My daughter-in-law, Indeah, and I were chatting about pollinators and how in the last few years most of us are becoming much more aware of how important pollinators are to our environment and our food system.

I had been wracking my brain for an idea for my next column so I thought, “Why not try and find some facts about bees that people may not already know?” We read a lot about the habits of butterflies, but not as much about bees and they can be pretty interesting as well.

So here are eight bee factoids that may surprise you:

1. Prehistoric bee fossil

Earlier this year a fossil over 100 million years old was found that contained a female bee. The bee was covered with beetle parasites which may explain why it got disoriented and flew into tree resin and then was preserved in amber until discovered millions of years later.

2. Stinky footprints

Bumblebees leave smelly footprints on flowers. Some might even say they have “smelly feet.” These scent-marks serve a very useful purpose telling the bumblebee when a flower has already been visited and is nectar-depleted. This makes their foraging much more efficient when they can avoid the “empty” flowers and choose instead those that are still full of nectar.

Minnesota is home to 23 species of bumble bees. Learn some identification tips at www.beelab.umn.edu/wild-bees/bumblebees. Terry Yockey / Master Gardener
Minnesota is home to 23 species of bumble bees. Learn some identification tips at www.beelab.umn.edu/wild-bees/bumblebees. Terry Yockey / Master Gardener
3. Bee haven

Minnesota is home to 23 of the 45 known species of bumblebees in North America.

4. Protected species

In 2017, the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) was the first bee in the continental U.S. to be listed and given protection under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Minnesota is one of the few places where you can still find the rusty patched bumble bee whose numbers have declined by 87% in the last 20 years.

5. Only queen survives

Bumblebee colonies die off at the end of each growing season. Only the mated queen survives by hibernating. In the spring, she emerges from her nest when the temperature reaches 50 degrees to begin creating a new colony.

6. European bees

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to the United States but were brought here by early European settlers.

7. Bee of a different stripe

Many people think that honey bees have the bold yellow and black coloring we have come to associate with bees. In reality, the body of the honey bee is much more muted in shades of amber, orange or brown with brownish or black bands.

Honey bees are usually amber-colored with darker stripes. Terry Yockey / Master Gardener
Honey bees are usually amber-colored with darker stripes. Terry Yockey / Master Gardener

I only discovered that I had been misidentifying wild bees as honey bees a few years ago when I was looking for the rusty patched bumblebee in my gardens. I saw the rusty-colored body and really thought I had found one and was very excited to show the photo to a local bee expert. He looked at the picture and then looked at me and said, “Just looks like a honey bee to me!”

8. Wasp out!

Everyone thinks that the insects flying around in late summer trying to get into open soda pop cans or anything else with sugar are bees. I know they look like bees, but they are not. They are yellow jackets, which are wasps. Not good news, because wasps can sting over and over and honey bees can only sting once and then they die. That makes the bees much less inclined to want to sting you.

Columnist Terry Yockey is a Goodhue County, Minn., Master Gardener.