What is bee watching?

Observing and identifying wild, living bees.

Welcome! We are Nick and Max, two scientists deeply passionate about wild bees. As avid naturalists, we were familiar with using field marks to name the birds, butterflies, and dragonflies living around us. We wondered: why couldn’t it also be done with bees?

Some background

A century ago, naturalists would primarily “watch” birds down the barrel of a shotgun, compiling lists of species identified from dead specimens. In 1936, the Peterson Guide to Birds offered an alternative: field marks—attributes of living birds that are unique to particular species. Now, millions of people enjoy birds by watching them through binoculars, and the act of killing a wild bird for identification is both ludicrous and (in many cases) illegal.

This shift from lethal to non-lethal observation is not unique to birds. It happened decades later with both butterflies and dragonflies, and since then millions of naturalists (many of whom also watch birds) have embraced “collecting” these insects by watching them. At the same time, the knowledge and data gathered by these naturalists have contributed immensely to understanding and conservation of the species they love. We want to galvanize this shift for wild bees, too.

We call it bee watching

There are over 4000 species of wild bees in North America. They come in every size, shape, and color imaginable. Most don’t live in societies–the vast majority are solitary, meaning females build nests without workers. They are every bit as enchanting and captivating as birds and butterflies. They build chimneys out of mud, they wear perfume, they sing just the way flowers like.

Yet, there is currently a widespread tradition among professional and amateur naturalists of lethally collecting bees. There is good reason for this: many bees are tiny and can only be distinguished by microscopic features. But, as we have learned, this doesn’t apply to all bees: many species in northeastern North America can be identified in the field with the naked eye, through binoculars, or from photographs. Now we can go out into the field—a backyard, a meadow, a forest—with nothing more than a camera, some vials, and a net, and compile a list of bee species seen.

This is great news. Many big questions that remain about the lives of wild bees and how to protect them can only be answered through observation of living individuals. At the same time, community science initiatives, like iNaturalist and BugGuide, continue to amass troves of bee photographs – the full utility of which can be realized by improving our ability to identify live bees. At a time when the future of many wild bees is uncertain, it has never been more important to learn as much about them as we can in as many ways as possible in order to understand their needs and design effective conservation interventions. Making collections and identifying bees under microscopes is still essential to identify many bees in our region, but we don’t think it should be the only way for all species. It is our hope that this guide catalyzes more scientists and amateur naturalists to study populations of wild bees in a different way.

As a result of our bee watching adventures, we have learned about the secret lives of bees of eastern North America. We wrote this guide to open that possibility to you too. By carefully watching and studying bees, you can contribute to an ever-growing body of knowledge about wild bees. Submitting your photographs to iNaturalist is a great way to contribute!

Over the past five years, we have compiled and articulated field marks for several dozen common bee species in northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. On this site you will find this information in the species accounts for over 50 species of wild bees. Keep in mind that there are over 500 species of bees in this region, so our guide is by no means complete, nor should it be used to identify collections of pinned bees. However, we look forward to growing our list of field-identifiable bees as we learn more about additional species – perhaps with your help! You will also find resources here about how to go bee watching and a guide to help you figure out the identity of your bee from photographs. In the future, we plan to upload a blog-style field notes section to show how we apply the information in this guide in our own bee watching.

Please get in touch if you have questions or comments about our work.

Happy bee watching!