If you own a garden with flowers, you would have probably seen several different types of bees flitting around your flowering plants. You know what your local bees look like. But did you know that there are over 20,000 bee species in the world?3 From the smallest sweat bees to the largest carpenter bees.
Some bee species are more common than other bee species depending on where you live and the types of plants around that location. These little insects are important to maintain ecological balance and provide tremendous benefits to us and the environment.
In this article, we will look at the importance of bees and explore their characteristics and different types of bees.
Related: For more bee inspiration, check out our curated selection of bee quotes.
Bees are important for many reasons: From health benefits to food production and a healthy ecosystem. Here are a few reasons bees are significant.
This may be one of the most essential characteristics of bees. Bees are efficient pollinators. Bees carry pollen, grains, and seeds to other plants. This is called cross-pollination. Pollination produces better crops. It helps provide fruits, seeds, nuts, berries, and so on.
In other words, bees are essential for plant growth and increasing the number of agricultural produce. Also, bees produce honey, a healthy food consumed by humans.
Bees are not only essential for pollination, but they also protect the environment and are crucial indicators of the health of the environment. Honey bees produce large colonies that live for multiple years. They provide the opportunity to judge our long-term environmental health. Their by-products - wax, and pollen can also be scientifically analyzed for pollution.
Also, bees pollinate flowers, which enriches and beautifies our landscapes and gardens.
Read more: We have a deeper dive into how important bees are to biodiversity and a guide to what to plant in your garden to help support bee populations.
Bees create nests that provide a habitat for other insects and animals. Bees also pollinate crops and trees, which are essential for the growth of gardens, woodlands, savannas, and forests. These forests and gardens serve as a home for other creatures.
The worker bee stores honey in wax honeycombs. Beeswax is a commodity used to make various materials, from candles to food wraps, furniture, and beauty products. We can also find beeswax used as a natural preservative for food and products that may spoil quickly. You’ll also come across natural beeswax used in the cosmetics industry in polishes and hair products for extra shine.
Broadly categorized into six families, these pollinators run the gamut from honey producers to expert architects, each playing a vital role in the delicate balance of our fragile ecosystem. The six bee families comprise:
The Mining Bees: The andrenidae family of bees represents hardy, solitary workers that you'll often find making homes in underground tunnels. Frequenting gardens and grasslands, these marvels convert plush patches of ground into bustling networks of individual burrows. Curiously, they prefer to be active in the early spring, making them some of the first pollinators you'll spot as the seasons change.
The Honey and Bumblebees: Most famous for their honey-production and iconic yellow and black markings, the Apidae family proves exceedingly diverse and important. They also include stingless, carpenter and orchid bees. Apidae bee workers form complex, highly organized colonies. Their dedication to teamwork benefits our ecosystem by enhancing plant pollination.
The Plasterer Bees: Colletidae bees, with their distinctive 'plastered' nests, add some real intrigue to the bee panorama. They owe their name to their unique ability to line their nest walls with a secretion akin to cellophane, acting as a moisture barrier. They are mostly solitary, with a preference for mild climates and tropical regions.
The Sweat Bees: Bees that are attracted to human sweat? Yes, it’s true - meet the Halictidae family. These bees come in a range of vibrant colors, including metallic blues and greens. Often residing underground or in rotting wood, they play a vital role in local ecosystems, taking on the vital task of plant pollination.
The Leafcutter and Mason Bees: Expert architects of the insect world, Megachilidae bees carve out leaf pieces to build their fascinating, tubular nests. Nurturing a solitary lifestyle, they’re also known for their impressive pollinating prowess, an attribute that's particularly beneficial for fruit trees, orchards and gardens.
The Oil-Collecting Bees: Odd and rare, Melittidae bees are unique in their dietary habits. They're known to feast on floral oils and certain types of pollen, exclusively. Global ecosystems cherish these relatively uncommon bees, marking them as crucial players in the survival and propagation of select plant species.
Bees are diverse in color, shape, size, nesting habits and behavior. This section will look at the different types of bees, their species, their type (if they are a social or solitary species), and other characteristics.
Species: Apis mellifera
The European honey bee, also known as the western honey bee, was imported to North America. They are easy to distinguish from other native bees because of their distinct golden brown and black abdominal stripe color.
The bees you will mostly see around are female worker bees. When they visit flowers, these bees collect pollen on their legs and into their pollen basket.
Most honey bees reside in an artificial honey bee hive, which is kept and used to produce honey and pollinate plants.
Honeybees have a complex social structure consisting of a queen bee, female workers, and male drones. The queen bee lays two different types of eggs. Fertilized and non-fertilized eggs hatch into female worker bees and drones, respectively.
Yes, they pollinate different kinds of plants, including crops, but they are less efficient than native bees.
