There are over 20,000 known bee species in the world, and 4,000 of them are native to the United States. They range from the tiny (2 mm) and solitary Perdita minima, known as the world’s smallest bee, to kumquat-sized species of carpenter bees. Our bees come in as many sizes, shapes, and colors as the flowers they pollinate. There is still much that we don't know about native bees—many are smaller than a grain of rice and about 10% of bees in the United States have yet to be named or described—but all of these bees have jobs as pollinators.
Native bees are the primary insect pollinator of agricultural plants in most of the country. Crops that they pollinate include squash, tomatoes, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. Native bees were here long before European honeybees were brought to the country by settlers (honeybees are not native to North America). Honeybees are key to a few crops such as almonds and lemons, but native bees like the blue orchard bees are better and more efficient pollinators of many crops, including those plants that evolved in the Americas. Native bees are estimated to pollinate 80 percent of flowering plants around the world.
Many of our native wild and crop plants have sets of bees that are so specialized that they restrict their visits to those plants alone. The most important facet of bee conservation is the encouragement and retention of all of our flowering native plants.
- USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program
- USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab flickr site (public domain images)