The Secret Life on a Tree—Part One: Bees

The Secret Life on a Tree—Part One: Bees

This three-part series in honor of Earth Day 2020 is brought to you by Smokies Live and Discover Life in America. Other parts of the series can be found here:

Part Two: Other Insects and Arthropods

Part Three: Mysteries

By Will Kuhn, Director of Science and Research at Discover Life in America. All photos by Will Kuhn.

Like many of us, I’ve spent most of my time over the past few weeks at home. But that’s okay: the weather has been gorgeous, warm and sunny, and everything in our yard is greening up. As an entomologist, I have been drawn outside to see what bugs and critters are emerging.

In my backyard, there is a tree—let’s call her Mabel. Mabel is an ornamental pear or plum planted by the previous owners. She’s squat, skews a little to one side, and every spring she explodes with white flowers and absolutely buzzes with insect activity.

Mabel, the ornamental tree and veritable menagerie

While admiring Mabel’s crop of blossoms last year, I noticed that there were many shapes and sizes of bees frantically flitting between her branches. I wondered just how many different kinds there were and started collecting them to find out. I figured I’d find half a dozen or so different bee species. I found 18!

Mabel was host to at least 18 different kinds of bees, sipping her nectar and collecting her pollen, all at the same time! There were the familiar honey bees and a few carpenter bees dive-bombing my head when I walked by. There were also tiny metallic green bees, fluffy mason bees, a variety of mining bees, a couple of bumblebee species, and even some wasp-like nomad bees.

This year, Mabel’s annual blossom explosion occurred just as I started working from home due to COVID-19. I’ve spent a lot of my extra home time admiring the life around this tree and have become obsessed with documenting everything I can find on iNaturalist. Every morning, lunch, and evening, I grab my phone, stroll over to her, and photograph whatever I see—and there is so much to see!

Here is a selection of some of the 50+ lifeforms that I’ve found on and around my dear Mabel with some musings about each. There are bees, other insects and arthropods, some fungi, and even a few mysteries. Follow me down the rabbit hole!

Want to document the life around your own backyard Mabel? Check out Aaron Searcy’s article about how you can with the iNaturalist app.


Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) – Although we think of this species as the quintessential bee, this species is not native to North America but instead was introduced from Europe. This friend has collected yellow pollen on special hairs on her hindleg, which will be used to feed bee larvae back in her hive.
Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) male – This large and very curious bee is ubiquitous this time of year, and their tendency to fly in one’s face can be frightening. Interestingly though, males are usually the ones doing the face-flying, and they do not sting. (In fact, this goes for all male ants, bees, and wasps.) You can tell eastern carpenter bee males apart by the white spot on their face.
Taurus mason bee (Osmia taurus) – This adorable fluffball gets its name from the little horn-like projections just above its mandibles. It’s another non-native species but is widely distributed across much of the eastern US. Mason bees use mud to create cells in hollow twigs, laying an egg in each cell and packing it with pollen as baby food.
Carlin’s mining bee (Andrena carlini) – Mining bees are so named because they dig nest burrows in the soil and pack them with pollen to feed their young. This species gets its name from Carlinville, IL, where it was discovered.
Unknown mining bee (Andrena sp.) – There are myriad species of mining bees (450+ in North America), and I can’t identify this little friend. But look at that white moustache and those chompers!
Ligated furrow bee (Halictus ligatus) – This very tiny friend is only slightly longer than a grain of rice. It belongs to a family of small bees known for their metallic green coloration; however, this species and its close relatives lack such flashiness.
Nomad bee (Nomada sp.) – These waspy-looking bees are cleptoparasites of other bee species: they lay their eggs in nests made by their host, and their larvae hatch and feast on the other bee’s pollen stores. Each nomad bee species is specific to a particular host bee species. I wonder which bee this friend is cleptoparasitizing.

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