The buzz on native species
There are more than 1,000 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 tell the difference?
In general, bees have longer, thinner antennae, large eyes on the sides of the head, four wings (although all four can be hard to see) and at least partially fuzzy bodies. They 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 and minute body hairs. While pollen can stick to their bodies, they don't actually carry loads.
Finally, wasps have narrow bodies, often with a pinched abdomen, very few body hairs and patterns or designs in their exoskeleton. Like flies, they don't carry pollen loads.
Groups of bees that you will commonly see include metallic green bees (Halictid sp.), honeybees (Apis sp.), bumblebees (Bombus sp.), and carpenter bees (Xylocopa sp.).
Metallic green bees have a metallic green exoskeleton, but care must be taken to use other methods of identification, as there are also metallic green flies and wasps. Honeybees buzz as they fly from flower to flower. They have a fuzzy thorax and striped abdomen. While quite common, they are a non-native bee imported in the 1600s from Europe.
Our biggest native bees are the bumblebee and the carpenter bee. Bumblebees have a robust body size and shape and are 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 black. Some have a little gold or brown. The top of their abdomens are somewhat shiny and lacking hairs. They are fast fliers, sometimes hovering like flies, and make a fairly loud buzz. Upon landing, they keep their wings splayed.
Native bees could fill the important pollinator role currently held by the declining population of non-native honeybees. While there is still some debate as to the cause or causes of this decline, there is no debate about the heavy reliance we have in general on bees pollinating many of our food crops. Native bees offer an efficient alternative because they are resistant to the mites that may be one factor contributing to the harm of the honeybees, and because they do not live in collective hives but rather live in nest holes and tunnels.
This solitary lifestyle means that native bees are not at risk of being overcome by large colonies of Africanized honey bees, which were recently the cause of some local bee attacks. Further, native bees and their behavior have evolved so that their actions on a flower actually trigger pollination, so you can find a native bee species that is evolutionally "tailored" to benefit a specific crop. Now that's something worth buzzing about!
Texas Bee Watchers