pollinator 101: Bees


Bees are essential to the ecosystems that support us. By pollinating plants, both cultivated and wild, they are key to plant survival, and, by extension, to the production of food, fuel, and cotton, the subsistence of animals, and the control of erosion and wind.

Everyone is familiar with honey bees (a non-native species introduced to North America from Europe in the 17th century), but these are just eight of over 20,000 types of bees. (In addition to honey bees, only about 100 other bee species make honey.) There are 4,000 species of bees native to the United States, 3,000 of which live in the PNW, including mason, mining, plasterer, sweat, leafcutter, cuckoo, carpenter, and bumble bees. A few species are social (live in a hive), most are solitary, and some are in-between. 90% of bees are non-aggressive, solitary bees that nest in the ground or in plant material.

As you might expect, different bee species collect pollen and nectar in different ways, so the greater the diversity of bees, the better the pollination! As “buzz pollinators,” bumble bees can pollinate the tricky flowers of tomatoes, blueberries, and zucchini. Mason and leafcutter bees carry pollen dry and loose on their bellies, which makes pollination super easy. Wild bees also forage in light that’s too dim and temperatures that are too cold for honey bees. In short, wild solitary bees — like mason, leafcutter, and bumble bees — are better than honey bees at pollinating most cultivated crops, and they’re crucial to the pollination of wild plants, ensuring ecosystem diversity.

Bees have been shown to be pretty smart! They can learn new behaviors and use tools. Honey bees also use language (the famous “waggle dance“) to communicate foraging information to their sisters.

When you’ve got an eye out for bees, you’ll also see lots of look-alikes, like hover flies, wasps (for example, everyone’s favorite: yellowjackets), and hornets.

Bees are under threat from habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, low genetic diversity, and pathogens. Colony Collapse Disorder is a major threat to honey bees, but native bees are in danger too. In fact, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, more than half of North America’s 4,000 native bee species are in decline, with 1 in 4 species at risk of extinction.

Get to Know Your Local Bees

Below are some of the bees commonly found in the Seattle area. Most of these images were found on iNaturalist, which is an amazing source for photos and information about local bees (and other wildlife). Click an image to learn more about the bee and its photographer.


1) Grow a Bee Garden

Yards and gardens — even balconies — are an important part of the ecosystem. Gardeners are powerful. Working together, our gardens can become a Homegrown National Park, to regenerate biodiversity and restore ecosystem function.

If you want to garden for the bees…
  • aim for continuous bloom and diversity (flower shapes, sizes, seasons)
  • rethink your lawn (maybe add clover or make it smaller)
  • tolerate some untidiness
  • join the “No Mow May” movement and try to “Leave the Leaves
  • prioritize flowering trees (which offer a large amount of nectar & pollen), natives (for specialist bees), very early and late season blooms (for bumble bee queens emerging from or preparing for hibernation)
Different flower shapes feed different bees
2) Provide Habitat

Urban bees, in particular, really need habitat. Most (70%) of our native solitary bees nest in the ground, the rest (30%) are cavity-nesters.

To welcome native bees into your yard, offer them…
  • a patch of bare dirt (no mulch)
  • undisturbed hollow stems, leaf litter, bunch grasses, and/or rock & brush piles
  • nest blocks (be careful to maintain them!)
  • mud with a high clay content
  • safe water (shallow & clean)
Bee habitat includes shelter and water
3) Go Natural
  • Avoid pesticides especially neonicotinoids, which are systematic, and can kill bees by persisting in the nectar and pollen of treated plants. If you’re not sure if the nursery where you buy plants uses neonicotinoids, ASK THEM! If you let them know this is important to you, they might change their offerings.
4) Bee an Advocate
  • observe and appreciate; try keeping a journal or joining iNaturalist
  • connect with, learn from, and teach others
  • spread the word!


  • Crown Bees | crownbees.com
    A one-stop-shop for everything you need to learn about and raise healthy, gentle, cavity-nesting, solitary bees. A local business!
  • The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation    |    xerces.org
    A science-based organization dedicated to conservation of invertebrates and their habitats and reducing pesticide use. They offer webinars, publications, events, advocacy ideas — everything!
  • Pollinator Partnership     |     pollinator.org
    Pollinator Partnership promotes the health of pollinators — critical to food and ecosystems — through conservation, education, and research. Sponsors Pollinator Week, held every June.
  • Our Native Bees by Paige Embry
    A fascinating look at the varied, fascinating, and useful native bees of North America. 
  • BeeSip.com
    Expert Krystle Hickman shares the wonders of native bees with videos, articles, and incredible photos! Get yourself a set of Native Bees of the Western United States Flashcards to learn your bees.
  • Bumblebees of Washington State     |     washingtonbumblebees.org
    Information on native bee conservation, gardening for bumble bees, and tips for bumble bee ID.
  • Bumblebee Watch     |     bumblebeewatch.org
    A collaborative effort to track and conserve North America’s bumble bees. They have an app!
  • Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas     |     pnwbumblebeeatlas.org
    A Xerces Society-led effort to collect scientific-quality data in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and contribute to the global understanding of bumble bee distributions.
  • Washington Native Bee Society     |     wanativebeesociety.org
    A supportive community where bee enthusiasts make connections and relationships while collaborating, sharing resources, and generally “geeking out” about bees. Monthly meetings online every fourth Thursday evening.
  • The Bee Conservancy | thebeeconservancy.org
    The Bee Conservancy works to protect all bees and secure environmental and food justice through education, research, habitat creation, and advocacy.
  • My Garden of a Thousand Bees, a ‘Nature’ documentary on PBS
    A wildlife cameraman spends his time during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown filming the bees in his urban garden. You will love watching this!
  • OMFG, BEES! by Matt Kracht
    A book full of playful illustrations, helpful guides, and cool facts to show you how super cool bees are.
  • Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA     |     beecityusa.org
    Another fantastic Xerces Society initiative, created to inspire community-led pollinator protection.
  • iNaturalist     |     iNaturalist.org
    A social network for sharing biodiversity information, connecting with nature. Search observations by species and/or location, and upload your own. They have an app!