bee on flower close up wings

Bees Please

Will the real humblebee please stand up? 

The great Charles Darwin thought this would be a great name for busy, golden fuzzballs, but it’s not because he thought they were meek; he called them that because they hum. Ahhh, that makes sense. After several decades, a book was published by Beatrix Potter featuring a buzzing character called Babbity Bumble. It stuck, and from then on, they were called “bumblebees.” Stick with us…you’ll learn much more about these pollinating machines. When you hear the word “bee,” what comes to mind? The average person knows that they make honey, they live in colonies, and that they can sting. However, there is so much more to the bee. We are here to help boost your knowledge of what these creatures do, why we need them, and which ones are more likely to sting us. 

You may have seen the green sweat bee, the honeybee, and the bumblebee humming around your yard, as they are the ones we see most often in the Michigan area. We’ll focus on these three bees for now, but if you’d like to know which bees are native to the state of Michigan, refer to this chart from our friends at MSU.

Green Sweat Bee
Green sweat bee resting on a rhododendron ~ Photo credit: N. Walton, MSU

Green Sweat Bee (Halictidae): Not all of them are green! They get their name from their attraction to the salts in human perspiration. Similar to a salt lick for deer, sweat bees will sometimes land on a particularly sweaty human to obtain salt and moisture. Next time someone calls you a “tall drink of water,” tell them you’re actually a salt lick. To remove this bright, metallic insect from your body, gently and slowly scrape it off, remembering that if it’s a female, she is more likely to give you a sting. They aren’t aggressive, only stinging when intimidated. The female bee lives in a nest, while the males sleep in flowers. We’re sure they have sweet dreams. They collect nectar from most flowering plants, including flowering weeds. They’re fairly small measuring typically less than half an inch!

Honeybee (Apis mellifera): Bring on the honey connoisseurs! Honeybees are vital pollinators of flowers, fruits and veggies. The residents of a honeybee hive are divided into three categories: the Queen Bee, worker bees, and drones. What makes a queen bee a queen bee? She has a special diet of royal jelly fed to her during her entire life. This affects her physiology and her behavior, and makes her different from all the other bees in her colony. She becomes chief of reproduction, managing the population throughout the seasons. The worker bees, however, are all sterile females. They spend their time foraging for food, building honeycombs, and keeping the hive safe. The drones are all fertile males, and their life’s purpose is to impregnate the queen, and help regulate the temperature of the hive. The drones meet the queen in mid-air, and mate while flying. There are 26 subspecies of honeybees, with slight variations in appearance, bee-havior, tolerance to hot and cold, and many other characteristics. Watch their waggle dance, in which they communicate the discovery of food to their associates. The average life span of a honeybee is up to five years. 

Honeybee hovering over thistle flower, honeybees in hive, swarm of honeybees in tree ~ Photo credit: MSU

bumble bee
Bumblebee on bloom ~ Photo credit: MSU

Bumblebee (Bombus): Plump and fuzzy, these creatures are capable of something called “buzz pollination.” This is not something all bees can do. Bumblebees grab hold of the part of the flower that holds the pollen, and rapidly vibrate their wings. This shakes loose pollen that is hard to get otherwise. Certain plants (including cranberries, tomatoes and peppers) really respond to this type of pollination. 

Fun fact: If a bumblebee uses their sting, they will not die. This is unlike the honeybee, which has only one shot at using their sting; afterwards, they die.

Not all bees are bullies. Let us guide you into a blossoming friendship with our local pollinators. Basic rule of thumb: the three listed above are all non-aggressive, so just leave them alone and you should be fine. However, Yellow jackets (scientific name Vespula) are a type of wasp, and they give the bee family a bad rap. To the amatuer eye, yellow jackets look similar to bees. However, notice their distinct patterns that set them apart from their fuzzy, non-aggressive counterparts. In the photo below, you can see clear yellow and black stripes, long yellow legs, and not much hair. Easily intimidated and aggressive, these impassioned insects can feel threatened even from a distance. Sounds and vibrations from a lawn mower or trimmer can trigger an attack. Though we may be out trying to picnic, yellow jackets don’t need an invitation to come scavenge for meats and sweets. They can sting multiple times, unless their stinger gets caught in the victim’s skin, and they aren’t afraid of chasing their perceived threat for large distances (up to 300 feet). Though they aren’t fun at parties, yellow jackets do pull their weight around the garden when it comes to pollinating plants and munching on other insect pests. To keep them away from your picnic, try applying peppermint essential oil on/around your blanket. They hate it! If one does land on you, just be still and calm, and wait for it to fly away.

Yellow jacket ~ Photo credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

European Hornets (Vespa crabro), pictured below, are another type of wasp commonly found in our area. They’re slightly bigger than yellow jackets, and have more of a brown hue. Their stings are more painful, and they can also sting repeatedly. They nest in the same way as yellow jackets do, in cavities such as abandoned rodent burrows, but they are actually less aggressive than their yellow friends. Regardless of the stinging, we love all of our pollinators. Here is a fun challenge for you: take this quick quiz from BBC to put all your newfound bee/wasp/hornet knowledge to the test! It’s only six questions; we know you’ll ace it, and it will help reinforce your understanding of these creatures’ habits in your garden this spring.

European hornet ~ Photo credit: Prevention

Why do we need bees? Approximately one out of every three bites of food we take is somehow connected to a bee and its pollination. They help our plants grow and reproduce, and they even ensure production of seeds in flowering plants. When a pollinator visits a flower, it is looking for food. However, while going from plant to plant, they accidentally collect pollen and drop it on other plants; thus, the pollinated plants produce fruits and seeds. Bees are the main insect pollinators, but there are so many different kinds of other creatures in the game; birds, butterflies and bats also help make the world go ‘round. We love these photos of “Pollinators Up Close“, provided by University of Hawaii. 

Interested in even more information specific to Michigan regarding pollinators? Check out the resources available through Michigan State University’s “Michigan Pollinator Initiative“.

Thanks for stopping by and getting to know the neighborhood creatures. There’s nothing like living in harmony with all the members of our ecosystem!

Until next thyme,
My Thyme Gardens

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