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Bees are among some of the most abundant insect species in the world, with more than 20,000 species globally. We have several thousand here in North America, but many are under threat. These little creatures are important pollinators and play an essential role in keeping the ecosystem in balance.
Within the superfamily Apoidea, we find the family Apidae, which is the largest bee family. While these flying insects have been around for millions of years, it’s thought that they all come from a wasp-like ancestor. With more than 20,000 species found around the world, bees inhabit every continent except for Antarctica.
While the Apidae family is the largest and most well-known bee family, there are six others. This family includes all the most common species, such as carpenter bees, honey bees, and bumblebees.
The Colletidae bee family, known for its plasterer bees, consists of two genera. These bees earn their name by lining their nests with a waterproof secretion
Moving on to the Halictidae family, commonly referred to as sweat bees, we encounter small to medium-sized bees often displaying rich metallic colors.
Next is the Andrenidae family, encompassing solitary bee species and mining bees. These ground-nesting bees feature a velvet-like patch of hair on their faces and lack a powerful sting.
Now, let’s explore the Megachilidae family, home to resin bees, mason bees, and the leafcutter bee. Distinguished by the way they carry pollen on the undersides of their abdomens.
The Melittidae family of bees are sometimes referred to as long-horned bees and are a type of mining bee that, as well as collecting pollen, also collects oils from flowers.
Finally, there is the Stenotritdae bee family, which is a family all of its own containing one bee known as Stenotritidus diversipes. This species is endemic to Australia and is an incredibly fast flier!
Bee Life Cycle
While most of us recognize bees in their adult stage, they actually go through several stages before reaching this point.
At the beginning stage, a bee is an egg. All eggs within a colony are laid by the queen. In honey bees, she takes a single mating flight with the drones and then starts laying individual eggs in each honeycomb cell. These eggs are white and have an elongated shape. To properly develop, they must be capped in the cells with the right humidity level and temperature.
Once the egg hatches, the larva emerges. These tiny worm-like creatures, which have no eyes or legs yet, are fed on various substances from the hive, such as bee bread and honey. A select few, which could become queens, are fed on royal jelly.
Larvae undergo metamorphosis inside a capped honeycomb cell, producing silk with their saliva to create a cocoon. The duration of this metamorphosis varies among species and can be influenced by environmental conditions.
Finally, bees enter their adult stage. When an adult bee emerges from the cocoon, its body is still soft and vulnerable. Each new adult bee may take on the role of a worker or a drone. If raised to be a queen, it assumes breeding responsibilities for the entire hive after seeking out the old queen and stinging her to death!
The adult size of a bee depends on the species. The largest species is Wallace’s giant bee, with females growing up to 1.5 inches (3.8 cm).
Moving on to the behaviors of adult bees, worker bees play many roles within the hive, such as raising the young, building comb, and collecting pollen and nectar. When a worker bee finds a viable food source, it performs a special waggle dance to inform others. They also communicate using vibrations and pheromone signals. Returning to the hive with collected substances, bees process honey through regurgitation and enzymatic activity. Honey can be converted into beeswax, produced by a special gland under the abdomen. The wax comes out in tiny pellets, which can then be molded into honeycomb cells.
The anatomy of a bee is perfectly designed to allow them to collect pollen, navigate the world, avoid predators, and function as they need to. With five eyes, pollen baskets on their legs, and lots of other features, bee anatomy is remarkably interesting.
Bees have five eyes on their heads. Two of these eyes are known as compound eyes, allowing the bee to detect light thanks to many little structures called ommatidia. The ommatidia are hexagonal-shaped and contain photoreceptors, nerves, and a lens. In addition to picking up on light, these eyes enable the bee to perceive colors within the blue/green spectrum and detect motion, allowing precise navigation.
These compound eyes are located on either side of the head. On the top of the head, bees also have three ocelli, commonly known as simple eyes. While these eyes cannot discern detail, they serve as impeccable light detectors, aiding the bee in flight orientation and detecting subtle changes in light. The ocelli contribute to the bee’s stability during flight and navigation, crucial for returning to the hive and finding food.