Honey bees can sting if you come too close or invade their bee colony. They will only sting once, and this is because they have a stinger attached to their abdomen. When the honey bee stings and pulls away, she leaves her victim with a stinger and, due to its construction, will die after the stinger has detached.
Species: Apis mellifera scutellata
The Africanized honey bee is also known as the killer bee. These bee species are infamous for aggressive behavior. Africanized bees will attack anything that threatens their nest.
Unlike most bees, these bees attack from a wider radius. They are very territorial and will likely alert as many as 1000 drones to attack and will sting multiple times until the “object” is no longer a perceived threat4.
Based on their appearance, they are indistinguishable from the yellow and black European honey bees. They also don't store honey like the European honey bee.
Africanized bees build their hives in the open, often in small sheltered areas like cement blocks and meter boxes. When their nest is disturbed, they would abandon it and swarm.
Some argue that these killer bees are superior pollinators because they emphasize colony growth rather than honey production.
These types of bees are very dangerous and will sting their victim multiple times until they perceive no further threat. Their stings are painful and can lead to the death of animals and humans.
Type: may be solitary or semi-social
We can find the Halicutus species of sweat bees in different parts of the world. They are way smaller than the common bee. The sweat bee is attracted to human sweat because of its salt content which is where it gets its common name from.
They range from small to medium size and have a dark brown or black color. They also have hairs on the outermost part of their abdomen.
The female sweat bees carry pollen on bits of hair on their hind legs. They source their food from different plants, and you can commonly find them in fields, gardens, and grasslands during summer and fall.
They are semi-social and establish their nests in the spring while reproducing through to fall.
Sweat bees are general pollinators and visit different types of flowers and crops.
The female sweat bees can sting but are usually not aggressive. If you don't want to be stung, it is best to leave them alone. To prevent nesting, you can grow some vegetation in the bare areas of the ground or keep the ground moist.
Species: Augochlora Pura
These bees belong to a species called sweat bees. The Green metallic sweat bee is a rare type of bee. They come in metallic green, golden, and deep dark green tones.
These bees are not very picky, as they move around a wide range of flowers, many of which belong to the daisy family.
During warmer seasons, you may see them in February and November. In the early seasons, these bees usually visit maple flowers and move on to milkweeds2, spiderworts, and verbena.
They build their nests in the tunnel of rotting wood or hollow stems.
The green metallic bee is not social, meaning there is no division of labor or reproduction. The female bee builds her nests and produces her offspring. The lifespan of these types of bees is not known. However, they may die after finishing 9-12 nests.
They are also nearly identical to the cuckoo wasp and may sometimes be mistaken for them.
They are general pollinators and work throughout the day to gather and take pollen from different flowers to their homes. In most cases, these bees mix the pollen with nectar and saliva (which scientists believe to be antiseptic) to build their nest.
These bees are typically attracted to human sweat. However, they are not aggressive and will most likely not sting. With a gentle shoo, you can drive these bees away.
About 43 native striped green sweat bee species across the North American continent. They are about one-third of an inch, and unlike other sweat bees, these types of bees are not attracted to human sweat.
They have a green metallic head, thorax, and a yellow and black striped abdomen. You would typically see their females with wads of pollen at their back legs. These types of bees make their nests in small holes in the ground and dig deep burrows where they lay their eggs.
These solitary bees are general pollinators of various native and non-native flowers.
These bee species typically don’t sting unless threatened or mishandled.
According to the US Forest Service, there are 49 species of Bumble bees native to the US
These bees have a black-colored body covered with deep, dense yellow and black hair. Bumble bees visit flowers to collect nectar and pollen, which they feed on.
Also, once they lay their eggs and these eggs hatch, they use pollen and nectar to feed the larval worker bees.
Bumble bees can generate heat using their flight muscles which they use to incubate their eggs and speed up the development of their worker bees.
Unlike honey bees, Bumble bees do not generate or store large quantities of honey. They also look like carpenter bees but have more hair on their abdomen.
Their name comes from the sound they make inside a flower. They move quickly through flowers, taking up pollen into the hairs on their body. They live in colonies and reside in nests.
Bumble bees are important pollinators and pollinate a wide range of wildflowers and some agricultural crops like tomatoes.
Bumble bees typically do not sting but can be threatened by human activities. They can sting if you handle them or get too close to their nest. They are mainly on the decline s,o you rarely need to kill them. You can simply repel them by spraying their nests with some vinegar and water at night.
There are over 500 species of carpenter bees worldwide, with varying sizes and colors.
Carpenter bees don't have a good reputation when it comes to wooden surfaces. Their female species bore holes into wood surfaces. Their holes are so clean that you might mistake their manufactured tree cavities for a hole drilled using a power drill. She lays her eggs in these holes with the female eggs first, followed by the male eggs. During spring, these bees then emerge out of the hole in a single file to join their bee families.
