for carrying pollen. They are not social i.e. do not form colonies.
Sweat bees. There are two varieties of sweat bees. One is black and brown and the other is a vibrant metallic green. They are solitary and are attracted to sweat because of the salt.
Digger bees. Digger bees are hairy and usually nest in the ground. These bees are mostly solitary but may nest together.
Long-horned bees. These are hairy black bees with especially long hairs on the rear legs. The males have very long antenna. They nest in the ground and are most attracted to sunflowers and asters.
Mining bees. Mining bees dig nests in the ground, preferring sand and sandy soil. They are black with light-colored hairs.
Leaf cutting bees. These bees have dark bodies and light hairs under the abdomen. Their heads are broad because they have large jaws for cutting leaves. Leaf cutter bees use the leaves to line their nests.
Chimney bees are a type of mining bee. The females dig singular nests which they fill with pollen and lay a single egg inside. They build a little 'chimney' around their nest to protect it. The chimney or turret is made from mud and bee saliva.
The female Chimney Bee will often rest just inside her nest and buzz to warn other bees if they mistake her nest for their own. They can be seen nesting in alongside each other in groups with many little chimneys above their nests in the ground.
Striped Sweet Bee
A remarkably colored insect, the females of this species are all metallic green, while the males are green on the head and thorax with a striped abdomen that makes them relatively easy to identify. You can find them in soil where they nest or on flowers in the daisy family (Asteraceae). Widespread and common, green sweat bees may be one of the first native bees you encounter, and one you will remember because of its jewel-like appearance.
Yellow Faced Bumble Bee
Bumble bees pollinate flowers through 'buzz pollination' literally buzzing their wings and shaking pollen onto their furry bodies and hind legs. They move fairly slowly between flowers.
They can be recognized by their hairy / fluffy, round bodies and yellow bands on their backs and abdomens.
This hard-working species is one of the most common and easy to identify from its bright yellow facial hair.
Queen bees from this species emerge in early spring when there are not many flowers available. Whether they can find nectar and pollen or not will determine whether they can make a successful nest for spring.
Valley Carpenter Bee
Carpenter bees make their nests by carving a hole into decaying wood or untreated lumber.
(It's a great idea to include an untreated log in your garden for native bees to make their nests in.)
The females of this species are large, rotund, shiny black bees. They are very noticeable bees! They can be found in Canyon and Valley gardens.
They often pierce flowers at the base to get to the nectar inside the flower.
They are solitary bees and fairly long lived. The female bees burrow into soft or decaying wood or pithy stems.
Male Valley Carpenter Bees are affectionately referred to as “teddy bear bees” due to their golden bodies and hairs.
They may look big and scary, but they are harmless, docile and cannot sting!