The Beehive State
When early Latter-Day Saint pioneers first moved into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they used a beehive as an official emblem of the territory. It was meant to signify industry and self-reliance among the pioneers, but they likely didn’t realize how appropriate the emblem was.
“Utah is home to more than 1,200 species of native bees... In fact, the southern half of Utah has as many native species as the entire eastern half of North America.” -Stephen Stanko, Entomologist, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food
The Beehive State indeed!
Bee specimens that are commonly found in Utah, from top to bottom: honey bees, solitary bees, carpenter bee, bumble bees, wasps and bee mimics.
Identifying the Bees in Your Backyard
So, what bee species are you likely to see in your backyard in Utah? We’ll break them down for you in this post. First, between species that are social (meaning bees that live in colonies). Then we’ll list some native bees (meaning they don’t live in colonies). Lastly, we’ll look at wasps, since they are in the same super family as bees and can sometimes be confused to be a bee.
We'll start by identifying bees that are social, meaning they build hives and live in colonies. First up, our state bee, the Honey Bee!
The Italian honey bee is one of the most common honey bees in Utah. Photo by Ken Thomas.
Honey Bees (Genus: Apis)
Honey bees build hives with the help of a queen bee and workers. They produce honey that can be harvested. This is one reason that honey bees are so popular (they became our state insect in 1983) and are an attractive insect to keep and build a hive for.
Hunt's Bumble Bee eating from a hedge of Echinacea. Other common bumble bees in Utah include Central and Morrison bumble bees. Photo by Joseph Berger.
Bumble Bees (Genus: Bombus)
Bumble bees are also social (meaning they build colonies) but their colonies only last one season, unlike honey bee hives. The queen of a bumble bee hive will leave the colony before winter to mate and hibernate, while her colony dies without her. Bumble bees do not make honey, but are very important pollinators because of their ability to “buzz pollinate" flowers with pollen held tightly in the flower. Buzz pollination means that the bee buzzes their wings, vibrating the flower so that the pollen is shaken free from the flower. Only larger bees, like bumble bees, have the physical strength to do this!
Sweat bees are a commonly observable native bee in Utah. They are called sweat bees because they are attracted to human sweat! Photo by USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory.
With so many species of native bees in Utah, it's difficult to make generalizations about their behaviors. However, we can say that native bees are not social bees, meaning that they don’t colonize. They might nest in the ground, in rocks, or in trees or woody grasses. They lay eggs before dying when winter comes, and their pupae emerge in the spring. They can be harder to identify because they are often smaller, understated and move more quickly than honey bees and bumble bees (with the exception of the bumble-bee-like Carpenter bee, below).
Violet Carpenter bee. Photo by Luc hoogenstein.
Wasps are in the same superfamily as bees and can sometimes be confused as bees. Wasps tend to be more aggressive than bees, and unlike bees, they eat meat (which is why they are sometimes called “meat bees”). You can tell a wasp from a bee primarily by their hairs—bee hairs are soft for collecting pollen, while wasp hairs are relatively smooth and reflective, which is why they aren’t classified as pollinators. Also, one of the big differences between wasps and bees is the thorax—wasps have a cylindrical thorax and a smaller "waist," while bees are more round-shaped with a less pronounced "waist." Wasps have a bad reputation for their painful sting, but can be helpful predators in the garden. If they are left alone, and if their hives are far from areas where people and children congregate, they are less likely to be an issue.
Paper wasp resting on a small piece of a papery wasp hive. Photo by Alvesgaspar.
How to Protect Bees
There are steps that everyone, especially gardeners, can take to help protect and provide for the bees in your backyard. In order to help bees, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food says to consider stressors that bees face, often called the “Four P’s”: parasites, pathogens, poor nutrition and pesticides. Parasites and pathogens are two areas of concern where the average homeowner can do very little. However, there is much that can be done concerning poor nutrition and pesticides. We’ll talk more about the last two P’s...
Planting flowers, fruits and vegetables will provide the pollen and nectar that bees exclusively feed on. Bees depend on flowers for almost the entirety of their nutrition. They are interested in flowers for their pollen, which provides protein, and nectar for it’s carbohydrates. Planting native flowering plants is a great way to provide better nutrition for bees. Russian Sage isn’t native, but it’s a great plant for attracting bees, and it does pretty well in our climate.
Be sure to always use pesticides responsibly! This is the biggest way that homeowners can help bees, because they are easily killed by pesticides when they are applied improperly. Be careful to fully read the label of pesticides before using them!
We have two tips for pesticide application that are very important:
Always avoid applying pesticides to blooming flowers.
Wait until evening to apply pesticides.
Bees return to the hive/nest in the evening, so they are less likely to land on flowers and plants that have recently had pesticides applied to them. This also gives your plants the entire evening to absorb the pesticide and for the residual toxicity of the pesticide to go down. Lastly, applying pesticides at night also prevents heat evaporation and pesticide drift, which can be a big problem for any home garden!
Bee hotel placed in a Holladay, Utah garden.
Bee Hotels: Do they help bees?
Continuing urbanization of areas that once were homes for bees has prompted some people to buy or make “bee hotels” to help combat habitat loss. They provide nesting space for different types of solitary bees. In theory, this would be a great way to recover habitat space for solitary bees. However, solitary—or native—bees are not as resistant to disease as social bees, so having a group of solitary bees live together in a small space might mean that the bees could get sick. Because of this, it’s unclear whether or not bee hotels help or hurt these bees. Do thorough research about the bees in your area and their need for increased habitat options before installing a bee hotel.
Use this knowledge to help the bees in your garden
We hope that this blog post has helped you learn about how you can help bees thrive here in Utah and in your own garden. If you want to learn more about bees, Stephen recommends checking out “A Guide to North American Bees: The Bees in Your Backyard,” co-authored by local USU bee expert Joseph S. Wilson. (By the way, the USU Bee Lab has the largest collection of bees, which anyone can visit to see more bees!). And if you’re looking for a list of native flowers that attract bees and other pollinators, check out the Conservation Garden Park’s list!
Don’t forget to follow Modern Gardener on Instagram and Facebook to see more information about gardening, and make sure to chime in with your own tips! We love to learn from other gardeners, and look forward to seeing what you’re learning in the garden too!