Appreciating the Wide Diversity of Bees

If asked to picture a bee, most people will think of a honey bee. A few people might think of a bumble bee, a carpenter bee, or maybe a sweat bee, but they will be in the minority and rarely will anyone think of any other type of bee. However, there are many other types of bees. Not to mention, that saying something like “bumble bee” or “sweat bee” is about as specific as saying “duck.” Bumble bees, sweat bees, and most of our other broad groups of bees are made up of many different species.

Eventually I plan on featuring many of the different types of bees, and even a few specific species of bees, in various articles through this blog. However, covering all the different types of bees will take a while, especially since I also want to use this blog to feature other pollinators and backyard wildlife. Stay tuned for those more in-depth profiles, but for now let’s take a brief look at some of the different types of bees we can find in Kentucky and the surrounding states.

Honey bees are the bees that most people think of when asked to picture a bee, but there are many other types of bees and all have very interesting life histories. Photo credit: Shannon Trimboli, all rights reserved

We’ll start with the honey bee because that is the one everyone is most familiar with. Throughout the world there are a handful of different honey bee species. None of them are native to North America. The honey bee that we are all familiar with is the European or western honey bee (Apis mellifera). It was brought to the U.S. by early colonists in the 1600s and has become naturalized throughout the continent. Everything I write about honey bees or beekeeping is about the European honey bee; it is the only species found in North America.

Across North America, we have over 4,000 different species of native bees. (I haven’t been able to find an exact number of native bee species found in Kentucky or any of the surrounding states. If you know of a resource with that information, please share.) In general, there are more species of bees in the western part of the U.S. than in the eastern part of the country.

Unlike the honey bee, none of our native bees produce significant amounts of honey. Most of our native bee produce absolutely no honey. Bumble bees are the only group of native bees that produce honey and they just produce small pots of honey that are about the size of a gumball.

Many of our native bees are solitary which means the bees produce and maintain individual nesting sites. Sometimes the nesting sites may be spread out, sometimes there may be many individual sites in a small space like a subdivision, and other times the individual nesting sites may share a single entrance like an apartment building, but in each case every individual bee creates and maintains her own nesting site.

Some of our less familiar types of native bees include polyester bees, mining bees, cuckoo bees, squash bees, leafcutter bees, and mason bees. The mining bees dig holes in the ground to lay their eggs. Most of the mining bee’s life will take place underground as a larva or pupa. The adult mining bees of any given species may only be active above ground for a few weeks to a month. Several different genera are commonly called mining bees and all of these genera tend to be non-aggressive. (Note: Yellow jackets are not mining bees. They are social wasps and are very aggressive when their nesting site is disturbed.)

Like mining bees, polyester bees dig nesting sites in the ground. However, polyester bees secrete a cellophane like substance from their abdomen. They rub the cellophane like substance into the walls of their nesting sites in order to waterproof them. Many of these species only forage on a relatively small number of flower species.

Cuckoo bees are named after the old world cuckoos. The old world cuckoos will lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, much like cowbirds. Cuckoo bees do basically the same thing and will lay their eggs in the nesting sites of other native species. There are several genera of cuckoo bees.

The bicolored sweat bee is one of our common, but often overlooked, native bees. This one was foraging on one of the cup plants in my garden. Photo credit: Shannon Trimboli, all rights reserved

Squash bees are the native pollinators of squash, pumpkins, and gourds. Often times the males will actually sleep in the squash blossoms. Since the ancestors to squash are native to the desert southwest, originally squash bees would have been restricted to the same area. Squash bees probably only expanded into other parts of the continent as early agriculture developed and indigenous people transported these crops into new areas.

Leafcutter bees typically nest in abandoned tunnels of other insects. Leafcutter bees cut pieces of leaves off of plants and then use those leaf pieces to build rooms within the nesting tunnel. Each egg will have its own room complete with a leafy roof, floor, and walls. Mason bees do something similar, but typically use mud to make the individual chambers for their eggs.

If you want to learn more about our native bees, the Xerces Society and the Pollinator Partnership both have some good resources. The Pollinator Partnership even has a free guide to identifying the different types of bees native to Ohio. The Ohio guide should also work for Kentucky and most of the surrounding states.

As you can see, there are many different types of bees and each type has its own unique story. Once you start paying attention, you’ll quickly notice that bees come in all different sizes and colors. They are much more diverse than most of us ever imagined and there is still much to learn about all the different types and species of bees.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.