The head is also home to the bee’s antennae, long sensory organs enabling the bee to pick up chemical signals and vibrations. Bees use pheromones as a primary form of communication, and the antennae, which are segmented and covered in tiny hairs called sensilla, play a vital role in detecting these chemical signals.
Finally, the bee’s mouthparts are located on the head, perfectly designed for feeding. One fascinating part of the bee’s mouth is its tongue, commonly called the proboscis—a long tube used to suck nectar from flowers. Composed of the maxilla and the labial palp, the proboscis enables the bee to handle and taste food. The mandibles of the bee are incredibly long and have a pincer-like structure, providing protection for the proboscis.
One of the most obvious features of the thorax is the wings. Bees have two pairs of wings: the forewings and the hindwings. Bee’s wings are transparent and have an intricate system of veins, making them not only strong but also flexible, essential during flight. Due to their well-developed wings, bees are amazing fliers, beating them at more than 200 times per second!
This incredible speed allows bees to generate the lift needed to get off the ground and hover in the air. Furthermore, their well-developed flight capabilities enable them to cover great distances in search of food. While bees typically travel around a mile (1.6 km) from the hive, they are capable of flying up to 5 miles (8 km) and can reach speeds of 15 mph (24 km/h).
On the thorax, you will also find three pairs of legs on either side of the body. These legs are segmented, with different sections serving various purposes. Not only do the legs aid the bee in movement, but they are also designed for carrying pollen and grooming.
The forelegs are located close to the head, the hindlegs nearer to the back end, and in the middle, you’ll find the midlegs. On the hindlegs, worker bees have structures known as pollen baskets, composed of the brush, press, and auricle, designed to help the bee collect and transport pollen back to the hive.
To flap their wings rapidly, bees need powerful flight muscles located along the inner surface of the thorax. These muscles connect to the wings, allowing bees to quickly relax and contract them for wing movement. The bees also use these muscles to control their movement during flight, making turns in different directions.
Several different sections, connected by flexible joints, make up the bee’s abdomen. The benefit of this flexibility ensures that the bee is as mobile as possible. Most species have seven sections in the abdomen which also contain the internal organs. However, the number of segments may be different according to the species.
The abdomen is where you’ll find the bee’s sting, although not all bee species have a sting. For those that do, it can be found on the posterior end of the abdomen. Bee stings are barbed, meaning that when they are injected, they cannot be pulled out which is why you may have heard that bees die once they sting you. In the case of many species, this is true as the sting is ripped from the abdomen, leaving a fatal wound in its place. For this reason, most bee species will only sting if they feel threatened. Unless we’re talking about the Africanized killer bee which is one of the most aggressive species on the planet.
As well as having a barbed structure that ensures the sting sticks into the victim, bees also have a venom gland connected to a venom sack. Below this, there is a venom pump which enables the bee to squeeze venom out as the sting goes in.
As I mentioned, the abdomen is where the internal organs are located and, just like humans, bees have complex systems that enable them to process nutrients, breed, and even produce wax.
The bee’s digestive system is made up of the ventriculus, proventriculus, and the small intestine. This system is what is used to process nutrients. While these structures are all located in the midgut, bees also have a hindgut which is connected to the midgut by a tube called the ileum.
When it comes to reproduction, it’s the queen that is responsible for laying all of the eggs to keep the colony going. Queen bees are the only members of the colony that have ovaries located in the abdomen. Male bees, known as drones, have testes and are able to produce sperm during the mating flight that queen honey bees take just once in their lives.
Bees are able to produce wax, which they use to construct structures called honeycomb inside the hive. The abdomen contains glands on the underside which are responsible for forming this wax. They do this by processing honey, which is then secreted through these glands as small pieces of wax which can then be formed using heat.
Social Structure of Bees
If you were to look inside a beehive, you would notice that there is a very strict social structure. If there’s one thing that bees are known for it’s being hard working, but this couldn’t be achieved without that social structure. Each bee has his or her own job, and they will dedicate their life to it. If they don’t, it could put the entire colony in jeopardy.
Some bees are responsible for foraging, while others tend to the larvae and raise new queens. Other bees take care of the hive, and some are in charge of defending it. There’s only one bee that’s responsible for laying eggs, and that’s the queen.
