WHEN I SAW the title of a book called “The Bees in Your Backyard” listed in the recent Princeton University Press catalog, I thought: This one’s for me. Lately, I’ve been making a practice of paying closer attention to the insects around me, as regular listeners and readers know.
While I can name my local mammals, birds, amphibians and reptile species, I admit to using the word “bee” a little, shall we say, generically, not even sure I know exactly what a bee is—and isn’t.
Dr. Olivia Carril has that covered, and then some. She is a PhD plant biologist who has been studying bees and the flowers they visit for nearly 20 years. Olivia is also co-author with Utah State biology professor Joseph Wilson of “The Bees in Your Backyard,” the new book that caught my eye. From her own garden in New Mexico, I welcomed her to my public-radio show to learn more about bees. I learned how little the honey bee—the image most of us conjure when thinking “bees”—has in common with the other 4,000 species in the U.S., and much more.
Read along as you listen to the March 21, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my bee q&a with olivia carril
Q. I loved the dedication you made in the new book, Olivia, about the connection that being a mother yourself, and a special feeling it has give you for queen bees.
A. Just as I started writing this book I had my first little girl, and I now have two of them. But the process of learning to take care of my offspring, as I was also learning how mother bees take care of theirs—and how much work and dedication they put into making sure that their little ones will have everything they need as they develop in the nest. That really struck home for me as I struggled with the same things myself. So in the end, I originally wanted to put, “This book is dedicated to all the queen bees,” but I altered it a little bit. [Laughter.]
Be strong, mothers, be strong.
Q. I think for people who take the time to slow down and look—whether with a professional science background like yourself, or as an amateur like myself—there is tremendous inspiration in the natural world. So that just struck me.
I read somewhere that your adventure with bees really got serious when you were an undergraduate and undertook what sounds like a sort of Outward Bound with bees. [Laughter.]
A. It was an incredible experience, and I’m lucky to have had a boss who was willing to give undergrads opportunities that were probably better suited to someone more experienced. But he was willing to take a chance on us. I was one of those lucky few.
He had gotten the opportunity to sample the bees of Pinnacles National Monument in California. They wanted to know what species they had out there, and which ones might be associated with what habitats.
So he asked if I wanted to be the one to go out and do the collecting. He explained that I would have to camp for three months at a time. I was going to have to walk around looking at flowers and swinging a net for months on end to collect bees, and he said: Did I want to do this?
And I said: “Yeah.” [Laughter.] I would much rather do that than be in class.
Q. So you had to go into the great outdoors in Pinnacles National Monument in California. You had to camp for three months with a net and look at flowers and catch bees—that was your introduction to bees? That’s pretty hard-core. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, it was—and it was amazing. The first day I was so nervous, and I still remember the first bee I collected. I was so excited: “Look, look what I caught!” And of course I went to put it in the little vial and it got away. But I will always remember the first one I managed to get in my net.
It was a summer of misadventures and I did some things wrong, but in the end I had these little white boxes—the size of a sheet of paper, 8-by-12 boxes—full of bees. Starting in the spring you could see them in the boxes transitioning to the late spring bees, and then they kind of dwindle off to the summer bees. It was so beautiful: all the colors and patterns and shapes and sizes—big ones and little ones, ones with long antennae. It was incredible.
And to realize that there were patterns in there—that certain ones only visited certain flowers, and that there were all these interesting relationships with habitats. It struck me enough that I decided I needed to ask more questions about Pinnacles, and ended up going back for two additional seasons. I was hooked. Seeing bees in a box like that is a great introduction for any biology student.
Q. I read that it was something like 400 species that you collected in an area of 25 square miles. A lot of bees.
The goals for the new book, I know, were to really help people know bees—not have mere generic perceptions like I admit I have long had myself—and also to dispel some common myths about them. These goals were both in the hopes that more appreciation and understanding of bees leads to better stewardship by people. Let’s start with: What’s a bee? (And what’s not a bee?) [Above, from the book, similar-looking bees, flies and wasps compared side-by-side.]
A. With most people who haven’t had a chance to learn much about bees, if they close their eyes and envision a bee, the image that comes to mind is most likely a honey bee. That’s certainly a very important species, but not necessarily the best representative of the bees you find throughout North America.
There are probably close to 4,000 species in the U.S. and Canada alone—and that’s not including Mexico, which has its own suite of special bees. The honey bee is kind of brown, and it’s got the characteristics of a bee: It’s got two wings on either side of the body, so if you count them there are four total, and it’s got antennae that are kind of long on its head. If you look at the back legs it has special structures for collecting pollen—all the things that make it a bee. Nothing else really has all of those characteristics together.
That’s maybe a good start. But telling a bee from a fly? A fly just has two wings, one on each side instead of two wings on each side. The antennae on its head are very short and stubby. Very few flies have long antennae, whereas bees have longer ones—probably something to do with smelling flowers.
Flies don’t collect pollen, so unless they’re trying to mimic a bee that does, they seldom have those pollen-collecting hairs on their legs. And their eyes are really big and bulging, and stick out more than you would see on a typical bee.
So those are some of the best ways to tell a fly from a bee.
