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Discover the Bees in Your Backyard this Spring

April 8, 2020 by Spencer Hardy

Despite the human world grinding to a halt in the past month, spring is still on schedule. As evidence, two bee species were reported to the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist in March – Frigid Mining Bee (Andrena frigida) and Tricolored Bumble Bee (Bombus ternarius) – and many more will soon be flying!

VCE’s fieldwork is effectively on hold until the Governor’s stay-at-home order is lifted, but luckily, interesting bees can be found right in our own backyards. Obviously, if you keep honey bees you know right where to find them (hopefully). But did you know there are nearly 350 other bee species in Vermont?

VCE’s Vermont Wild Bee Survey  is in the process of assessing and documenting all bee species in the state, from the tiny Eight-spotted Miner Bee (Perdita octomaculata) to the scary-looking and invasive Sculptured Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis). Because of current travel restrictions, the “Bee Team” will be more dependent than ever on data collected by citizen scientists (like you!) through the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist right from their own neighborhoods.

Ready to help? Following are the most common groups of spring bees to look for in your backyard or nearby green space that you can safely access on foot.

*A note about names: In the U.S., it’s nearly impossible to find a bird watcher who uses Latin names, and for good reason – Agelaius phoeniceus is not a particularly friendly name to pronounce. Unfortunately with bees, common names are still in their infancy and not widely adapted or standardized; in fact, many species and genera have never been given common names. Even for species with common names, they can be more confusing than helpful.  For example, the Eight-spotted Miner Bee is in the genus of Fairy Bees (Perdita), but the Eastern Miner Bee is in the genus Calliopsis,  and most bees in the genus Andrena are called the Mining Bees. Furthermore, the genus Megachile includes Resin, Leafcutter, and Mortar bees. So, until common names get standardized, we will use a combination of Latin and common names. While it may be daunting at first, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with at least the Latin genus names.

Male Unequal Cellophane bee (Colletes inaequalis) / © Spencer Hardy

Cellophane Bees (Colletes)
The Unequal Cellophane Bee (Colletes inequalis) is one of the most abundant early spring species in Vermont. Their nest aggregations can number in the thousands and seemingly appear overnight. Nest sites are often along trails and other high foot traffic areas – look for sparsely vegetated soil with pea-sized holes. Another spring Colletes is the Blueberry Cellophane Bee (C. validus) which has not yet been found in the state, but may be here somewhere. They are closely associated with blueberries and a clear photograph of the face should be enough to separate it from C. inequalis.

Bumble Bees (Bombus)
Bumble bees are certainly the best known of our native bees, and for good reason. They are large, colorful and abundant. Between 2012 and 2014 The Vermont Bumble Bee Atlas extensively surveyed this genus, and found serious declines of numerous species. There are, however, currently 13 species in the state and any yard is likely to have at least a few. In April through early June most any bumble bee in Vermont is going to be a queen, having mated in fall and overwintered underground. Most queens (and later in the season, many workers) can be identified from clear photos, making them a great group to spend time learning about. If you are stuck inside on a rainy day and want to study up on bumble bee identification, here is a guide we’ve been working on.

Mason Bees (Osmia)
Most of these spring bees have shiny blue bodies, including the formerly common Blue Orchard Bee (Osmia lignaria). Two non-native Osmia in the same subgenus (O. cornifrons and O. tarus) have been spreading across the U.S. and may be responsible for the apparent decline of O. lignaria. Both of the non-native species have orangish hair, but can only be separated by viewing them under a microscope. Osmia are cavity nesters that readily use “bee hotels” and are sometimes commercially managed for pollination of apples and other spring blooming crops.

Andrena are probably the first bees to be active in many places. At least a few male Andrena are attracted to sap from fresh wounds on maple trees, which provide an early sugar source before the first flowers open. Females of many species specialize on one genus of plant for their pollen needs. In Vermont there are specialists on Willows, Trout Lilies, Spring Beauties, Golden Alexander, and many more. With nearly 70 species in the state, most need to be collected for identification. Two exceptions to look for this spring are the Milwaukee Mining Bee  (Andrena milwaukeensis), which is fond of flowering shrubs like hawthorn and mountain maple, and Clark’s Mining Bee  (Andrena clarkella), which is a willow specialist.

Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina)
Ceratina are one of the most common and overlooked groups of bees in the state. These small bees overwinter inside plant stems (like raspberry and burdock). There are three species in the state (that are difficult to ID), plus one – C. strenua – that is known from Western Massachusetts and has a distinctive white mark on the foreleg.

This large genus of sweat bees makes gull ID seem like child’s play. They range from the tiny, golden L. vierecki to the large, striped L. coriaceum. Vermont now has 56 species on its list, eight discovered for the first time by the Vermont Wild Bee Atlas.

Where to begin?

Since many of these bees aren’t much larger than a mosquito, and far less likely to approach you, it can be challenging just to locate and recognize a bee. The easiest way to get started is to find a patch of flowers with bee activity, then move slowly toward the bees with a camera or phone. It’s often possible to get quite close to a foraging bee this way, and your chances of getting stung (unless you grab it) are very low.

We have put together some information to help you out, including a primer to using iNaturalist on a computer. We wish you good hunting, and look forward to helping you identify the bees in your backyard this spring!