A Season of Bees

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

Tris Hoffman’s wonderful article A Very Special Bee (published here earlier this spring) prompted me to finally get serious about being able to identify a few of the plethora of native bee species we see here in the West Valley area of the Flathead. It’s an ongoing process, but with Tris’ help, iNaturalist, and other local and online sources, I’ve been able to catalog the following species this summer. It’s the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, given that Montana has more than 20 species of native bumblebees (not to mention the native sweat bees, miner bees, leaf cutter bees, mason bees, and others) but it’s a start.

If you want to attract native bees and other pollinators, plant bee-friendly native plants such as bee balm (bergamot), salvia, alum root, or Rocky Mountain bee plant. Fruit trees are early bloomers and highly attractive to all pollinators.

Finally, there may be some classification errors in this post. Queens and drones of the same species may appear different, and there are some color variations in one specie that may resemble other species. A single photo may or may not be enough for a positive ID. Some definitive IDs can only be made in the lab or under close inspection. Please let me know if you have issues with any of the bees in this post.

Hunt’s Bumblebee

The beautiful Hunt’s bumblebee is one of the first bees to emerge in the spring here in the Valley, and they are active all summer. They are easily identified by the bright red bands across their abdomens. They’re ground nesters, and they make a small amount of honey to feed their nests in the spring. The brighter-colored newly-developed queens are usually the only over-winter survivors.

Two-Form Bumblebee

Perhaps the most common bumblebee seen in the valley is the two-form bee, easily identified by the prominent black diamond on top of the thorax. Another early emerger in spring, two-form bees nest in the ground or under plies of leaf litter. They are not picky eaters–they’ll come to just about any kind of flower.

Western Bumblebee

Or more properly in this case, the white-bottlomed western bumblebee. There are two variations here in the valley–one with the distinct white rump and the other without the white rump, referred to simply as a western bumblebee. Both are uncommon, so it’s a treat to encounter either one. Read more about this valley native in A Very Special Bee.

Black and Gray Leaf Cutter Bee

The awkwardly named black and gray leaf cutter bee is very similar to the almost as equally awkwardly named orange-tipped wood digger bee (see below) and while I’m pretty sure that this is the former , it may also be the latter. Each is fairly common here and they share some behavioral characteristics as well. They’re ground or cavity nesters, but the black and gray bee lines its nest with leaves it has cut where nectar and pollen are stored for the larvae.

Orange-tipped Wood Digger Bee

Close cousin to the black and gray leaf cutter (above), the orange-tipped wood digger doesn’t nest in the ground but prefers to bore into pithy stems or rotten wood to build their nests. All females are egg layers and they bring pollen back to the nests to raise larvae. The males do not have the characteristic orange hairs at the tip of the abdomen, so I suspect these are drones. Small, fast, and difficult to photograph.

Honeybee

Let’s give the common honeybee some love. After all, they are vital to the agricultural health of our state, both as pollinators of commercial crops and as producers of commercial honey for the second-leading honey producing state in the US after South Dakota. (But our honey is better…) Although many farmers import bee hives every spring to place near their alfalfa or lavender fields to insure a plentiful supply of pollinators, many local beekeepers overwinter their bees and chase down queen swarms throughout the valley to begin new colonies. As pollinators, they are not as wide-ranging distance-wise or food source choice-wise as native bees, but they occur in greater numbers and are very efficient pollinators of agricultural fields. And who doesn’t like honey? (Incidentally, honeybees take water back to their hives and spray it around to cool the hives. That’s one reason why water sources are so vital to a successful colony.)

European Wood Carder Bee

One of the most interesting–and the most recent–native bees I have come across is the European wool carder bee. They are so-named because, unlike other leaf cutter bees, the wool carder bee doesn’t cut leaves for nests but instead gathers fuzz from leaves–especially lamb’s ear leaves–to line their nests. In the third image, above, you can see the leaf fuzz accumulating on the bee’s abdomen and legs. Wool carders are very aggressive toward other bees, but they do not sting and are not aggressive toward humans.

Black Banded (?) Miner Bee

This is certainly a miner bee, and I think it’s most likely a black-banded miner bee, but exact information on this bee is difficult to locate. Miner bees (or mining bees) may be known by several common names and there are over 1300 species of this bee’s family. They are small, solitary ground nesters, generally more active in the early morning or twilight hours, and at least in my experience not commonly seen. They may be mistaken for wasps due to the narrow connection between their thorax and abdomen.

Half-black Bumblebee

The half-black bumblebee is fairly common in these parts and may be mistaken for a two-form bee and vice versa. They are small and most easily identified by an abdomen that is white/yellow at the top and solid black toward the tail. They are not aggressive and can sometimes be seen in large numbers feeding on nectar and collecting pollen from bergamot patches. It appears much later in the spring than most of our other local bumblers and the drones typically hang around longer in the fall.

Yellow-fronted Bumblebee

I’m a little less certain of this bee than of the others in the post, but it appears to be a yellow-fronted bumblebee according to several sources. At first I thought it was a Hunt’s bumblebee, but it does appear distinctly different and the yellow-fronted bumbler is common here in the valley. I wonder how many of these I have mistaken for Hun’t bees in the past. They are ground nesters, often using mouse burrows for nest building. Only the new queens survive over the winter, and they emerge early each spring.

Not a bee, but still a pollinator

Yes, it’s the dreaded yellowjacket, seen here feeding on nectar from some bergamot. They are not heavy consumers of nectar and are not particularly good pollinators because they are mainly carnivores, but they are known to consume nectar and this is the only one I have been able to photograph doing so. Still, I use pheromone-specific traps to capture the queens early in the season and any stragglers that happen by during the season as I’d rather not have them on my property. Aggressive and with absolutely no sense of personal space. Unlike bees, they can string repeatedly and seem to enjoy the process.

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