Their nest typically has a small pile of sawdust at the entrance. Valley Carpenter bees prefer hardwoods like eucalyptus and oak trees.
The mountain carpenter bee makes its nest in wooden surfaces like railings and caves.
They also chew into flowers like blueberries to get nectar. They steal nectar from these flowers without providing any natural benefits. However, the carpenter bee is an excellent pollinator on some other flowers. Carpenter bees also have pollen baskets on their legs.
They have a dense yellow and black body with black hairs on the head, abdomen, and thorax. Typically, carpenter bees are territorial and considered destructive.
Carpenter bees are pollinators. However, people don't consider them excellent pollinators because of the holes they drill into woods and even flowers.
The female carpenter bees could sting in defense or if mishandled. The male carpenter bees exhibit more aggressive behavior. However, they are stingless bees. The carpenter bee is only considered destructive because of its drill holes into wooden surfaces.
Mason bees are small and super-fast flying bees. They have metallic colors of black, blue, and dull green. They do not use pollen baskets but instead, take up pollen in their hairs and beneath their abdomen. Mason bees are very active in spring, creating and covering their nest cavities using mud.
Like the carpenter bee, Mason bees lay their female eggs first before their male eggs. The female mason bee gathers nectar and enzymes and uses them to create food for her offspring.
In the spring season, the male bees emerge first and are ready to mate with the female bees when they emerge. The leafcutter bees and mason bees belong to the same families, except that leafcutter bees create their nests in decaying wood while Mason bees make theirs in crevices and sometimes empty snail shells.
Adult Mason bees are general pollinators who visit different flowers near their nest. The blue-orchard Mason bee is a unique pollinator of nut trees and spring-flowering plants.
The male mason bee can't sting. However, the female mason bee only stings when mishandled or trapped.
Leafcutter bees are pretty similar to Mason bees when it comes to nesting.
However, these bees use leaves to cover up their nest cavities. They have black and white hairs covering the bottom of their abdomen and thorax. Many of them have large heads and huge jaws for nibbling on leaves used to seal their nests. They also carry pollen on their abdomen, unlike bees that carry them on their hind legs. Once these bees gather the leaves, they stack them on one another and build little cups.
You would usually find their nests in your home's little tunnels like hollow plant stems and masonry holes.
The leafcutter bee is just half an inch long and has an upward-tipped flattened abdomen.
Leafcutter bees are solitary bees and do not aggressively defend their nests. However, they can sting when handled but are not as painful as honey bees.
The leafcutter bee is not harmful but may eat up your leaves and reduce your garden’s aesthetic value. To draw them away, you can build a bee hotel or cut away the damaged plant attracting the bees.
Species: Melissodes and Eucera
These types of bees are known for their unusually long antennae; hence the name “long-horned.” They are medium-sized bees with hairy heads, bodies, and back legs. They are so conspicuous that you can spot them as they move around for nectar and pollen.
The male species have much longer antennae than the female species. Both have striking green or blue-grey eyes.
They tend to come out in the morning or early afternoons between July and August.
These bees are also good nesters and construct their nests in the ground. They build their nests in isolation or in groups.
Long-horned bees are essential pollinators of wildflowers and crops. They typically pollinate flower species found in the sunflower family. They specialize in daisies, asters, and sunflowers.
These digger bees are shy and solitary. There are no clear reports that talk about their stinging abilities, but these bees are pleasant and do not sting. You will usually find them in their ground nests. However, you might see them clinging to plants while napping.
The European Wool Carder bees are famous for collecting hairs from plants, rolling them up, and using them to line up their nests.
Wool Carder bees are half an inch long and have a smooth upper abdomen and a distinct yellow and white pattern.
Their females take up pollen on the hairy sides of their abdomen. These solitary bees build their nest in hollow stems and wood cavities.
The male bees are highly territorial. They also display a unique mating system. The larger males aggressively take the best mating spots, holding off other males while waiting for a mating partner. These bees mate with females who try to feed within their territory. And as such, female wool carder bees may mate up to 12 times a week1.
Carder bees see beneficial pollinators who move around different plants collecting hairs for nest making.
The male wool carder bee may not sting but come with spikes on its tails. They use these spikes to guard patches of flowers for female suitors and wrestle with other bees and insects crossing their territory.
Species: Peponapis and Xenoglossa
Squash bees resemble bees like the blueberry bee, which pollinate plants from the family of pumpkins, squash, and so on.
The squash bee is among the few bees that fly before dawn. The male squash bee mates and nests in squash flowers while the female squash bees make their nest on the ground close to food sources. This takes place until mid-morning. They then fly again near dusk when melon flowers and squash open up.