Worker Bees (The Multifaceted Workforce)
The most abundant type of bee in the hive is the worker bee. For every drone, there are around 100 worker bees, and each of them has their own job. However, their responsibilities may change over the course of their lives.
One of the first jobs that a young worker bee takes on is raising the brood and taking care of the queen. These are known as nurse bees, and their job involves feeding chosen larvae royal jelly, a substance produced by the bee’s glands.
There are also forager bees and workers will take on this role as they get a little older. These bees must leave the hive in search of food, such as nectar and pollen, as well as searching for water. When a forager bee finds a viable food source, it will communicate this to other members of the colony via pheromones or a special dance so that more workers can gather resources.
Once their time as a forager comes to an end, a worker bee may take on the role of a builder, constructing comb within the hive from wax secreted by glands on the abdomen. However, there are some bee species, such as leafcutter and mason bees that don’t produce wax but instead construct their homes using natural resources such as mud or plant matter. They may also become guard bees, responsible for protecting the hive and inspecting incoming bees to ensure they aren’t bringing in any threats.
Drones (The Male)
The next most numerous type of bee within the hive is the drone. Drones are male bees and their sole purpose in life is to mate with the queen. She takes a single mating flight and this is the only time she leaves the hive, during which she will mate with as many drones as possible.
Apart from this critical task, drones have no responsibility within the hive. However, when you learn that they die after mating, you’ll agree that they kind of deserve this laid-back lifestyle. Drones that do not successfully mate with the queen are often ostracized from the colony and left to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, they rarely last long and will die soon after.
Queen Bee (The Matriarch)
The queen bee is much larger than the other members of the colony, although there is only one queen per hive. In very rare situations, there may be two queens at once, but the new queen will seek out the old queen and sting her to death before taking over her role.
Moving on to their reproductive capabilities, queens are the only bees capable of producing eggs and have a well-developed reproductive system compared to the worker bees. A single queen can lay as many as 1200 eggs a day, which she caps inside specially constructed comb cells. During the course of her life, a healthy queen may lay up to 1 million eggs. In order for her eggs to be fertilized, the queen may mate with as many as 50 drones!
Expanding on their influence within the colony, queen bees literally reign over the whole colony, sending out pheromones that control the behavior of the other bees.
It doesn’t take me to tell you that bees don’t talk. However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t effective communicators and they have several different methods of doing this.
- One of the most intriguing methods of communication in honey bees is the waggle dance. This is performed by worker bees when they find a food source. Not only does the dance indicate to other bees that there is food, but the intricacies of the dance can tell them which direction to fly, how far away the food is, and its quality.
- Vibration is a very important part of bee communication, and they’ll use vibrational signals that tell others where food can be found. They perform a move called a tremble dance by tapping on the honeycomb.
- On top of vibrations, bees will also use tactile communication by touching one another with various body parts, including the legs, mouth, and antennae to communicate the location of food, or to send messages about mating.
- Pheromones are another way that bees communicate with one another. While the queen will use pheromones to control the behavior of others in the colony, worker bees use chemical cues to help recognize other members of the colony.
- When bees feel threatened, they release a special alarm pheromone that alerts other members of the colony. This chemical causes them to respond in a defensive manner, so they’re ready to protect the hive. What’s more, scientists have discovered that bees will send a stop signal to other members of the hive if they find a dangerous foraging location.
- Sometimes, it’s necessary for a colony to move location. In this case, scout bees will head out in search of a new site and will make a collective decision on where is most suitable. They communicate this to one another using dances.
You’re probably familiar with the term ‘a swarm of bees’, but this isn’t just a random activity. Bees actually swarm when it’s time to find a new nesting site or when a colony gets so big that it has to split.
A swarm contains a mixture of worker bees and drones as well as the queen which can often be found in the middle of the swarm. Without swarming, bees cannot guarantee the survival of the colony due to things such as overcrowding and a lack of resources.
Queens, as I have previously discussed, lay an astonishing number of eggs. This rapidly increases the size of the colony therefore more space is needed. However, if the colony is to split, a new queen is required, so the nurse bees will begin raising a new queen to go and stay with the current colony. This is done by laying queen eggs in honeycomb cells and feeding the larvae on royal jelly until a new queen is ready.
