People can observe a wide variety of native bees without fear of being stung.
Good Natured: Peaceable Pollinators
April 21, 2023
Last week when we explored the life of Colletes, or cellophane bees, we saw how they are some of our area’s most beneficial insects. But there are many, many more.
Somewhere between 400 and 500 bee species call Illinois home. Of these, about 70% live in the ground, either as solitary bees (one bee, one hole) or, in the case of our bumble bees, in colonies (one colony with a queen and up to a few hundred workers).
As our weather warms, many of these bees are up and flying about–and causing folks a fair amount of worry.
For as long as people and bees have co-existed, we humans have carried a healthy respect for these little insects. I wish I could say it was because of our deep awe for the ecological services they provide. Like how much we appreciate the way their tunnel nests aerate our soil. And how we revere that, when collecting pollen with their stiff hairs or slurping nectar with their little tongues, they pollinate our flowers and ensure future generations of plants.
What we respect about bees, more often than not, has to do their hind ends.
As soon as the discussion turns to human-bee interactions, the subject of stings comes up. Can our solitary, ground-nesting bees sting? Yes…and no. Some species can give a noticeable poke, while others have stingers too weak to penetrate human skin.
But here’s the thing: Even those that can sting seldom do. Because of their solitary way of life, they have no queen or colony to protect. Instead of stinging in defense, they simply fly away.
(Oh boy, time for sidenote… I have a feeling that yellowjackets may have given ground bees a bad name. Yellowjackets also nest in the ground, but that’s where the similarity ends. As wasps, the primary ecological service they provide is insect control. They gather and chew up various types of arthropods to feed to their growing larvae. But what they’re really known for is their keen defense. They have stingers and aren’t afraid to use them in reaction to footsteps, gestures and pretty much any other vibration or movement. All that action though will have to wait until later in summer as, at least in our area, yellowjacket queens are just emerging and colonies have yet to form.)
Let’s see now, where were we? Ah yes, bees that nest in the ground. Right now most of what we’re seeing are the Colletidae, a family that includes the cellophane or polyester bees we learned about last week, and the Andrenidae, a much larger group that includes the miner bees. This latter family, by the way, contains Andrena vicina, a species with perhaps one of the best common names ever: the neighborly miner. Even better, they are pretty common in our area!
As spring progresses, even more native bees will start to appear. Some will be members of Halictidae, the family that includes the gorgeous metallic green sweat bees; in June and July we see ample aggregations of these bees in the sandy soils of the Hickory Knolls Natural Area in St. Charles.
Others will be Apidae, the family that besides honey bees includes bumble bees as well as the small and large carpenter bees. (Sidenote No. 2: Female carpenter bees don’t nest in the ground, but rather create holes in wood. However it’s often the males that get people’s attention. These large fellows, which have a light patch on their face, patrol the zone surrounding the females’ nest chambers, and buzz in a loud and intimidating matter. They’re all bluff though; as males, they couldn’t sting even if they tried.)
Then we have the Megachilidae, which include the mason and leafcutter bees. These bees make up a significant portion of that other 30% of our native bee species-those that nest in plant stems and other above-ground spaces. The masons use mud and the leafcutters use, yes, bits of leaves, to construct nest chambers in already-existing holes.
In a quest to learn more about this wonderfully diverse group of insects, I’ve walked among dozens of holes in the ground; stood on a ladder, inches away from the entrance to a carpenter bee nest; laid next to holey logs being investigated by mason bees; and stuck my video camera, quietly, into an old birdfeeder that housed a bumble bee colony. And you know what? I am 100% unscathed.
I hope you can find some time soon to celebrate these peaceable pollinators. Head for a nearby natural area, on a day where the sun is warm and the wind is calm. Watch for insects visiting flowers, or circling close to the ground. Then let the party begin–a spring fling, without a sting!
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at email@example.com.