Q. Wasps—that’s where I lose it in telling them apart.
A. They’re especially tricky because they’re so closely related. When you actually look at how these things are related to each other, in phylogeny, bees are actually a subset of wasp. Technically they are a wasp—a wasp that has evolved to collect pollen instead of to be a predator and eat other bugs.
So for that reason most wasps have a lot of structures they have adapted—long spindly legs for catching insects, or really long bodies. A wasp has a fairly typical look that’s quite different from the look of a bee. A bee tends to be more fuzzy.
There are a whole lot of wasps that for one reason or another are metallic, and have kind of a shine to their face, if they turn their face in the light. If you’re looking closely, you can see that metallic shine on the face of many groups of wasps, but hardly ever on bees. So that’s another difference. If their face shines in the light, kind of a silvery color, it’s a wasp.
Q. And what about that expression, “wasp waist” as in a slender, pulled-in waist?
A. It’s quite common among the wasps but it’s not definitive. Not all wasps have it. If you get right down to it the real technical difference between a bee and a wasp is that somewhere on a bee’s body it will have a split hair—a split end on a hair. [Laughter.]
Q. So it’s generally fuzzier, too?
A. Generally speaking, yes.
Q. What about some of the myths about bees, that you wanted to dispel?
A. Coming back to the honey bee, if you really press people oftentimes they’ll say, “Oh, yes, there’s also the bumblebee, and I guess I have sort of a sweat bee, too.” People know there are these other kinds of bees out there, too, but the honey bee is what they fall back on.
They think of that as the quintessential bee. They live in a hive; there are queens and workers; they make honey. Those sort of things are associated with all bees by people. But in fact the honey bee is one species, Apis mellifera, and there are 4,000 other different kinds in the U.S.—and in fact none of them are anything like the honey bee. [Laughter.]
There are no hives at all; most of them are solitary, so each female by herself has to be both the queen and the worker. She’ll go out and gather all the pollen and nectar she needs from flowers. She’ll bring it back to a nest that she builds by herself. Then she leaves it in there and lays the eggs in that nest to eventually eat that pollen and nectar.
There are no workers helping her out; she does all of this by herself. Again: It’s not a hive, but she might have several different holes or cavities that she goes in. It’s often a hole in the ground or a twig, or even a snail shell. Some of them like to nest in a snail shell.
Q. Really? That’s crazy. [Laughter.]
A. Or pine cones—pine cones are another interesting place you sometimes find bees nesting.
A. And there is no honey, because they don’t overwinter—the female in her three to five weeks of adulthood, madly dashing around, gathering pollen and nectar, laying her eggs, provisioning her offspring, and then she peels off the nest and she dies. She never gets to meet her offspring. She never gets to see that they make it through to adulthood.
Q. So these that only have three to five of adulthood, dashing around to build a nest and provision the young: these are which species, or groups of bees?
A. These are the solitary bees, which are the majority—like 95 percent of the bees in this country.
The only ones that don’t are a couple of species of sweat bees that have evolved their own kind of sociality, something similar to the honey bees but not quite as evolved, and then bumblebees, and honey bees. Other than that, the rest of them are solitary.
Each female is working by herself. Sometimes they’ll form little cooperatives where females work together and there will be one best entrance, but once you go in there are separate apartments within. Think of it like a hotel: You walk into the door, but inside each person has their own little life.
They’ll cooperate in that way, or maybe they’ll nest in an aggregation. If you’re walking around—this is common in the Southwest, where there is a bee called Diadasia that specializes on either cactus or mallow flowers. These females will nest in groups of hundreds of thousands of individuals together, and the rows will just be buzzing—it will look like it’s moving there are so many females.
But each one is independently building her own nest in this aggregation together.
Q. You hinted at one of the myths when you were talking about the honey. A lot of people think, “What do bees eat? Bees eat honey?” But again, people are thinking about the honey bee.
I don’t think we mentioned that the honey bees is not a native America bee, correct?
A. It’s naturalized; it has been here a long time. I like to think of the honey bee as more domesticated, the equivalent of a Jersey cow or something. It’s been with people so long now; it came over with the Pilgrims four- or five-hundred years ago. Many have escaped and there are wild honey bees; they have become very common here.
Q. You say like a Jersey cow, and in a sense they are like farm animals, brought over to improve agricultural productivity and enhance pollination. Are there other non-native bees in the U.S.?
A. There are a lot of other non-native bees. But none of them are like the honey bee; they’re all solitary. And this is interesting: You find this also on islands around the world, where there are bees that nest in wood. A lot of introduced bee species also nest in wood. What happens is that the bee builds her little nest in Europe, or in Cuba, in wood, maybe on a ship or in something that’s on a ship. When it crosses the waters her offspring emerge the following year and have been transplanted. They’re established in a new place. That’s how islands often get colonized, and how certain species got here.
Q. I bet there’s a bee myth about stinging—because everyone thinks all bees die after stinging you.
A. That’s a tiny bit true, because if a honey bee stings you, the stinger is left in your skin along with the little venom sac. So she is kind of eviscerated; her organs are ripped out of her. She’s a worker bee, so from the point of view of the individual colony, it doesn’t represent the death of the colony.