Once she has developed, the new queen will take over the colony and the old queen heads off with the swarm. But before they leave, the bees must feed on lots of honey to sustain themselves during the flight. The queen is kept safe in the middle of the swarm, which may periodically settle on a tree branch, fence, or other surface. While the majority of the bees remain here and wait, several scout bees are sent off to find a suitable new location to nest.
You might be lucky enough to witness a swarm as it sits and waits. In most cases, beekeepers are keen to catch the swarm and provide a new home for it in one of their hives. So, if you notice a swarm, it’s always a good idea to contact a local beekeeper.
However, in the event that humans do not intervene, bees are well equipped to find a home for themselves. Once the scout bees find a suitable location, they perform a special dance to point the colony in the right direction.
Importance of Bees
A world without bees would be a very different place. Unfortunately, a lot of people see these flying insects as nothing more than a pest, but the reality of the situation is that bees play an important part in our ecosystem.
Bees are pollinators. This means that they take pollen from one flowering plant and deliver it to another of the same species, resulting in pollination, which is essentially plant reproduction. Bees do this incidentally as they collect pollen on their fuzzy bodies and pollen baskets to take back to the hive, but without them, many of our wildflowers and crop species would struggle to survive.
If you’ve ever heard the term ‘making a beeline’, this comes from the fact that bees will leave the hive and head straight to a food source without veering in a different direction. They’re specially equipped to sense flowers and head straight to them.
It’s thought that bees pollinate as many as 75% of all human crop species. While it is not believed that these species would completely die out without bees, they would certainly struggle to thrive. It may be possible to use artificial pollination methods, but this would be pricey and complicated. Plus, when you consider that bee pollination keeps our agricultural businesses going, it’s easy to see how losing them would have a direct impact on our economy, bringing in billions of dollars’ worth of revenue annually. So important are they that many farmers will hire beekeepers to bring hives to their land purely for pollination.
Not only this, but different bee species are responsible for pollinating different flowering plants. In a phenomenon known as flower constancy, a single bee species will focus on certain varieties of plant in any given foraging trip. This ensures effective pollination of that species. And since there are so many plant species reliant on bees, they’re able to survive and this ensures biodiversity within the ecosystem.
It is said that as many as one in three bites of food you have on your plate is a result of bee pollination. They pollinate a variety of crops, including oilseeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables and because of this, farmers have much stronger crop yields.
Every time you take a sip of coffee, bite into an apple or a strawberry, or enjoy some almonds as an afternoon snack, you have bees to thank. It is said that crops that are pollinated by bees are as much as 5 times more valuable than other crops.
Supports Local Wildlife
Within any ecosystem, there is a food chain, and bees play an important role in this. Our flying friends are hunted by animals like mammals, bats, and birds. Without them, these creatures would not have such an abundant food source and their numbers would suffer as a result.
If bees were not around to pollinate plants, any plant, seed, or fruit eating species would also lack sufficient sustenance. These plants not only play an essential role in terms of foods for other species, but many animals use them for nesting and shelter.
If there’s one thing that we all know about bees, it’s that they produce honey. This natural substance has been used for thousands of years by humans both for food and for medicinal reasons. In some cultures, honey has great significance. For example, in ancient Egyptian times, honey would be used as an embalming fluid and as an offering to the Gods.
In modern times, we use honey in all kinds of cosmetic products thanks to its skin-softening properties. It also soothes the skin and promotes healing and is a very common ingredient in hair care products as it gives the hair natural shine. Moreover, it’s a viable alternative to sugar since honey is a natural sweetener and is bursting with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Bees produce honey by collecting nectar from flowers and returning to the hive where the nectar is processed inside the bee’s body. Once it is ready, the honey is placed into a honeycomb cell which is then capped, ready for use either as food over the winter or as a nutritional source for the young.
There are around 125,000 beekeepers in the United States alone, and this produces a whopping 1.48 million pounds of raw honey each year. It’s clear to see how this benefits the local economy and creates jobs. These beekeepers also benefit from the other products created by bees, including royal jelly, bee pollen, and beeswax.
When looking at ecosystems, scientists need a reliable way to determine their health, and one of the methods they use is looking at biological indicators. These are species that are particularly sensitive to changes in the environment, and so give us an early indication that something is different. Bees are one such species.
