When was the last time you paused to watch a bee trundle across a flower? Did you notice its color, size, or patterns? Idaho is home to hundreds of native bee species, and their sheer diversity might surprise you.

Bees have co-evolved with flowering plants over the past 100 million years, and in that time they have become incredibly different from one another. North America’s largest bee, the carpenter bee (Xylocopa) sounds like a tiny helicopter in flight. The world’s smallest bee, Perdita, is only 0.1 inch long — about the size of the head of a pushpin. Few animals can power themselves on the nutrition of floral nectar and pollen alone. Some, like the globe mallow bee (Diadasia diminuta) only forage on a single plant. Many bees aren’t as picky and will gather pollen and nectar from a wide variety of flowers.

Most native bees live alone underground, but some create solitary nests in dead plant stems, or rock and wood crevices. Habitat availability is crucial to their success, and they may be in trouble.

“Along with many other types of animals and plants, recent data seems to indicate that large numbers of insect species may be in significant decline,” notes Paul Castrovillo, entomologist for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. “Native pollinators, possibly because they are being more intensively studied, appear particularly hard hit. Determining the cause(s) for this decrease in numbers can be complicated but current research suggests that major factors are probably habitat destruction (including habitat modification and fragmentation), competition with non-native invasive species, increased pressure from disease organisms and overuse of pesticides.”

From Cheerios distributing free wildflower seed packets, to the creation of an official White House Pollinator Health Task Force, the past decade has been rife with pledges and campaigns to “save the bees.” Fortunately for those moved to support pollinators, every homeowner has the opportunity to provide food and shelter for bees. To learn more about gardening for pollinators and how to identify bees, check out “Attracting Native Pollinators (The Xerces Society) and The Bees in Your Backyard,” by Wilson and Carril, available at local libraries.

And be(e) on the lookout for these common, charismatic Idaho bees:

Bumble Bees (Genus Bombus)

bumble bee.jpg

A bumble bee with pollen-packed legs.

Appearance: Fuzzy and colorful, dense yellow, black or orange hair

Family life: Social, living in colonies of around 100 individuals with a queen

Home: Underground, often in abandoned rodent burrows

No. of species found in Idaho: 26

Leafcutter bee on an eggplant leaf

leaf cutter bee.jpg

Leafcutter Bees (Family Megachilidae).

Appearance: Generally gray or dull black, chunky, pollen often carried on underside of abdomen

Family life: Solitary

Home: Nests made in preexisting holes in wood, plant stems or other small cavities lined with pieces of leaves or flower petals cut and carried in their giant jaws

No. of species found in Idaho: 19

Sweat Bees (Genus Agapostemon)

Agapostemon paul castrovillo.JPG

Sweat bees sometimes sip sweat off of humans.

Appearance: Bright metallic green or blue

Family life: Solitary

Home: Nests made in holes dug into the ground, sometimes multiple bees sharing a common entrance

No. of species found in Idaho: 6

Mason Bee (Genus Osmia)

Osmia paul castrovillo.JPG

A mason bee with pollen-packed legs.

Appearance: Stout bodied, green, deep blue or shiny black

Family life: Solitary

Home: Usually nest in small pre-existing cavities in plants or soil that may be lined with pieces of leaves, with mud or mud incorporating bits of chewed plant material.

No. of species found in Idaho: 61

Long-Horned Bee (Genus Melissodes)


A male long-horned bee on Cosmos.

Appearance: Males have elongated antennae, also hairy and fast flying

Family life: Solitary, but nests often occur in close proximity

Home: Underground, in loose, sandy or loamy soils

No. of species found in Idaho: 24

To learn more about the bug world, join us for our upcoming adult continuing education class, “All About Insects!” at the Idaho Botanical Garden on July 23, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Details at idahobotanicalgarden.org.

Sierra Laverty is the assistant horticulture director at Idaho Botanical Garden, and is unapologetically obsessed with insects and plant diseases. She has worked in horticulture in the northern and southern hemispheres, but as a seventh generation Idahoan is immensely proud of Idaho landscapes. Laverty received a B.S. in Horticulture from Oregon State University.

Load comments