Meet Chicago's Native Bees
When you hear the word “bee,” what do you picture? Probably a black and yellow flying insect. But is it round and fuzzy or sleek with a stinger? Are you scared or charmed? Do you think honey or hive? The most commonly known bees, honey bees, are just the tip of the iceberg. There are more than 20,000 known species of bees in the world! Illinois is home to an estimated 400 to 500 of these insects, which range in size, color, and their relationships to our region’s plants. All of them are pollinators, which means they help wildflowers, food crops, and more reproduce.
Plants need a little help making more of themselves because, unlike humans and bees, they’re basically stuck in one place. Thankfully, a lot of them have flowers. Bees and other pollinators—like butterflies, beetles, bats, and birds—visit those flowers to feast on their nectar (carbs) and pollen (protein). When an insect interacts with the reproductive parts of a flower, they typically get covered in pollen. They then end up leaving some of this pollen either on different parts of the same flower, or on other flowers they visit for food throughout the day. Either way, pollen grains then get deposited on the female parts of flowers, fertilizing them. This allows the flower to eventually bear fruit that contains seeds, continuing the plant's life cycle.
Here are a few lesser-known bees you might see flitting from flower to flower around the Chicago area. One species omitted from the list is the honey bee. That's because this species, while common, actually isn't native to North America.
How to spot them: They are tiny bees—often no bigger than a pea (3-13 mm)—but some can be quite eye-catching with their metallic, jewel-tone coloring. Sweat bees are generalists, which means they’re resourceful and not too picky about which plants they visit.
What they do: They might land on you, but it’s not to sting! They just want to lick you. Sweat bees are attracted to human sweat for its salt and minerals. Only the females sting. In general, they’re not aggressive unless startled.
Where they live: They live alone or in groups of nests in well-drained soil. Some species prefer rotting wood.
How to spot them: There are small carpenter bees (2-9 mm) and big carpenter bees (13-24 mm). The small ones are metallic blue, hairless, and may have a distinctive white marking on their face. The large carpenter bees have fuzzy abdomens and hairless butts.
What they do: Males might chase you if you approach their home, but fear not! They don’t have stingers. The females do have stingers but don’t often use them.
Where they live: These bees get their name from their tendency to burrow into rotting wood or woody plant stems to create a cavity. Some are loners, others live in multigenerational nests, and still others live around lots of neighbors, but doing their own thing.
How to spot them: These wasp-looking generalist bees range in length from teeny tiny (2 mm) to medium-sized (18 mm).
What they do: Cuckoo bees collect nectar but not pollen.
Where they live: Well, this is awkward. Like cuckoo birds, they don’t have nests of their own. They lay their eggs in the nests of other bees so that their larvae are fed and cared for by the host—a reproductive strategy known as brood parasitism. Some cuckoo bees are specialists, which means they only parasitize bees from a specific genus.
How to spot them: These typically fuzzy bees range in size from pencil eraser- (7 mm) to earbud-sized (29 mm). Like sweat bees, they’re generalists.
What they do: Bumble bees are important pollinators for many agricultural crops. They do what’s called “buzz pollination,” vibrating at a high frequency to remove and collect pollen. Food plants like blueberries and tomatoes need buzz pollination to extract pollen from their flowers.
Where they live: They create social, annual colonies above ground in places like rodent holes, under plant debris, and in other cavities that provide insulation.
These round, fuzzy bees are quite charismatic. Watch a common eastern bumble bee work its way into a bottle gentian flower in the video below.
How to help bees
Bee houses, which provide habitat, are sometimes proposed as a solution to the decline of native bee populations. But mass-produced bee houses can do more harm than good when pests, mold, fungus, and disease develop inside them. What’s more, about 70 percent of bees are actually ground nesters, meaning they build their nests in shallow burrows in the soil. The best option to support bees is to plant native plants and limit your lawn cleanup. Instead of clearing yard debris (leaves, branches, etc.), leave it on the ground or gather it in a pile to provide the ideal habitat for native bees. Learn more about bee houses from evolutionary biologist Colin Purrington.
The Field Museum’s Monarch Community Science Project focuses on butterflies, but the findings are meant to help all pollinators, including bees. It’s a great way to get involved and get outside. No previous experience—or yard—necessary!
Learn more about bees and other pollinators
- Pollinator Conservation Program | Xerces Society
- The Buzz on Native Bees | US Geological Survey
- The ABCs of Our Native Bees | Chicago Botanic Garden
- Native Bees | Department of Natural Resources
- Pollinator Partnership
- Common Wild Bee Genera of Illinois, USA | Field Guides
This post was authored by Imeña Valdes, the Maxwell/Hanrahan Integrated Intern in the Keller Science Action Center.