Where environments are not suitable for bees, populations may rapidly decline, and the behavior of the bees may change, which tells us something is wrong long before we would have otherwise noticed. Changes such as a climate shift, loss of habitat, and the overuse of chemical pesticides can all affect the behavior of bees.
You may wonder why this is important, but by monitoring species like bees, we can get on top of environmental stressors early and put conservation efforts in place to reverse them, ensuring bees and other organisms have a healthy environment in which to thrive. It also allows us to study the impacts of stressors like habitat fragmentation and how this affects the bees.
Moreover, you’ll recall me talking earlier about how bees rely on certain plants. When a reduction in bee numbers is noted, this can tell us a lot about the types of plants that are growing in a particular area. Where there is a fall in the number of bees in a specific area, this has a direct impact on the survival rates of local plants that rely on their pollination. But where we see an abundance of bees, it lets us know that the area is healthy, filled with suitable plants, and has good nesting sites.
Bees Commonly Found in North America
There is an amazing diversity in bees, with around 4000 different species in North America. Look around the world and you’ll find around 20,000 species!
1. Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)
While the western honey bee is not actually native to North America, it has been here for hundreds of years after having been introduced by the Europeans in the 17th century. It’s now one of the most common bee species in North America and is an effective pollinator as well as an efficient honey producer. As such, they’re incredibly important to the pollination of wildflowers and human crops, and there are many managed colonies here.
The western honey bee, part of the Apidae family, has a reddish brown body and bands of orange or yellow. There are currently 26 known subspecies of the honey bee, and they typically grow to between 0.59 inches (15 mm) and 0.66 inches (17 mm) once they reach maturity.
These bees live in hives and construct their homes using wax that they secrete from a gland in their head. The colony is made up of drones, which are males, and worker bees, which are all female as well as a single queen who is responsible for mating with the drones and laying up to 1 million eggs during her lifetime.
Many people are afraid of bees, but western honey bees are incredibly docile creatures, which is one of the reasons it’s such a popular choice for apiarists. But keeping them is no mean feat and involves pest management and regular monitoring lest the colony suffer its demise. For example, Colony Collapse Disorder results in the sudden loss of worker bees, which can have devastating effects on local pollination as well as the economical effects on beekeepers.
2. Bumble Bee (Bombus spp.)
Bumble bees are one of the most easily identifiable groups of bees with their round, hair covered bodies known as a bombiforme. These bees are native to North America but are also found in most of the northern hemisphere, although some of the 250 species have been introduced to New Zealand from the UK. In North America, bumble bee populations are thriving. However, some species, such as the rusty-patched bumble bee are declining.
These bees are important pollinators that pollinate crops like squash, blueberries, and tomatoes as well as a whole host of wildflowers. When pollinating things like tomatoes, the bumble bee will vibrate its flight muscles, releasing pollen from the flower in a process called buzz pollination. Having large bodies and being able to fly in much cooler conditions than honey bees, the bumble bee is a very effective pollinator.
While honey bees live in huge colonies, bumble bee nests have much smaller numbers. There is one queen that will nest in the ground over winter with her eggs, before emerging in spring to raise her young. Within a colony, there aren’t usually any more than a couple of hundred individuals. Bumble bees typically nest in old rodent burrows and forage for plants like clover. Once the queen has raised her young, she doesn’t usually survive to breed again, although in some rare circumstances, a female may breed for two years before dying.
3. Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa spp.)
Carpenter bees are common in North America and are found all over the southern United States and east as far north as New York. However, the type of carpenter bees you might see will vary from region to region as there are many different species. For example, along the western US, you may find the California carpenter bee whereas from the south of Canada right the way down to Florida and Texas, you’ll frequently see the eastern carpenter bee.
They’re also the largest type of bee found on this continent and a solitary species that nests in wood. This is why many people often find them nesting in garden structures and view them as a pest. It won’t come as a surprise that they take their name from the fact that they tunnel into wood. However, despite popular belief, these bees don’t eat the wood, they just use their powerful mouthparts to bite into it for nesting; the main part of their diet is made up of pollen and nectar, just like most other bee species. If you’re trying to deter carpenter bees from your garden, then using wood treatments and providing alternative nesting sites can help.
