There are about four thousand different species of bees in North America. Here in Idaho we have five common families representing about 400 species of bees. The members of the five most common families, Apidae, Halictidae, Andrenidae, Megachilidae and Colletidae can be found throughout the continent from Canada and Alaska to warm and sunny Florida; from forests to deserts; from remote areas to gardens and backyards; even the National Mall in the very heart of our nation’s capital sports a fauna of native bees. Perhaps the only places where bees are absent are the high mountains.
This large family includes a wide variety of species, starting with that non-native, the honey bee, Apis mellifera; in fact the name of the family comes from the Latin name for the honey bee, Apis. It includes all the bumble bees, the carpenter bees, several kinds of miner bees and some types of cuckoo bees.
There are about fifty species of North American bumble bees. Most people are familiar with them; they are big and furry, mostly black with stripes of yellow or white or even bright orange. They have some things in common with honey bees; they are more social than most other bees forming colonies with one queen and many workers, although such colonies are never as big or as long lived as those of honey bees.
This family contains the so called mason bees and leaf-cutter bees. Most of them nest in holes, either in wood or hollow twigs, but there are also a few that nest in the ground. There are a few species within this family that are not native but have been introduced either intentionally or unintentionally in this country. Among the intentional introductions there is the Japanese bee or horned bee, which is considered an excellent pollinator of fruit trees. One interesting characteristic of the members of this family is that they don’t carry the pollen on their back legs but on their bellies. If you happen to see a bee, about the size of a honey bee, with a yellow belly you can be sure that it is a Megachilid bee.
The blue orchard bee, Osmia lignaria, and specially the variety Osmia lignaria lignaria of western United States is being developed for pollination of fruit trees by providing nest houses. It may prove to be an excellent replacement for the beleaguered honey bee.
Some of the prettiest bees belong to this family; with their shiny metallic colored bodies they capture your heart. Many are metallic green, but others have shades of color that go from blue to copper or gold. Most of them nest in the ground, some are completely solitary but others share the entrance to their nests. In most cases that is all they share and don’t go to the extent of being truly social. However, a few go a step further and show some division of labor in guarding the entrance to their homes and rearing of the young; they are usually sisters that come from the same nest. Some species go even further in their level of socialization and can be considered truly social, with a division of labor in which the mother and starter of the colony, lays eggs and lets the daughters do all the other work.
The andrenid bees are all ground nesters. This is a very large family. Many are dark, black, and rather non-descript bees; others have bright red colors. Those in the genus Perdita can be quite striking, metallic greenish, or with yellow markings. They can be distinguished from other bees by the velvety areas (fovea) on the face, between the eyes and the base of the antennae. Andrenids are among the earliest bees to emerge in the spring. You can see them visiting violets and other early blooming flowers. Some andrenid bees are very good pollinators of apple blossoms. Many of them are active only during this brief period. The next generation remains sound asleep underground through summer, fall and winter only to emerge the next spring when their favorite flowers are in bloom.