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Wild About Illinois Native Bees!

There are about 400 to 500 species of native bees in our state. They live in close association with plants and receive pollen and nectar from many of them. In the process, they act as pollinators for these plants. What is pollination? It is the process of transferring the plant’s male reproductive cells (pollen) to the plant’s female reproductive structures (stigma and style) so that sperm and egg can meet resulting in a new plant. Not all plants need to be pollinated by an animal, but many of them do. Do the bees purposely pollinate the plants? No.

They are interested in feeding upon the sweet nectar produced by the flowers and also in collecting some of the pollen to mix with nectar to feed their young. While doing so, pollen from the flowers’ male reproductive structures falls on them, getting trapped in the bee’s hairs. When they visit the next flower, some of the pollen may drop off of the bee onto the female flower structures. There will still be plenty of pollen attached to the bee for it to use as food.

For insect-based pollination to work, the plants must bloom when their pollinators are active, and the pollinators must be adapted to the structure of the flowers. Bees are not the only animals that are pollinators, but they are the only ones that we will discuss here. There are short-tongued bees that feed best on flowers that are flat. Other bees have long tongues and specialize in visiting tube-shaped flowers that have nectar too deep for short-tongued bees to reach. Some bees have the ability to slit a flower to reach the nectar at its base. There are bee species that are most active in spring, and others that develop later in the year. Some examples of native bees are bumble bees, carpenter bees, cuckoo bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees and mining bees.

Illinois is home to some nonnative bees, too. The most well-known example is the honey bee, Apis mellifera. It was brought to this country by settlers from Europe. Some honey bees escaped from captivity and established their own colonies in the wild. Native bees were pollinating plants long before the honey bee arrived, and native bees continue to pollinate more plants than honey bees, although honey bees are very important to agriculture.

Family and Species Gallery

Kingdom: Animalia - Animals are multicellular organisms that rely on other organisms for nourishment. Their cells do not have cell walls. Most animals are capable of movement at least in some portion of their life cycle. Reproduction is generally sexual, but in some animals asexual reproduction may be utilized at certain times.
Phylum: Arthropoda - Arthropods have an external skeleton, a segmented body and jointed appendages. They are covered with a cuticle made of chitin. The cuticle is hard and must be molted, or shed, for the animal to be able to grow. Compound and simple eyes are present. They have an open circulatory system. There are nearly 28,000 types of arthropods known from Illinois. They are represented in all Illinois habitats.
Class: Insecta - Insects have three body divisions, the head, thorax and abdomen. They usually have three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings. Legs and wings are positioned on the thorax. Most insects have one pair of antennae. A few insect species have no antennae.
Order: Hymenoptera - The sawflies, ichneumons, chalcids, ants, wasps and bees are classified in this order. Those hymenopterans with wings have four wings. The hind wings are smaller than the front wings and have a row of hooks on the front edge by which they can attach to the front wing. The wings are thin and clear with few veins. The antennae usually have 10 or more segments and are fairly long. Metamorphosis is complete (egg, larva, pupa, adult).
Family: Colletidae (plasterer bees) - These small- to medium-sized bees (about one-fourth to nearly three-fourths inch) live in grassland, woodland, wetland and urban areas. They are active from April through September. Their abdomen is black with yellow stripes. They carry pollen in a basket on the hind legs. The tongue is short and forked. These are solitary bees that nest in the ground, often close to the nest of other bees of this species. They may nest in the same area for many years. They use their tongue to paint the walls of the nest cells with saliva and then add a waterproof coating produced in the abdomen, giving rise to their common names of plasterer, cellophane or polyester bees.
     plasterer bee Colletes spp.

Family Andrenidae (mining bees) - Mining bees are usually red-brown or brown-black and fairly small (one-fourth to about five-eighths inch). Their thorax and abdomen may be hairy. They have a short tongue. Most members of this group are solitary. The females make nests in soil burrows and lay eggs in specialized cells that are usually coated with a protective waterproof substance produced in the abdomen. Mining bees start flying very early in spring and are important pollinators of spring flowers. They are active from March to September.
      sunflower bee Andrena helianthi

Family Halictidae (mining bees and sweat bees) - This family of bees is very large. Its members tend to nest in soil or rotting wood. All of them have a short tongue.
     green sweat bee Augochloropsis metallica

Family Megachilidae (leafcutter bees) - The bees in this group are very common. Their body tends to be cylindrical with some yellow and black markings. Females carry pollen under their abdomen instead of on their legs. Many of these bees nest in wood but also take advantage of various human-built structures, too. They may have large jaws and some of them have special pollen-collecting structures for use in tube-shaped flowers.
     broad-banded leafcutter bee Megachile latimanus
     flat-tailed leafcutter bee Megachile mendica

Family Apidae (honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, squash bees, cuckoo bees) - This group of bees contains many species. They are hairy, large bees with a variety of color patterns. Most of them nest in the ground. Some nest in cracks or burrows. All of them have a long tongue.
     honey bee Apis mellifera [nonnative]
     rusty-patched bumble bee Bombus affinis [state and federally endangered]
     black and gold bumble bee Bombus auricomus
     two-spotted bumble bee Bombus bimaculatus
     lemon cuckoo bumble bee Bombus citrinus
     golden northern bumble bee Bombus fervidus
     southern plains bumble bee Bombus fraternus
     brown-belted bumble bee Bombus griseocollis
     common eastern bumble bee Bombus impatiens
     American bumble bee Bombus pensylvanicus
     half-black bumble bee Bombus vagans
     variable cuckoo bumble bee Bombus variabilis


Bees must have a place to lay their eggs where their larvae and pupae can develop safely. They construct nests to raise their young. Some bees nest in the ground. They often choose a bare, sunny spot and dig a tunnel to raise their young. About 30 percent of native bees nest in holes. The mason and leafcutter bees use existing holes in hollow stems, dead wood and rock crevices for nest sites. Carpenter bees excavate holes in wood to form a chamber for their eggs. Other locations may be used as bee nesting sites, too.

