9 Extraordinary Facts About North America's Native Bees

Bee and Blossoms
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Bees are amazing. Without these pollinators, humans and many other creatures would starve. There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in North America alone. Many are in danger of extinction, with five bumblebee species listed as critically endangered and as many as 25 percent of all bee species in North America at risk.

Not all bees are honeybees or pollinators, and honeybees aren't even indigenous to the continent, meaning they can't pollinate certain plants like tomatoes and eggplants. Bees are responsible for pollinating at least 130 crops in North America.

Learn more about the fascinating bees that call Canada, the U.S., and Mexico home.

1. Bumblebees Sit on Their Eggs

bumble bee in nest
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Like birds, new queen bumblebees incubate their eggs in a small nest of straw in the spring. To avoid having to leave the nest, she constructs a little wax pot filled with sweet nectar to drink from. By placing her abdomen over the eggs, she can control their temperature and speed up her young's development. Once the eggs have hatched and the larvae have emerged, she will continue to keep them warm until the bees are old enough to forage. After that, they bring the queen food and tend her eggs.

2. Cuckoo Bees Steal Other Bees' Pollen, and Sometimes Their Young

Cuckoo Bee (Nomada sp.)
Valter Jacinto / Getty Images

Bee colonies have a chemical signature that serves as an intruder detection system, but sometimes brood parasites can slip in. Those parasites are cuckoo bees, which (like cuckoo birds) habitually lay their eggs in other bees' nests. When a female cuckoo bee slips into the nest of a pollen-collecting species, she will lay eggs and her larvae will eventually consume the host species' pollen and likely the host's larvae as well.

3. They Have Complex Flight Systems

Honey bee flying toward white flower
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Bees' wings don't go up and down in a rigid motion while they're flying. Rather, their mini propellers twist and rotate to create tiny, tornado-like airflows on their leading edges (top edges of their forewings) — these are known as leading-edge vortices (LEVs). The swirls of air at the wings' edges help the bees angle their wings more sharply toward the sky, providing lift.

4. Some Eat Siblings for Blocking an Entrance

Leafcutter bee chewing on a leaf
SusanneSchulz / Getty Images

Mother leafcutter bees create narrow, tube-like nests lined with leaves. Typically, the bees hatch from the entrance to the back of the nest so that everyone can leave in an orderly fashion. Occasionally, a young bee takes too long to emerge, blocking the exit and causing a traffic jam for the remaining nest mates. When this happens, the next in line will either work its way around the nest mate, head back to its cell, or eat the one blocking the way.

5. Some Sleep Holding Onto Plants

Long Horned Bees Sleeping
Django Macro / 500px / Getty Images

As you might guess from their name, solitary bees don’t live in colonies, like honey bees. Since there is no communal home to return to, many solitary species — such as the thistle long-horned bee — will rest at night by clamping their mandibles onto vegetation. Males sometimes form a group to sleep.

After finding a suitable roosting site at dusk, the bee will enter a state of suspended animation until the next morning when the sun’s warmth makes it possible to fly again. After they are awake, they fiercely defend their territory from others. This trait is also shared by some of the bees’ ancient wasp ancestors in the family Sphecidae.

6. They Have Wasp Ancestors

Aggressive european beewolf, Philanthus triangulum on sand
Henrik_L / Getty Images

Many evolutionary biologists believe that bees are essentially a lineage of pollen-collecting wasps directly descended from a group of predatory wasps in the family Crabronidae. Wasps in this family — beewolves, for example — visit flowers searching for insects to feed their young. The captured prey is often coated in pollen when fed to the young wasps, serving as an additional protein source for the young wasps.

Over time, one or more species began to feed their young a strict pollen diet. These wasps led to the rise of the insects that we now call bees. Bees feed strictly on nectar and pollen and utilize uniquely shaped hairs called scopa that allow a female bee to collect pollen for her young.

7. They Don't All Make Honey

Close-Up Of Stingless Honey Bee
Ramlan Jalil / EyeEm / Getty Images

Most bee species are solitary or only social on a minimal basis, which means that they don’t need to store up a stockpile of readily available food for their ever-growing colony. Many solitary bees mix a honey-like substance with a small pollen provision for their young. However, true honey is only made by bee species in the family Apidae, which includes honeybees and a diverse group known as stingless bees. Beekeepers rear stingless bees for honey throughout much of the world’s tropical regions.

8. Some Species Are Productive Pollinators

Extreme Close-Up of Southeastern Blueberry Bee on Sunflower
photo by Pam Susemiehl / Getty Images

Indigenous bees are the best pollinators for some endemic plants. Blueberry pollen is held tightly within the flower’s anthers, making it very difficult for the introduced honeybees to access it. Bumblebees and specialist species, such as the Southeastern blueberry bee, use buzz pollination or sonication to release this pollen. The bees unhinge their flight muscles and vibrate them rapidly, dislodging the pollen and causing it to fall from the blueberry flower onto their bodies. A productive Southern blueberry bee will visit as many as 50,000 flowers in its lifetime, resulting in around 6,000 blueberries.

9. They Are in Danger of Extinction

While there are approximately 4,000 native bee species in North America, many are in serious trouble due to various factors. These include habitat loss, introduced disease, parasites, climate change, and neonicotinoid pesticide use. A tragic example of a North American bee in severe decline is the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), whose numbers dropped 92.54 percent between 2004 and 2014. Imported bumblebees infected this and other closely related species with an internal pathogen introduced into North America. Franklin’s bumblebee (Bombus franklini), a relative of the rusty patched bumble bee that has also been affected by this pathogen, has not been seen since 2004.

Save the Bees

  • Create pollinator gardens with bee-friendly endemic plants.
  • Don't use chemical pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides. Instead, find pollinator-friendly controls.
  • Leave brush piles and areas of undisturbed bare dirt for bees to use for nests.
  • Encourage highway departments and power companies to support pollinators.
View Article Sources
  1. Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops

    Klein, Alexandra-Maria, et al. "Importance of Pollinators in Changing Landscapes for World Crops." Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol. 274, no. 1608, 2007, pp. 303-313, doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3721

  2. "North America: Species List." International Union for Conservation of Nature: Bumblebee Specialist Group.

  3. "Bee Facts: Honey Bees." National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

  4. "Native Bees." Center for Biological Diversity.

  5. "Rusty Patched Bumble Bee: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species." International Union for Conservation of Nature.