Counting Bees and The Bees That Count

I was recently invited to be the inaugural guest for a new podcast called The Bee’s Knees and enjoyed a great conversation with the host about wild bees for about half an hour. If you’re interested, you can check it out here.

As you know, I spend a lot of time photographing small creatures in prairies. Bees draw a lot of my photographic attention for a couple reasons. First, they are relatively easy to spot, especially when they’re on flowers. Second, of course, they’re critically important to prairies and a healthy bee community can indicate that other aspects of a prairie are probably also doing well. In addition, they’re just fascinating little creatures and I’ve been on a long and joyful learning curve with bees over the last 10 years or more.

Recently, I’ve been scanning through my library of bee photos for a couple different projects. I thought it might be fun to throw a bunch of those photos into a colorful array of fuzzy wonder. Once I had it, I figured maybe you’d enjoy playing a little game with me.

Here’s the game, if you’re interested in participating: Looking through the 42 bee photos below, how many honey bees can you find? You don’t have to identify the other species, just the honey bees.

This will work best if you click on the photo to get a better view of it. If you’re reading this in an email message, click on the title above (“Counting Bees and The Bees That Count”) and that’ll open this post online and allow you to click on photos to see them more clearly. I’ve also split the big matrix into four smaller pieces and included them below.

Here are four sub-sections of the bigger image array in case that makes it easier for you to search for honey bees.

Well? How many honey bees did you count? Five? Ten? More?

I’ll give you a chance to look one more time before you scroll down to find out how many are actually present…










Ready for the answer?

The answer is zero. There are zero honey bees pictured above.

“But Chris!”, you’re thinking, “That’s not fair! You said there were honey bees!”

Actually, I didn’t say there were any honey bees, I just asked to you look for them. You wanna know what’s really unfair? The fact that most people think way too much about honey bees and not nearly enough about all the other bee species out there!

Those of you familiar with this blog will already know this, but it’s worth restating anyway. Honey bees are non-native (in North America) livestock animals that not only aren’t essential for pollination of our natural areas, but can compete with the pollinators who are. Honey bees pollinate a pretty small subset of our native wildflowers, which all evolved and made it through thousands of years without honey bees, thank you very much.

That doesn’t make honey bees bad – they’re wonderful, fascinating creatures who help pollinate a lot of crops and are fun to watch and learn about. However, it does make them the wrong kind of bee to focus on if you’re concerned about potential bee extinction and the broad pollinator declines we’re seeing around the continent.

Here are four honey bee photos. You can see some variation, but there are a few characteristics that help separate them from other bee species. See below.

In case you’re interested, honey bees tend to be honey colored, which should be easy to remember. Their hind legs have flat plates for storing pollen, as opposed to the females of most wild bees, whose back legs have long stiff hairs for pollen to adhere to. Honey bees also have hairy eyes, which is unique among bees in North America.


While they face a lot of challenges, honey bees are in no real danger of extinction. After all, humans are playing a very hands-on role in keeping them around. If a bee keeper’s honey bee colony dies out, they can just order a few replacement bees to be shipped to them so they can start another colony.

The 4,000 or so wild bee species in North America have no such support system. They face all the same challenges honey bees face, including habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticides, diseases, and more. Unlikely honey bees, though, they face those challenges alone.

In fact, most of those bees are literally alone against the world. They’re solitary bees, meaning they aren’t part of a colony that divides labor among many individuals. The nests of solitary bee species are built, defended, and provisioned (with pollen and nectar) by single moms working all by themselves. They gather food for themselves but take most of it back to the nest. There, they lay an egg next to a cache of food, seal the egg/food up in a little cell, and then repeat that process many times – stacking cells on top of each other within their nest burrow or hollow plant stem.

Other native bee species like bumble bees have similar social structures to honey bees. There are also lots of native bees that are somewhere between solitary and social, living in groups and sharing nests and/or tasks between them to varying extents. Each of those species has its own complex and amazing life story worth learning about.

If you’re already someone who knows and loves wild bees and the diversity of those and other pollinators that keep our ecosystems humming along, thank you! If this information is new to you, fantastic. Welcome to a new and crazy cool world of ecology and pollination that will only get more intriguing as you learn more about it!

Do you want to help with the pollination crisis we’re facing? Don’t do it by becoming a bee keeper. There’s nothing wrong with being a bee keeper, either for fun or for profit. It’s a great thing to do and can be both satisfying and valuable to food (including honey) production. But if you want to help with pollinator conservation – and conservation in general – there are lots of other things you can do to help.

Habitat is the biggest need. Large, connected swaths of natural areas (prairies, woodlands, wetlands, and others) can support big and strong populations of bees and other pollinators. Managing those areas for high plant diversity helps ensure abundant flower resources too. Support organizations that build, protect, and manage habitat. If you’re not sure where to start, The Nature Conservancy would be glad to help.

Issues like pesticides and diseases are also important, though they are often tied to habitat loss and fragmentation. We need to be smarter about using pesticides, especially by choosing the right chemicals, application methods, and application timing that limit impacts on non-target species like bees. But when bee habitat is big and intact, pesticides (and diseases) are less catastrophic.

If you don’t happen to control large swaths of land, you can still make a big difference at the scale of a garden or similar small plot. Installing and maintaining a diverse and abundant set of wildflowers will help support the needs of many bee species. Making sure you provide nesting habitat is also important. Don’t cover all the bare ground that many bees burrow into and leave last year’s plant stems for stem-nesting bees to use. You can find lots of other tips from the Xerces Society here.

…Now, if you answered the ‘how many honey bees are there?’ question with an answer of greater than zero, don’t feel bad. I’ve made some very embarrassing mis-identifications of bees, including when I had a photo of a native bee on the cover of a magazine and erroneously called it a honey bee. I’m getting better at identification, but it’s really challenging and I still have a very long path in front of me.

Being able to identify bee species from each other is cool, but what’s more helpful is recognizing how many bee species are around. Acknowledging the value and diversity of other pollinators like wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, and others is also important. The more pollinator species we have, the more overlap there is among them in terms of their pollination of all the various flowers out there. Like anything else, the deeper you sink into the world of pollinators, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, and the more you become entranced with the beauty and complexity around you.


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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

8 thoughts on “Counting Bees and The Bees That Count

  1. Great post! Looks like a good variety of bee species. Certainly plenty of goofy male Melissodes! I love those guys, they’re such good subjects.

  2. I often tell students that learning the names of animals (and animal taxa) is the first step at appreciating their differences. Learning my students’ names is the first step in appreciating their different backgrounds and past experiences. Grouping all bees together and calling them “bee” is like me looking out to my classroom and calling everybody “student.” It takes some effort to know different bees, or sparrows, or gulls (or even the difference between different insect orders) but the rewards are tremendous!

  3. “While they face a lot of challenges, honey bees are in no real danger of extinction.” So true. I say this when I talk about bees: The loss of honey bee colonies over winter is an economic problem, not an extinction problem. (Yes, they should not be dying of pesticides in the first place.)
    I highly recommend this book: The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. Oh No! I see it is out of stock. But maybe a library has it. It’s great winter browsing!
    Their website has some great info:

  4. Hmmmm???


    div>I just signed up for the bees knees.  The return email, for confirmation, includes (Praque, Czech Republic). Where are these “knees” located? A new village


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