The Hidden World of Bees

What’s a Bee’s Purpose? 

    While you may run from bees or admire their humble presence, it’s important for everyone to know the roles that they serve for humans and nature alike. Bees are necessary to transfer pollen, indicate environmental health, increase natural biodiversity, and serve as a food source for other species. Pollination is when a creature, like a bee, transfers pollen from the male to the female parts of a flower, from the anthers to the stigmas.¹ Pollination is crucial to the wellbeing of natural, ornamental, and functional landscapes,² yet it also benefits humans through bee products such as honey, beeswax, and royal jelly.³ Since bees surround us and are crucial to nature as we know it, humans should learn the differences between species and how to protect their habitat. 

bee and poppy
Photo: Kathy Keatley Garvey /
bee on yellow flower
Photo: Rusty Burlew /

Taking a Closer Look 

    The most commonly pictured species of bees are European honey bees, which are social, live in hives, and work together to create honey. European and Africanized honey bees are known to be social but can also be aggressive, so watch out! However, there are also 1600 species of native bees in Northern California that are solitary and live in the woods, underground tunnels, or in your garden. While they don’t produce honey, the hard-working females mate, make nests, lay eggs, and collect pollen for their young. The males live to mate and may occasionally pollinate a flower. Some native bees don’t even have a stinger!² 

    Native bees range greatly in size and color, from tiny sweat bees that measure less than a quarter-inch to Valley Carpenter bees which can be over an inch long! They differ in color, shape, size, and even distribution of hairs on the body. While some physical attributes may take a magnifying glass to see, native bees all appear in different seasons, prefer different flowers, and display various habits. 

    Native bees are equally important as European honey bees, as they used to be the sole pollinators before nonnative species were introduced. In fact, native bees pollinate 80% of flowering plants worldwide! Native plants and creatures have mutually adapted over millennia, causing landscapes to be dependent on these species. Unfortunately nature isn’t always tuned into non-native species, shown by colony collapse disorder. This disorder, which is primarily having no to low numbers of adult honeybees in a hive, only affects European honey bees. All bees pollinate and are crucial to protecting the biodiversity of wildlife, making it essential to protect all species of bees. 

    The importance of wild pollinators has been proven by a study published by Science Magazine, “Overall, wild insects pollinated crops more effectively; an increase in wild insect visitation enhanced fruit set by twice as much as an equivalent increase in honey bee visitation.” In essence, native pollinators are essential for pollinating and increasing honey bee populations.

humming bird and monarch
Photo: Ava Foster /

Bigger than Bees

    The majority of plants rely on pollinators to create flowers or seeds, which in turn produces more plants. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds are the most common pollinators, yet bats, beetles, flies, wasps, and even a few mammals can be too. Even a human with a tiny brush can pollinate flowers!

Native pollinators increase ecological variety in their habitat while relying on native flowering plants for food and habitat. Native birds also rely on these same flowering plants for food and shelter, linking birds to the plants that pollinators allow to thrive. It is especially important to protect these creatures and habitats locally, as native birds are harmed through the loss of water, food, and natural habitat caused by climate change along the Pacific Flyway. (The Pacific Flyway is a 4,000 mile long stretch from the Arctic to the coast of Mexico.) By protecting native pollinators, we are conserving local birds, wildlife, and habitats! 

Anna's hummingbird feeding
Photo: Chris Orr / Great Backyard Bird Count

Types of Pollinators

Look for these pollinators in your outdoor spaces! These species are all present in Northern California, along with many more creatures to look out for!

European honeybee
Photo: Andreas Trepte

European honey bee (Western honey bee)

This bee is non-native and naturally lives in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. These bees are generally ½ inch long, with a yellow and black fuzzy body. They are the most common honey bees that you see!

yellow faced bumblebee
Photo: Ken /

Yellow faced bumblebee

This bee is native to the coast of North America from British Columbia to Baja California. Their wings and bodies are mostly black with fuzzy yellow heads, and they are typically ½ to ¾ inches long.¹⁰

Sweat bee
Photo: MDC Staff /

Sweat bee

This bee is native to the eastern United States. This solitary bee is dark-colored and metallic in appearance, and they often land on human skin to lap up sweat. They are about ¼ inch long and common in Northern California, nesting in colonies in the soil.¹¹
Photo: Edrventi /

Monarch butterfly 

Monarch butterflies are native to North and South America¹², and very common here in Marin. They are orange, black, and white with a wingspan of 3 to 4 inches.¹³  
Anna's hummingbird
Photo: Sandy Hill / Flickr

Anna’s hummingbird 

This species is native to the Pacific Coast, and one of the few hummingbirds to stay in range throughout the year. This pollinator is 3.5 to 4 inches long, with a red crown and spotted throat, dark green above and grey below.
Allen's Hummingbird
Photo: Elisa Taylor-Godwin/Audubon Photography Awards

Allen’s hummingbird 

This bird is native to the coastal Oregon and California¹⁴, wintering in Mexico and migrating to the Bay Area for spring.¹⁵ They are 3 to 4 inches long, with a fiery red throat, green back, and rusty sides, rump, and tail.

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