Unlike bumble bees, the squash bee does not linger in squash flowers during mating and nesting.
Their head and thorax have a wide range of colors, from tan to black and orange. Their thorax is hairy, and their abdomen also comes in black, white, or tan stripes.
Squash bees get pollen from specific plants like the Squash plant. They may also visit some home vegetable gardens.
The squash bee is not aggressive and will rarely sting unless mishandled.
Species: Habropoda laboriosa (southeastern blueberry bee)
The Blueberry bee gets its name because these bees have evolved with blueberries. They are about the size of a honey bee and have hair patterns that make them look like a carpenter. This bee's body shape also fits perfectly in blueberry flowers.
These bees pollinate blueberries but also other plants like oaks and redbuds. They are, however, not as efficient as other types of bees.
Like most bees, blueberry bees will only sting when mishandled or threatened.
Mining bees are very docile and solitary. These bees tend to only become active in spring. As the name suggests, these bees dig up tunnels where they lay their eggs and care for their young. They mostly look for areas with proper drainage, light, and exposed soils.
The males emerge in spring, flitting around flowers and nest sites, searching for female suitors. They form their nesting tunnels in the ground, usually in early spring. The female mining bee takes on more labor. After mating, she gathers nectar, builds a nest, and makes tunnels where she lays her eggs.
These types of bees are important pollinators. The female mining bee collects nectar and pollen for her young in the early spring. This process requires that she visit hundreds of flowers in search of pollen.
Mining bees can sting but rarely do so unless they defend their eggs.
Wasps and hornets are part of the same family of insects, including bees, and are often mistaken for them due to their similar size and shape.
With over 100,000 species of wasps found worldwide, wasps are generally more threatening than bees.
Both bees and wasps share a similar body shape and membraneous wings defined by their insect order, Hymenoptera. However, wasps typically have shiny bodies and are distinguished as parasites. Or in other words, they look to lay their eggs in other animal matter and feed on the same.
When on the lookout for bees and intensifying their type, you might also find it helpful to eliminate some of the more common wasp types below.
These wasps get their name from the type of nests they build. Paper wasps make their nests from saliva and plant material that appears like paper. The nests also have a unique umbrella shape hence the nickname umbrella wasps.
They prefer to build their nests in secluded areas like crevices, door frames, walls, and so on.
During fall, their females usually move around looking for high, secluded places around homes to build their nests. Wasps tend to be aggressive when something threatens their nest.
Paper wasps are beneficial pollinators. However, they collect less pollen than most bees. The adult wasp feeds on nectar from different flowers. They also capture insects to feed their larvae.
Paper wasps sting and can be aggressive when threatened. Their sting can also be painful.
These wasps have a unique way of building their nests. Their nests are small and have a pot-like shape. You will usually see them on vines, twigs, and sometimes on your window screen or brick.
They pollinate flowers and feed on insects like caterpillars which they paralyze to feed their young. They are less aggressive than paper wasps and more attractive to look at. Most of them come in combinations of black and yellow, white and orange, and other combinations of stripes around their abdomens.
They are beneficial pollinators. However, they are not as efficient as bees.
These wasps sting but are not as aggressive as the paper wasp.
This type of wasp has a distinct thick body that is not common to other wasps. They are black and white, as big or bigger than carpenter bees. Their stinger is also visible.
They make their nests high in trees and mobilize the entire nest to defend it when threatened.
Killing one hornet will release pheromones that will attract other hornets to attack, so you want to be careful. These pheromones can also stick to clothing.
They provide some pollination, but they are not as efficient as bees, like most wasps. They also prey on insects and invertebrates.
Hornets can be very aggressive, especially if they perceive any kind of threat.
It can get a bit difficult to identify bees because there are thousands of bee species out there. Furthermore, many other varieties exist not listed above, including plasterer bees, the tawny mining bee, the blue orchard bee, yellow-faced bees, flower bees, the hairy-footed flower bee, cuckoo bees, and more.
However, bees are important for many reasons, from pollinating plants to the production of food and wax products.
Some bees pollinate specific plants, while most pollinate a wide range of plants. However, their diversity creates a balanced ecosystem.
Additionally, bee populations face various threats, and most species are vulnerable to habitat encroachment and the persistent threat of agricultural pesticides. Read more in our article on why bees are endangered for plenty of reasons why it's important to protect them.
Alcock, J., Eickwort, G.C. & Eickwort, K.R. The reproductive behavior of Anthidium maculosum (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae) and the evolutionary significance of multiple copulations by females. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 2, 385–396 (1977). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00299507
Beatriz Moisset and Vicki Wojcik (n.d) The Pure Golden Green Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura) U.S Forest Service
Christina Ojar (2002, March) Africanized Honey Bee
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.