Carpenter bees are known for their loud buzzing, but while this might sound aggressive, they’re a very docile species. The males don’t have stingers and while the females do, they’re reluctant to use them unless threatened. You’ll be able to tell males and females apart as the latter has a more metallic coloration, whereas the males are often mistaken for bumblebees with yellow markings on the face.
Just like most other bee species, the carpenter bee is an important pollinator and ensures the survival of various fruit trees, wildflowers, and the plants in your garden.
4. Mason Bee (Osmia spp.)
A member of the Megachilidae family, mason bees are another species of North America solitary bee. There are many species found here, such as the hornfaced mason bee and the blue orchard mason bee.
Mason bees are incredibly hard working. When you compare what they can achieve to the honey bee, it takes just a few hundred individuals to do the same amount of work as thousands of honey bees. While they are solitary bees, they will still build nests, and the females take items like mud and stones to construct their nest which is where the species gets its name. They’re also known for making their nests in pre-existing cavities, and if you find them in your yard, there’s no need to worry as this is a very gentle species that rarely stings.
Moreover, if you find mason bees in your yard, they won’t be there for long as they typically only live for around a month. During this time, they’ll pollinate thousands of flowers and nest, bringing a new generation into the world.
It will come as no surprise that mason bees are also important pollinators. In fact, they’re sometimes called super pollinators owing to their ability to visit as many as 2,000 flowers every day. They use a technique called buzz pollination whereby the insect rapidly beats its wings next to the flower, releasing pollen from it. Without them, many fruits and crops would struggle. For this reason, it’s important that humans provide suitable nesting spots for mason bees to support their populations.
5. Leafcutter Bee (Megachile spp.)
The leafcutter bee is another member of the Megachilidae family and is a solitary species found all over North America. There are 63 species of leafcutter bees, and they’re well known for their effective pollination of plants in the aster family. This includes species like roses and sunflowers.
Leafcutter bees have incredibly strong jaws, and when the females build their nests, they use these powerful mouthparts to shred up leaves, which is where the species gets its name. They’ll cut out circular pieces from the lead and will use these in the nest to make cells for protecting their food and eggs.
Just like most other bee species, leafcutters are not aggressive. For the most part, they’ll go about their business during the warmer months and will only attack if they are handled or threatened.
You can identify a leafcutter bee by looking at its body, which is typically black and covered in fur. They may also be covered in markings such as spots, stripes or iridescent patches. Leafcutter bees lack pollen baskets and instead carry pollen on the underside of their abdomens.
6. Sweat Bee (Family Halictidae)
The origin of the name sweat bee is a pretty gross one and comes from the fact that this species is attracted to the salt and moisture of human sweat! If a bee lands on you on a hot day, there’s a good chance it’s a sweat bee. But just because they love sweat, that doesn’t mean they’re not also attracted to flowers and sweat bees are important pollinators for various fruits, vegetables, and wildflowers.
This is a small species of bee that is known for its beautiful appearance, but there is great diversity among them, with some having a metallic green to black coloration while others may be more vibrant in shades of purple or blue.
Belonging to the Halictidae family, sweat bees are among some of the most abundant species in North America. What’s more, this is one of the largest bee families in the world, apart from the Apidae family, which honey bees belong to.
Sweat bees are a solitary species that tend to nest in plant stems, rotting wood, or soil. Females will construct their own nests and, as a result of aiding in the decomposition of organic matter, this species is incredibly beneficial to the ecosystem. Sometimes, females may socialize and share their nest with a select few others.
7. Mining Bee (Andrena spp.)
From the Andrenidae family, mining bees are well known for their nesting behavior, which involves digging out underground tunnels that contain nesting chambers; it’s not hard to see why they’re called miners! This is a diverse family of bees with more than 400 species, and they often focus on one specific type of flower for pollination.
Each species varies in terms of appearance and behavior but generally speaking, mining bees have hairy bodies and a brown to black head. They’re usually found in drier locations during spring and early summer, and their nests are often concealed with leaves and grass. Females are able to secrete a waterproof substance which they use to protect the cells in the nest.