Whereas if you think of a solitary bee, if she were to lose her sting, that’s the end of everything—the end of all offspring she could have laid. So it’s not advantageous for her in any way to lose that sting, and the solitary bee’s sting isn’t barbed. She can sting you again and again and again if she needed to [laughter], but generally speaking, though, they’re not seeking you out to sting you.
I hear that a lot, that people are afraid the bees will come right at them and sting them. I have been collecting bees a lot; I have done more to aggravate bees than most people do in their lifetime.
A. I have seldom been stung; it’s not that common at all. If they don’t recognize that’s you’re there and see you as a threat, bees have no reason to exert the effort.
Another interesting thing people don’t know is that only female bees can sting, because the stinger is a modified ovipositor—the egg-layer. So males, obviously, since they’re not laying eggs, have no need for an ovipositor and no need for a sting.
So if you pick up a bee, 50 percent of the time it might not even be able to sting you.
Q. So a honey bee can sting once, before it’s eviscerated?
A. Generally yes; I suppose there are cases where the stinger doesn’t penetrate the skin very far and maybe it can sting you again.
Q. With a bumblebee, though, that’s not the case?
A. Yes, and if you look under a microscope, you’ll see why. You can see the barbs on the honey-bee stingers; it’s made to catch and stay back. If you look at a bumblebee sting, it’s this long, straight sort of sheath. It would be hard for it to stick and stay in the skin.
Q. What about when people say, “I stepped on a nest of bees.” Is that another myth?
A. When you think about the fact that 70 percent of bees nest in the ground, sure, it’s possible. But generally speaking when people say they disturbed ground bees, it’s usually wasps.
A lot of wasps nest in the ground and if you disturb the colony, they’re going to come out and try to defend it. But bees, no, that not a bee thing; it’s mostly wasps.
Q. Some of the easiest ones to identify—you were mentioning the sweat bee earlier. Are they easy?
A. Sweat bees can be nondescript—like with the little brown birds that are really hard to tell apart. The sweat bees, or Halictus, are these little brown or maybe slightly metallic, really small and almost fly-like bees. Kind of hard to see.
But there is a special kind of sweat bee—some people call it the green metallic bee or green metallic sweat bee, Agapostemon is the genus.
Q. That’s the one I was looking at in the photos in the book. [Photo above of Agapostemon meliventris by Jillian H. Cowles.
A. Yes. There are not a whole lot of species in the U.S., but they’re beautiful, these shimmery green bees. Some have yellow and black or black and white stripes on the abdomen. Some are green over the whole body, and it’s like a flying jewel. They’re all generalists, so they’ll visit any plant. They seem to like asters, but you can find them on roses or pretty much anything, so they’re common in urban areas and gardens—and one that everyone has a good chance of being able to see during late spring or early summer. And what an introduction—they’re a great bee to start with.
Q. A flying jewel—I like that description. [Laughter.]
A. They’re just so shimmery. Another common one would be the Anthidium [photo below]—the Anthidiiini in general—these stocky bees, real burly, that look like muscle builders but in bee form. They’ve got these beautiful yellow and black patterns on both the thorax—which is the back section—and the abdomen, which is the belly.
They fly real fast but they also hover. They have these great hovering patterns, like a helicopter flying real fast and then stopping in midair. They’re really fun to watch. They’re common in mid- to late-summer; they reach sort of peak time then. They’re common on mint flowers, so they’re a fun one to watch.
Q. We talked about queens in various ways, but is a queen different somehow physiologically—is her chemistry different or something? Or is it just her role that’s different (or can’t that be answered simply)? Is she born biologically different?
A. It depends on the species you’re talking about. I believe with honey bees, there is quite a bit of difference. How that’s determined with honey bees, I’m not sure.
With some of the sweat bees and maybe the bumblebees, if the queen bumblebee dies, one of the workers can take over that role; they have it in them.
In some of the sweat bees, there is sort of this bullying in the way that the queen maintains her dominance—her place as the egg-layer—is by making the others subordinate to her, kind of bullying them around.
If another comes along that can out-bully her, then that bee can also be a queen, or may split off and start her own colony.
So in some cases I think it’s very physiological, and in other cases more behavioral.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 21, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
enter to win ‘the bees in your backyard’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “The Bees in Your Backyard” by Joseph Wilson and Olivia Carril for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:
What’s your bee story? Are there bees you can identify, bees you try to attract by planting certain things in the garden, or any other bee-related anecdotes?
Besides honey bees, I suppose the bees I know best are the carpenter bees who like my old wooden house, though I cannot say our long relationship is always a calm one! I love the early spring when low-flying bumblebees visit the early bulbs and perennials in my garden as they dash madly about trying to gather enough provisions to lay eggs and send the next generation off successfully.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday March 27, 2016. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.
learn more about bees
- Bumblebee 101, with Leif Richardson
- Pollinators of native plants, with Heather Holm
- Beginning beekeeping, with Joe Lamp’l (honey bees)
(Photos used with permission of Olivia Carril from “The Bees in Your Backyard.” Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links yield a small commission.)