Q&A with Leif Richardson, co-author of Bumble Bees of North America

auricomus PHW

We’ve recently published a comprehensive identification guide to bumble bees of North America. One of the authors of that guide sat down with Margaret Roach at A Way to Garden to talk about misunderstandings when it comes to bumbles–how are they related to other social bees? do they make honey? what does aposematic mean?, and more. Enjoy this preview and then read the complete interview here.

At the end of the interview, there is an opportunity to enter and win a copy of the book, too. So make sure you scroll to the bottom.


Q. First, can we briefly place bees, and bumblebees, in the order of things?

A. Bees are in the insect order called Hymenoptera, which also includes ants, wasps, sawflies and a few miscellaneous taxa. The closest relatives of bees are wasps, and they diverged from them many millions of years ago.

Q. Yes, I read in the book that bees evolved from wasps 100 million years ago—though frankly, I can’t tell the two apart. Are there things I can be looking for?

A. What many people consider a bee is the furry thing that looks like a honeybee, but most people don’t know that there are many species of bees that closely resemble wasps.

In general, bees are more hairy than wasps, and the hairs are branched—all bees have branched hairs at least somewhere on their body. They can sometimes look very feathery under the microscope, just like a bird feather….The feathery hairs insulate, and also aid in the collection of pollen—or so is the theory.

In most bees, the females collect pollen to feed to their offspring, so they have a pollen-carrying structure. We call that a scopa—which is usually a morphological characteristic of the exoskeleton combined with hairs. If you think of what a honeybee’s leg looks like, you have that big, wide area on the hind leg—this is the scopa of a honeybee. It’s a concave area and then it has long hairs that arch over it, so the bee can pack pollen in there.

In other bees, the scopa may be on the underside of the abdomen or on the thorax, and some bees even carry pollen internally.

You won’t always be able to tell bees and wasps apart, but look for the pollen-carrying structures, and generally more hair on bees than on wasps.

Q. How many kinds of bees in North America? And how many are bumblebees by comparison?

A. There are only 46 species of bumblebees, which are in the genus Bombus, on the continent–but nearly 4,000 species of bees total, including the bumblebees, in the United States.

Most of the bees are not what you know as a bee—most of them are solitary in their lifestyle, and not social [like the familiar honeybees]. So the males and females mate, and then the females go off and lay their eggs in a nest, and provision it with pollen and nectar and seal it up and they’re done.

That’s as opposed to rearing their offspring, and then successive generations of a worker caste coming and later reproductive individuals, too, all in the same colony in the same year—that would be a social bee.

Continue reading this Q&A at A Way to Garden: http://awaytogarden.com/bumblebee-101-leif-richardson-win-new-field-guide/