Photo Gallery: Surprising Backyard Bees

Lasioglossum havanense
Lasioglossum havanense. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
Until a few months ago, if someone said the word “bee,” I’d immediately picture the familiar black-and-yellow-striped honeybee or perhaps a big, fuzzy bumblebee—both regular summer visitors to the flowers in my yard. But a trip last spring to the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center completely changed my notion of what a typical bee looks like. Researching a story, “On the Trail of Native Bees,” in the current issue of National Wildlife, I spent the afternoon with USGS biologist Sam Droege, who showed me specimens of hundreds of U.S. bees, just a tiny fraction of the more than 300,000 bees sent to him from more than 10,000 locations around the country.

It turns out that most wild bees are nothing like the handful of species I was familiar with. While honeybees and bumblebees live in large colonies, for instance, the majority of native bees are solitary. According to Droege, this solitary lifestyle may mean they are less susceptible to the parasites and diseases plaguing colonial honeybees and several bumblebee species.

Seven years ago, when honeybees began to decline dramatically, many people feared that all bees were in trouble. Yet, except for some bumblebee species that are disappearing, no baseline data exist on native bee populations in this country and how they are changing. (Honeybees are native to Europe.) The need to learn how these critical pollinators of crops and native plants are faring led Droege to launch an ambitious, all-volunteer effort to inventory and monitor the nation’s more than 4,000 native bee species.

As the specimens I saw in Droege’s lab showed, the majority of wild bees also look quite different than honeybees and bumblebees. For one thing, most are very small, and they come in a startling variety of different shapes and colors. Pictured below are just seven bees from Droege’s vast collection, all of them found—and in some cases, common—in backyards and other urban or suburban areas.

Bombus auricomas, Baltimore, Maryland

Bombus auricomas
Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
“The long-faced Bombus auicomus has no qualms about living in our inner cities,” Droege says. “A species found regularly in urban areas, it is uncommon elsewhere.” This specimen was collected along some power lines in Baltimore, Maryland.

Augochloropsis metallica, Laurel, Maryland

Augochloropsis metallica
Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
Droege calls this stunning species “the original Metallica.” This individual, a female, was found “sonicating” a tomato flower—vibrating its wing muscles to encourage the flower to release pollen—in a Maryland backyard not far from Washington, DC.

Hylaeus modestus, Vienna, Virginia

Hylaeus modestus
Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
“A bee in wasp’s clothing,” Droege says. “This bee carries its pollen internally and is therefore slim and nearly hairless.” Collectors found this individual in a garden at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in suburban Northern Virginia.

Halictus ligatus, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Halictus ligatus
Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
Less than a half inch long, this pollen-covered female was discovered in Philadelphia’s Morris Arboretum. Sometimes called a sweat bee, H. ligatus ranges from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Augochlorella aurata, Boonsboro, Maryland

Augochlorella aurata
Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
A. aurata is one of the most common bees of eastern North America. Ranging from northern Mexico up to Colorado, Minnesota and New England, it is a “ubiquitous greenling of gardens and fields that is only the size of a grain of rice,” says Droege.

Heriades carinatus, Vienna, Virginia

Heriades carinatus
Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
This small hole-nesting bee was found in a garden at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts just outside Washington, DC. H. carinatus is “tiny enough to make its nest in the retired abodes of powder post beetles,” Droege says.

Triepeolus pectoralis, Great Brewster Island, Massachusetts

Triepeolus pectoralis
Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
Biologists found this big-eyed bee on an island in Boston Harbor. Droege calls the species a “cuckoo bee.” Similar to the bird, the female T. pectoralis “lays its eggs in the nests of sunflower-loving Melissodes bees. When they hatch, they kill the host bees and eat all of the leftover food.”

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