What's in Your Backyard?

diversity bee tray
This tray shows some of the diversity of bees catalogued in 2014 at the Bayer Bee Care Center. Tiny labels provide a bar code for each bee with identification information that is shared with databases at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and eventually with NC State University researchers. Some of the bees found at the site are barely bigger than an ant. Also identified are some flies that mimic the look of bees to confuse potential predators, and another kind that prey upon bumblebees.
The Bee Care Center regularly samples the diversity of bees in its gardens and around the Bayer headquarters site in RTP, NC, to improve our understanding of the composition of insects visiting our gardens. A preliminary look at the 2014 collection indicates as many as 35 species of bees at the site, and a handful more added in the spring of 2015.

Identifying Bee Species

Identifying different species of bees, as well as bees versus other flying insects, is not as easy as it might sound. There are 4,000 species of native bees in North America, and Bee Care Center researcher Kim Huntzinger spends many hours collecting, pinning, and sitting at a microscope to determine what bees are frequenting the Center’s pollinator garden and around the RTP site.

In North America, bee species break down into six families, each with distinctive characteristics. Knowing the primary characteristics of these families offers Kim a good starting point for the identification process. She also notes that the simplest way to tell a bee from a non-bee, such as a wasp, is by knowing what they feed their young. Bees feed their developing brood plant protein in the form of pollen, while wasps feed their young protein derived from other animals, usually in the form of spiders or caterpillars. And that’s just the beginning; many other factors such as number of wings, flight characteristics, their size and coloring, and more, help distinguish different bees from other kinds of insects.

While not associated with Bayer, a good third party resource is photographer Clay Bolt, who is working to document all of North America’s bees. During this ambitious project, Clay learned some interesting facts about bees. Click here to view his amazing photos and cool facts.

Bayer Bee Care Center Construction
If you build it, they will come…The pollinator garden at the Bayer Bee Care Center offers insight into attracting a diverse population of bees and other pollinators. 

How About in Your Backyard?

You don’t have to be an entomologist to learn more about what’s going on in your own backyard. To become more knowledgeable about the bees and other insects in your garden, Kim suggests starting with the simple art of observation.

“Get curious,” Kim says. “Pick a patch of flowers and watch it. What is landing on the russian sage, or the black-eyed susans, or salvia? What is quickly flying past? What is patrolling, looking for females?” Keep a data book to record observations, including descriptions of what flowers were visited, descriptions of who visited them, and the time of day. Some websites that provide information to learn about the different families of bees are BugGuide and Honey Bee Suite. In addition, a recently released book, The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America's Bees, by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril, has excellent photos and stories about the bees that can be found in North America.

An organization called Discover Life provides free online tools to aid in the observation process. The organization’s research projects offer fun ways for teachers, students and others to get outdoors and to help scientists better understand the diversity and challenges facing many species of insects across North America. One project, for example, looks at the diversity of moths. Did you know that some moths are pollinators, working alongside bats, to handle the pollination “night shift”?

Another opportunity to participate in a national study is a quick and easy survey being done by researchers at Utah State University to understand people's perception of bee diversity in the United States. The survey includes four quick online questions.

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bees feed young
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