Look carefully for groups of bees crowded together in the evening or early morning. They may be hanging by their jaws from various plant parts, hidden inside flowers that are closed up for the night (e.g. squash flowers), or even dug into a temporary shelter in the sand. These are male solitary bees, and although they may be very territorial by day, they become much more cooperative at night! Because male solitary bees don’t have a nest to return to at the end of the day, they often aggregate in the late afternoon to spend the night together. This is thought to be a defensive strategy. Males will often return to the same “roost” each night. Aggregations may consist of males from a single species, or there may be several species in the group.

Bees visit a wide range of flowers, but generally prefer yellow, blue, purple, and ultra violet colors. Bees do not see the color red. Some flowers have distinct color patterns that serve as “nectar guides” for bees. Tubular, bell-shaped, and bilaterally symmetrical flowers are most often visited by bees.

After mating, female bees carry a lifetime supply of sperm, this allows them to control the sex of each egg as it is laid. Fertilized eggs become females, and unfertilized eggs become males.

Observe on what part of a flower a bee is foraging. If it is feeding while on the outside of the petals, it is probably robbing nectar. Some bumblebees and carpenter bees chew or poke holes at the base of petals and extract nectar without ever entering the inside of the flower. Alternatively, look for the small holes at the base of flower petals as evidence of nectar robbing. Nectar robbers typically do not get near the plant’s reproductive parts while feeding and thus have long been considered “cheaters” in the plant-pollinator relationship. However, it is now thought that nectar robbers may have a beneficial or neutral effect on pollination by reducing the amount of nectar available, causing other bees to visit more flowers and transport pollen to plants at greater distances.

The length of a bee’s proboscis or “tongue” determines what types of flowers it can access for nectar. Shorttongued bees are limited to gathering nectar from flowers that are open or have short-tubed corollas, such as sunflowers and goldenrods. Long-tongued bees (including honey, bumble, leafcutter, and mason bees) are also able to access long-tubed or complex flowers such as monkshood or Penstemon. The nectar reward from a flower that can only be visited by long-tongued bees is generally higher than from an “easy access” flower that can be visited by many more generalist pollinators. Some small bees with short tongues can also get into deep, wide corollas. Bee tongues are constructed from modified mouthparts (labia and maxillae) that are shared by most insects. Their complex and variable structure is used to identify bee families and species.

Observe where bees carry pollen on their bodies. Honey and bumble bees carry a mixture of pollen and nectar in a “corbicula” or concave basket surrounded by stiff hairs on the hind leg. Other bees carry pollen on a stiff brush of hairs called a “scopa” on the underside of the abdomen or on the hind legs. You will not see pollen carried on cuckoo bees, nor on bees in the genus Hylaeus who carry pollen internally in their “crops” and then regurgitate it later. Both males and females forage at flowers to feed on nectar for energy, but only females collect pollen to take back to the nest. Females of most bee species accumulate pollen on feathery hairs all over their body, then use their front and middle legs to rake the pollen and transfer it to scopae or corbiculae. Males unintentionally pick up some pollen while foraging.

Observing a few key characters will help you distinguish a bee from a closely related wasp or a bee-mimicking fly. Wasps are less hairy than most bees, often have more obvious “waists,” and generally have brighter color patterns. Some flies look like bees, but they have only two wings (versus four for bees and wasps). Most flies have larger eyes that meet nearly on top of their head, and shorter, thinner antennae. Although most wasps and flies do not gather pollen as a protein source, many visit flowers for nectar. Bee-mimicking flies include flower flies which hover like helicopters, bee flies, and robber flies. Cuckoo bees (true bees) can be difficult to tell from wasps because they do not transport pollen and so tend to have little hair. They are also often brightly-colored.

Pollinator gardens should use plants that provide nectar and pollen sources, provide a water source, be situated in sunny areas with wind breaks, create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-invasive plants, establish continuous bloom throughout the growing season, eliminate or minimize the impact of pesticides.

A pound of white clover honey is the result of nine million flowers visited by honeybees.

A honeybee colony has one queen, several hundred drones (males) and around 30,000 workers, depending on the season. The queen can lay 2,000 eggs a day.

Some plants emit ultraviolet light. Many insects can see this as we would see a normal colour. Ultraviolet light is the last to fade at dusk and these plants may have evolved to increase the chances of pollination. The evening primrose or Oenothera biennis is one such species.

A honey bee flies up to 15 mph and its wings beat 200 times per second or 12,000 beats per minute.

The color or markings on a flower helps attract and guide insects to them for pollination. Bees are often attracted to bright blue and violet colors. Hummingbirds like red, pink, fuchsia, or purple flowers. Butterflies enjoy bright colors like yellow, orange, pink and red as well as fragrant ones.

Life Cycle of a Typical Bumble Bee Colony

Illustration by David Wysotski, Allure Illustration

  1. A queen emerges from hibernation in spring and finds a nest site, such as an abandon rodent burrow.
  2. She creates wax pots to hold nectar and pollen, on which she lays and incubates her eggs.
  3. When her daughters emerge as adults, they take over foraging and other duties.
  4. In autumn the colony produces new queens and male bees, who leave to find mates. Newly mated queens hibernate and the rest of the bees die.