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Halictid Bee BEES
Critter Files/Insects/Wasps, Ants, & Bees/Bees
By Katja Seltmann and Blake Newton
University of Kentucky Department of Entomology
Common Kentucky Bees:

KINGDOM: Animalia | PHYLUM: Arthropoda | CLASS: Insecta | ORDER : Hymenoptera
SUPERFAMILY: Apoidea (bees) | FAMILIES: Apidae, Halictidae, others

Bees are special types of wasps that have evolved to visit flowers and gather pollen and nectar.  All bees are covered in branched hairs.  Wasps sometimes have hairs, also, but only bees have branched hairs.  These dense, branched hairs allow bees to carry pollen.  The branches cannot be seen without a microscope, though, so it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between bees and other wasps.  Some things to look for: bees are usually hairier than wasps,and bees are often stouter in build than wasps. 
SIZE: Adult body length up to 1"

Like all wasps, bees undergo complete metamorphosis with egg, larva, pupa, and adult stages.  Some bees, like honey bees and bumble bees, live in social colonies.  In these species, the bees live and work together in hives to care for larvae, eggs, and pupae.  As with ants and hive-dwelling wasps, honey bees and bumble bees have specialized members of their hive, including workers, queens, and drones.  Drones are male bees, and their only function is to fertilize queens.  All worker bees are females, but only the queen bees mate and lay eggs.  

Not all bees live in hives, though.  Some, like carpenter bees and halictid bees, live a solitary lifestyle, much like solitary wasps.  Solitary bees usually build a small nest or burrow for their eggs which they provision with pollen and nectar.  When the larvae hatch, they feed on the nectar and pollen until they pupate.  A few species of solitary bees are parasites of other bees.  These species lay their eggs inside the nests of other bees, and their larvae eat the nectar and pollen intended for the host larvae.  

Most solitary bees spend the winter as eggs or pupae.  All the members of bumble bee colonies die in the winter except for newly mated females who emerge in spring to build new colonies.  Honey bee colonies are able to persist through the winter by eating stored honey.


Bees are a very important part of their ecosystem because they help flowering plants pollinate: as bees move from flower to flower gathering pollen and nectar, they transfer pollen from one flower to another.  Without this pollen transfer, many plants would not be able to produce seeds.  

Many bees have stingers which help them to defend themselves (and their hives, in the case of honey bees and bumble bees) from predators.  Despite this defense, bees are often eaten by spiders, assassin bugs, birds, and wasps.  Crab spiders, in particular, specialize in preying on bees and other pollinators.  Bee hives are sometimes torn apart by mammals like bears and badgers who eat honey and larvae.  

In addition, some parasitic arthropods (including mites) are able to live inside bee hives.  Some of these parasites are able to disguise themselves so that the hive bees do not detect the intrusion.  Read our ENTFact about Varoa Mites for more information.


Because bees are such important pollinators, and because they do not eat plants, they are considered beneficial to humans.  Honey bees also provide honey and wax.  However, honey bees and bumble bees sometimes cause problems to humans because of their aggressive defensive behavior, and many people have potentially lethal reactions to bee stings.  Read our ENTFact about Nuisance Honey Bees for more information.  A few solitary bees are sometimes pests as well.  Read our ENTFact about Carpenter Bees that sometimes damage wooden structures when they build their egg chambers.


FAMILY: Apidae | GENUS & SPECIES: Apis mellifera (honey bee), Bombus spp. (bumble bees)
Honey Bees and Bumble Bees are the most commonly seen bees in Kentucky.  They are the only Kentucky bees that live in social colonies.  Honey bees usually build their hives in hollow trees or in man-made structures.  Bumble bees often find spaces for their hives underground in abandoned mammal burrows.  Bumble bees are native to Kentucky, but honey bees were brought to the United States for their honey and wax production. 

