It’s the dog days of summer, and this week’s temps are projected to be in the mid-90s, with high humidity. It doesn’t take much to work up a sweat in this kind of weather. This is the time of year when I’m most likely to find what looks like a tiny bee hitching a ride on my bare arm or leg while I’m doing chores in the garden.
My little visitor is a sweat bee, also called a halictid bee. These bees get their name because they are attracted to our perspiration. They will lick the sweat off our bodies, seeking salt and moisture. They can sting, though rarely do, and are not aggressive. Because they’re tiny, their sting is considered the least painful of stinging insects.
Photograph by Chuck Spidell, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
At most a half an inch long and slender-bodied, they are smaller than other types of bees. Many are metallic-colored green, blue or purple, with or without the classic yellow and black stripes on their abdomens. Others are bronze or black. Due to their size and coloring, at first glance you might mistake one for a fly.
Photograph by Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Sweat bees are members of the family Halictidae, with over 500 species in the U.S. alone. Many are solitary bees, digging a nest, laying eggs, and tending the nest alone. Other Halictidae species share nests, though they are not as social a species as honeybees.
For the most part, sweat bees nest in the ground, but a few species nest in rotting wood. They prefer sunny areas with bare, sandy soil. The nests have cells for each egg, and they provision each cell with pollen to feed the developing larvae.
Photograph by Robert Webster, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Sweat bees eat nectar and pollen. Female sweat bees collect pollen on their back legs; the males do not. They are extremely important pollinators because they will visit any type of flower, and being smaller than other bees, can fit into blossoms the larger bees cannot. They pollinate fruit trees, alfalfa, sunflowers, and other agricultural crops.
Photograph by Katja Schulz from Washington, D.C., USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Like other bees, sweat bee numbers are in decline due to habitat destruction and insecticide use. You can encourage them by leaving an area of bare soil in your landscape, someplace sunny where you are not likely to walk or cultivate the ground. Planting a variety of flowers is another way to attract them. And of course, avoiding the use of pesticides in your garden is important for their survival as well.
Compared to yellow jackets, and hornets, which have painful stings and can be aggressive this time of year, sweat bees are only a nuisance. But if you don’t like being a salt lick, or are allergic to bee stings, you can deter them by covering up or using insect repellent. Just remember that in the larger scheme of things they are harmless, and the good they do in pollinating plants outweighs the momentary surprise of one landing for a sip of your perspiration.
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