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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Buzz about Bees

There are over 1000 species of bees native to Texas, and this remarkable diversity is attributed to the high number of flowering plant species found in a multitude of habitats throughout the state.  Central Texas is home to at least 185 of these species, many of which inhabit our yards, gardens, and public green spaces.  Bees often get confused with other flying insects, mainly flies, wasps, and sometimes hawk moths.  Flies and wasps, in particular, have similar sizes, colors, and even stripes.  How can you begin to tell the difference?  

In general, bees have longer, thinner antennae, large eyes on the side of the head, four wings (although all four can be hard to see), at least partially fuzzy bodies, and can carry loads of moist pollen on their legs or abdomens.  Flies, on the other hand, have short, thick antennae, large eyes in front of the head, two wings, minute body hairs, and while pollen can stick to their bodies they don’t carry loads.  Finally, wasps have narrow bodies often with a pinched abdomen, very few body hairs, little to no patterns or designs in their exoskeleton, and like flies, don’t carry pollen loads.

Groups of bees that you will commonly see include metallic green bees, honey bees, bumble bees, and carpenter bees. Metallic green bees have an obvious metallic green exoskeleton, but care must be taken to use other methods of identification, as there are also metallic green flies and wasps.  Honey bees buzz as they fly from flower to flower, with a fuzzy thorax and striped abdomen, but while quite common and numerous, are a non-native bee imported from Europe.  

Our biggest native bees are the bumble bee and the carpenter bee.  Bumble bees have a robust body size and shape, mostly black with some yellow or white stripes.  Their entire body is fuzzy, and they fly around in a ‘bumbling’ pattern, making a low buzzing sound.  When landed, they fold their wings neatly over their abdomen.  Carpenter bees are mostly all black, some with a little gold or brown, and the top of their abdomen lacking hairs.  They are fast fliers, sometimes hovering like flies, and make a fairly loud buzz.  Upon landing, they keep their wings splayed apart.

Native bees could fill the important pollinator role currently held by the declining population of non-native European honey bees.  While there is still some debate as to the cause of this decline, there is no debate about the heavy reliance we have on bees pollinating many of our food crops.  Native bees offer an efficient alternative because they are resistant to the mites thought to be harming the honey bees, and because they do not live in collective hives but live singly in nest holes and tunnels, which are not at risk of being overcome by Africanized bees.  Further, native bees and their behavior have evolved so that their actions on a flower actually trigger pollination, so it is possible to find a native bee species that is evolutionally ‘tailored’ to assist a specific crop.  Now that’s something worth buzzing about!