Honey Bee
Honey Bee (R. Bessin, 2000)
Bumble  Bee
Bumble Bee (R. Bessin, 2000)
FAMILY: Apidae | SUBFAMILY: Xylocopa
Kentucky has several species of Carpenter Bees.  The most common species are in the genus Xylocopa, which resemble bumble bees, except that these carpenter bees have a relatively smooth abdomen and bumble bees have very hairy abdomens.  Unlike bumble bees, carpenter bees do not live in hives.  Many species dig holes in dead wood where they lay eggs and provision with nectar and pollen.  Carpenter bees are sometimes considered pests because they will dig holes in wooden sheds, porches, and other structures.  They rarely do serious damage to these structures, though.  Common carpenter bees are about 1" long, but some species are smaller and have black or metallic coloration, like the Ceratina sp. pictured below right.
Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa sp.
Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa sp. (R. Bessin, 2000)
Carpenter Bee, Ceratina sp.
Carpenter Bee, Ceratina sp. (K. Seltmann, 2004)

FAMILY: Halictidae
Halictid Bees are small bees (1/4" - 1/2" long) in the family Halictidae.  Most halictid bees are shiny black, metallic green, or metallic blue.  Some halictid bees are called "sweat bees" because they land on skin to gather sweat droplets.  The bees will sometimes sting while they are doing this, but only if they are swatted or startled.  Some bee-like hover flies in the family Syrphidae are also sometimes called "sweat bees," but they are not bees and do not sting or bite.

Most halictid bees are solitary and create underground nests for their offspring.  However, halictid bees are especially interesting to biologists because many species have evolved to live in social colonies recently in evolutionary history.   Closely related halictid bee species are known to be social in one habitat and solitary in another.  These patterns can help biologists study the origins of social behavior among insects.  Some Kentucky halictid bee species show intermediate social behavior: several individual bees create nests near one another but do not work together.

The halictid bee shown below right is part of the interactive key to the hymenoptera developed by University of Kentucky researcher Katja Seltmann for the "Hymenoptera - Assembling The Tree of Life" project.  This project is part of the ongoing effort among taxonomists to assemble an electronic key to all organisms.

Halictid Bee
Halictid Bee (B. Newton, 2003)
Halictid Bee
Halictid Bee (K. Seltamnn, 2004)

Bees are common and easy to find around homes, lawns, and gardens where they visit flowers for nectar and pollen.  Because of their stings, great care must be taken when collecting a bee or trying to get a picture.  If you are allergic to wasp, ant, or bee stings, you should never try to catch a bee: ask your doctor to test whether or not you are allergic.  Bees should never be touched, and should be caught only in a net and transferred immediately to a sturdy glass container.  It is usually possible to get a picture of a bee as it visits a flower.


Scientists believe that flowers have co-evolved with bees and other pollinating insects.  In fact, it has been hypothesized that many of the world's flowers would not exist if bees and other pollinators had not evolved. The idea behind this hypothesis is easy to understand: the only function that colorful, fragrant flowers serve is to attract pollinators.  So if pollinators did not exist, perhaps many flowers would not either.

It is well-known that honey bees have barbed stingers, and that they are only able to sting once: when the sting goes into skin, the barb holds it inside, and when the bee pulls away, the stinger is torn from its body.  This is only true for worker honey bees: queen bees do not have barbed stingers, and neither do bumble bees or solitary bees.  

A live, working bee hive is a great thing to have in a classroom!  Read our ENTFact about Starting an Observation Bee Hive.


It is sometimes said that honey bees and bumble bees will not sting at night.  This is not true! Although bees are less active at night, they will still sting to defend their hives.

Mary Harris from Alabama says that her father, Ernest Hyatt Harris, called carpenter bees "steadybobs" because of their ability to hover and "bob" in the air.  Please let us know if you know other names for these bees!


Original document: 25 May 2004
Last updated: 25 March 2005

Photos courtesy R. Bessin, K. Seltmann, and B. Newton, University of Kentucky
The Kentucky Critter Files are maintained by Blake Newton, Department of Entomology, University of Kentucky.


University of Kentucky Entomology/Kentucky Critter Files/Kentucky Insects/Wasps, Ants, & Bees/Bees