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More than honeybees where people live

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is the most recognizable bee in North America. The species is the branding of numerous food items and is featured in children's cartoons and movies. But perhaps more importantly, honeybees are very visible where people live. Honeybees have perennial colonies that grow every year, and the bees are active from early spring until late fall. Honeybees can forage several miles from their hive, allowing people far from "wild" areas to observe and appreciate them. Most importantly, they are generalist foragers, gathering pollen from many species of flower (you can't specialize on a single species of flower when your active season extends across the bloom period of most flowers). Unfortunately, honeybees are not native to North America and were introduced for the purposes of agriculture. Although honeybees are important for several food crops, their gravitas can dwarf the many interesting species of native bees with unique ways of life that can be observed where people live as long as there is sufficient habitat.

Honeybee (Apis mellifera) foraging on Zizia aurea in Omaha, Nebraska at the Bellevue University native habitat hillside.

A tiny masked bee pokes out from the anthers of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), a phenomenal native plant for supporting native bee populations.

Unlike honeybees, most of our native bee species are solitary. This means a single female creates a nest in the ground or inside the stem of a plant and collects pollen for her larvae. The female bee eats nectar from flowers while foraging for pollen for her nest. The exact nature of the life cycle, where they live, and how they forage can be very different for different species.

Cuckoo bees, like cuckoo birds, lay their eggs in the nest of other bees. Their presence is a good sign of a healthy and complex ecosystem. This Nomada sp. bee is drinking nectar from Zizia aurea in an Omaha, NE native garden.

Melissodes sp. bees are very fuzzy and are sometimes confused for bumble bees. If you look closely, you can tell the difference because their hind legs have fuzzier chaps compared to bumble bees and their abdomen is less fuzzy than a bumble bee. These bees can be rather abundant even in small native garden patches, especially those with native sunflowers or Rudbeckia species.

Melissodes sp. bee (a long-horned bee) foraging on Rudbeckia lanciniata in Omaha, Nebraska.

Some native bees are very tiny and could easily dismissed as little black gnats skipping around the flowers. However, some of these tiny bees can be extremely important pollinators because of their abundance. Tiny bees can sometimes access pollen and nectar from deep flowers that are not accessible to larger bees. They will also sometimes forage on flowers that don't seem extremely showy, like those of Heuchera spp. (alumroot) or figwort (Scrophularia spp.).

Lasioglossum sp. bees, like honeybees, are active throughout the season. This extremely tiny bee was photographed on Heuchera villosa in Omaha, Nebraska.

Try sitting still by a small flower and watching with a magnifying glass to see if you can spot any interesting tiny bees. After some time they will ignore your presence and go right back to foraging. If you are lucky, you will be able to observe their interesting features as they go about their business.

If you want to support more species of native bees in your yard, school, or park, it is important to have native flowers blooming throughout the season. Like honeybees, some native bee species are active throughout the year and need continuous forage to survive and provision their nests.

Zizia aurea (golden Alexander) supports many species of spring foraging bees, including several specialists.

Early season blooms in the Great Plains include many shrubs and trees (like willows and maple trees), as well as pasque flower. By mid spring, flowers such as Zizia aurea (Golden Alexander) and Aquilegia canadensis (columbine) are some important blooming species before the cacophony of summer hits.

Megachile sp. bees can be identified by their abdomen in the air posture. This one is on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

In the middle of the summer, milkweed (Asclepias spp.), Liatris spp., Monarda fistulosa, Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master), and many other plant species support a vast diversity of interesting native bee species. Some of my favorites are the leafcutter bees (Megachilidae). Leafcutter bees cut leaves and roll them into a sort of blanket for their larvae. I have found milkweed plants to be particularly attractive to leafcutter bees.

It is easy to spot the signature leafcutter patterns in broadleaf plants. If you see these patterns, leafcutter bees are nesting nearby.

As the summer comes to a close, blooms of Solidago spp. (goldenrod) in the early fall and Symphyotrichum spp. (native asters) extend until the frost limits all bee activity.

Halictus ligatus sweat bee forages on Solidago flexicaulis (Zigzag goldenrod) in Omaha, Nebraska.

A halictid sweat bee rests between foraging on the petals of a native aster (Symphyotrichum sp.).

Next to honeybees, bumble bees might be the most iconic bees on our continent. There are many species of native bumble bee (in this genus Bombus) in the United States. They are particularly lovable due to their chubby form and fuzzy bodies. Unlike most of our native bees, bumble bees have social colonies similar to honeybees. However, bumble bees colonies only last a single year. Queen bumble bees need to overwinter in leaves or thatch and will emerge in early spring to stock up on resources from early blooming plants. Then, the queen will start a new nest that will expand throughout the year.

A bumble bee (Bombus sp.) nectaring on Rudbeckia lanciniata.

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