bees as pollinators

A honeybee pollinating native butterfly weed. Photo: Martin LaBar/Flickr


Did you know when a honey bee stings you, it usually dies? And it’s always a female? So the honey bee really doesn’t want to sting you.
And while bumble bees can also sting (and not die), they are pretty docile and really don’t want anything to do with us. So why does the honey bee die and the bumble bee doesn’t? The honey bee has barbs on its stinger, unlike most other bees, which pull part of its body off when it flies away. Kinda disgusting but that’s the way Mother Nature works.
Welcome to the fascinating world of bees, one of our most misunderstood underdog species. And while honey bees are not native to the United States, the European honey bee is one of our biggest pollinators. Interesting!

What is a pollinator?

bees as pollinators

A bee covered in pollen (all the yellow stuff). Photo: USGS Bee Inventory/Flickr

Bees are our most important pollinators. Ok, let’s back up. What exactly is a pollinator? Well, when an insect, or other animal, moves from flower to flower looking for food, they spread pollen (the yellow stuff) between the flowers. This fertilizes the plant allowing it to make baby plants.

Are bees the only animal that pollinates? Nope!  Lots of other insects and animals pollinate. Can you name a few? How about bats, flies, lizards, hummingbirds and butterflies? They all pollinate, but I digress. But to learn more about how these animals pollinate, check out our blog Amazing Pollinators in the Garden.
bees as pollinators

Blueberries are just one of many foods pollinated by bees

What do bees pollinate?

Bees pollinate a lot of the fruits and vegetables we eat. In fact, one-third. Apples, watermelon, peppers, blueberries, and almonds, to name a few.

And they pollinate many of our native plants, which produce the berries and nuts our wildlife eats. Birds like thrushes and cardinals, bears, opossums and almost all wildlife eat pollinated food. Even cows eat alfalfa pollinated by bees. So a world without bees would be a very boring, unhealthy place.

How do bees help baby birds?

And by pollinating our native plants, pollinators make baby birds possible. What? Why is that? Baby birds generally only eat caterpillars when they are firstborn. And caterpillars for the most part only eat native plants.
No native plants, no caterpillars, no baby birds and that would be very sad indeed!
bees as pollinators

Baby bluebirds only eat caterpillars when they are young. Catapillrs only eat native plants which are pollinated by bees. Photo: Mark Theriot/Flickr


bees as pollinators

A bee can smell better than a sniffer dog. Photo: Corrie Woods

Bees as pollinators and a million questions!

So now I have a million questions. Why do bumblebees buzz? And this is cool. They are producing a sound wave to shake the pollen off of a flower onto their bodies. Pretty clever!
How do you tell a carpenter bee from a bumble bee? This is cool. A carpenter bee has a shiney hiney and a bumble bee has a fuzzy butt. Kids love to talk about butts so this is a favorite topic when we teach kids about pollinators.

How do they know which flower has nectar?  Ah, they have an amazing sense of smell, even better than sniffer dogs. In some studies, bees have been trained to detect explosives and even diseases in humans. So finding a flower is easy. Wow, this is way cool.

Where do bees go in the winter?

bee hive with honey bees

Honeybees hunker in their hive in the winter.

And where do they go in the winter? Many native bees overwinter in small holes in the ground, in piles of dead leaves or in the woody stems of dead flowers.

Honey bees hunker in their hive during the colder months with a typical hive having 50,000 bees. In the hive, the entire community of bees work together. Each bee inherently understands the health of the hive is based on communal work, not the individual bee. A great example for all of us humans. We are all connected on this planet and can accomplish a lot more by working together. But you already knew that.

And here’s an interesting statistic. It takes honey bees 55,000 flight hours to make one jar of honey. But the coolest thing about honey bees is their dance. It’s called the waggle, and they dance in a figure eight to tell their co-workers where to find food. So do the waggle! Maybe we can even go viral!

How can you help our bees?

bees as pollinators

A bumblebee enjoying some nectar while also pollinating a flower. Photo: Corrie Woods

Leave leaves in your yard in the winter, limit the use of pesticides, or better yet, don’t use them. Pesticides kill all the bugs, not just the ones you don’t want.

And plant native flowers. If you are interested in native plants, check out the Gardening for Life Project at

Look for plants like milkweed, coneflower, asters, and native grasses. With over 3,900 native plants in NC, you can surely find some you like. And remember, you will be helping the bees and other pollinators, plus all those baby birds! Buzz, buzz.

Learn more

A native pollinator plant

Bees love native plants like this Indian Pink. And it is also a favorite of hummingbirds! Photo: USGS Bee Inventory/Flickr

For recommendations on native plants that help bees as pollinators, check out Pollinator-Friendly Native Plant Lists by Xerces.

For great free downloadable photos of native bees, have fun researching The Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.


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