Solitary native bees make and care for their own nest. They may live with other bees of their own kind nearby (aggregations), or they may prefer to be away from all other bees. Communal bees are solitary bees that use a single entrance to the nesting site, but each bee digs its own nest from that point. Semisocial bees work together to raise their young with the colony only lasting one year. The mother and her offspring do not inhabit the colony at the same time. Eusocial bees live in a single nest with the inhabitants sharing the reproductive and nest-making functions. These bees include a mother and her daughters in a complex system. Cuckoo bees are nest parasites and rely on other bees to raise their young.

In the nest, a mixture of pollen, nectar and saliva is formed into loaves. Each egg is provided with a pollen loaf in a single cell. Mud, leaf pieces and sawdust are all types of materials used to build partitions between cells. When the larva emerges from the egg, it feeds on the pollen loaf until it is time to enter the pupa stage.


Bees, some wasps and ants have the ability to sting. The sting structure is a modified ovipositor, or egg-laying structure. In the stinging insects, the eggs are deposited from the base of the sting instead of through it as in a regular ovipositor. Only females have a sting structure. They use it for defense. The sting can be used multiple times in all bees, ants and wasps except for the nonnative honey bee. The honey bee’s sting has barbs that anchor in the animal being stung. When the female honey bee flies away, the sting is pulled from her body.

People generally only get stung by a bee if they step on it, pick it up or if gets tangled in their clothing. Bees do not seek people out to attack them. You can stand quietly watching bees at flowers with no problems unless you are disturbing the bees. Honey bees and bumble bees may defend their nest, so you should avoid those areas if you know a nest is present. Ground-nesting yellow jacket wasps (Vespula spp.) do sting readily and should be avoided. Bees are often blamed for the actions of these wasps.


​Like most other pollinators, native bee populations are in decline not only in Illinois but worldwide. Habitat loss, pesticide use, mites, competition from nonnative species and diseases are killing pollinators.

As an example, let’s look at bumble bees. They require three types of habitat to complete their life cycle. They need a suitable area for nesting (such as an abandoned rodent burrow). They need a site for overwintering (like mulch or rotting logs). They also need an abundance of native wildflowers for food from spring through fall. If any of these requirements can’t be met then the bumble bees must move to a new location that is more suitable, live the best they can in a marginal habitat or die. Habitat loss is a major factor in the decline of native bees, but the addition of the other factors mentioned in paragraph one of this poster section makes survival more challenging.

Pollinators are vital to the continued existence of most plant species, the production of agricultural crops and in effect to terrestrial life on earth. Each of us can take actions that can benefit pollinators, including native bees.

- Plant native pollinator plants. A good pollinator garden has native plants that attract and support native bees and other pollinators at all stages of their life cycle. Included should be flowers that provide pollen and nectar from early spring through late fall. Add flowering trees. Use plants with flowers of varying shapes. Add bunch grasses to the planting for nest sites for ground-nesting bumble bees.

- Set your mower to mow at a higher level. Leave dandelion flowers and clover in spring for bees that are active early.

- Provide habitat for bumble bees.

- Buy organic and locally produced food.

- Join citizen-science efforts to track bumble bee populations, such as the BeeSpotter program of the University of Illinois.

- Provide shelter and overwintering areas for pollinators.

- Use chemicals only when necessary and use the least toxic chemical options.

- Save some dead limbs or logs in your yard or garden for native bees to nest in. Conserve snags, brush piles and pithy stemmed plants.

- Build a native bee nesting box.

- Provide bare patches of soil for ground-nesting bees.

- Develop a woodland, prairie, pond or wetland habitat.

- Educate others about wildlife habitat issues.

- Encourage land managers to increase native wildlife habitat.

- Support conservation efforts for wildlife, such as the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund.

- Leave dead plant materials over winter including the stems and seed heads.


Colla, S., L. Richardson, and P. Williams. 2012. Bumble bees of the eastern United States. The Pollinator
     Partnership, San Francisco, California. 103 pp.

Deem, L. 2016. ENTICE Illinois native bees. University of Illinois, Urbana. Presentation.

Eaton, E. R. and K. Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman field guide to insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin
     Company, New York. 392 pp.

Mader, E., M. Shepherd, M. Vaughan, S. Hofman Black, and G. LeBuhn. 2011. Attracting native pollinators.
     Storey Publishing, North Adams, Massachusetts. 372 pp.

Moisset, B. and S. Buchmann. 2011. Bee basics: an introduction to our native bees. U.S.D.A. Forest Service
     and The Pollinator Partnership, San Francisco, California. 40 pp.

Wilson, J. S. and O. Messinger Carril. 2016. The bees in your backyard. Princeton University Press,
     Princeton, New Jersey. 288 pp.

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