This is a very docile species of bee that rarely becomes aggressive. Their main focus is on foraging for a range of fruit, vegetables, and wildflowers and on nest building. The only time they may show aggression is if they are threatened or handled.
8. Cuckoo Bee (Subfamily Nomadinae)
Cuckoo bees get their name because they exhibit similar parasitic behavior to birds with the same name. These bees, belonging to the subfamily Nomadinae in the family Apidae, lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, mainly those from the genus Andrena, although they have been observed doing this within other bee families. Males secrete a scent near potential host nests, aiding females in easily locating and assessing a suitable nest.
A cuckoo bee would be unable to provide pollen for its young owing to a lack of pollen baskets which is why the species relies on its hosts to take care of the offspring. Not only this, but the female will destroy the host’s eggs, ensuring that her own offspring get all of the provisions.
While you might think that the cuckoo bee has no important role where pollination is concerned, they are an essential species. They may not directly pollinate but they are important in terms of ecological balance.
The appearance of the cuckoo bee differs by species; there are six known species in the USA and Canada. However, these bees usually have no hair and a body shape that is similar to that of the wasp. They’re small in comparison to other bees, and the coloration and patterns often match that of their hosts in order to blend in.
9. Long-Horned Bee (Family Apidae)
During the warm months between spring and fall, you’ll notice an abundance of long-horned bees as they take advantage of the flowering plants. This is a native North American bee of which there are 129 species. They’re found all over North America, north of Mexico and are part of the Apidae family.
This is one of the easier bee species to identify as individuals have a stout, fuzzy body. However, the coloration can vary between species, but many have yellow faces and are considered to be quite cute. As their name suggests, they also have very distinct, long antennae. You’ll often find them buzzing around flowers from the aster family for which they are important pollinators.
Long-horned bees are a solitary, ground-nesting species with females preferring to build their nests in sandy soil. While the species is generally pretty docile, the males are known to become territorial especially during mating season.
10. Squash Bee (Family Apidae)
Pollinating only cucurbit flowers, the squash bee is an important member of the ecosystem for things like squash and pumpkins. You’ll see them flying about early in the morning when the flowers open up, as these plants have flowers that close in the afternoon sun.
Part of the Apidae family, there are several species of squash bee in North America, and they use special hairs on their bodies to gather pollen from squash flowers. They offer a very effective method of pollination, which leads to an impressive fruit production.
Squash bees are medium sized with long antennae and round heads. They’re much bulkier than the honey bee and it’s only the females that have the hairs necessary to transport pollen. Therefore, males do not pollinate.
Solitary bees, this species nests in the ground and prefers sandy soil but can also be found nesting within a squash plant.
11. Digger Bee (Family Apidae)
Digger bees favor tubular flowers like the beardtongue and are often seen hovering near the plant with their tongues hanging out, ready to dive in and lap up that nectar! They’re also known for the loud buzzing sound that they make so you’ll often hear them before you see them.
You’ll find a number of digger bee species in North America; in fact, there may be as many as 900! These include the Anthophora terminalis and the Anthophora abrupta.
A medium sized species, digger bees are known for nesting in the ground, where they will dig out tunnels in well-drained soil. They’re incredibly beneficial in the garden since they’re important pollinators for a range of flowers, shrubs, and garden plants. Plus, this is a non-aggressive species, so you don’t need to worry about getting stung, unless you make the bee feel threatened, of course.
You can identify a digger bee by looking at the shape of its body. They’re usually stout and have a very dense covering of hair which pollen sticks to, and the females take this back to the nest to use as provisions for the young.
Digger bees are part of the Andrenidae family and are often seen from the beginning of spring. Some species will form a close association with a specific type of flower, while others are more general pollinators.
12. Blueberry Bee (Osmia ribifloris)
Blueberry bees take their name from the fact that they usually become active at the same time as the blueberry plant, during the spring and early summer. Just like all other types of bee, the blueberry bee is an effective pollinator although, as their name would suggest, they only take pollen from the blueberry plant.
They do this thanks to special hairs on their bodies, when they make contact with the reproductive parts of the plant, the pollen sticks to these hairs and the bees take it back to their nest as well as depositing it on other plants of the same species.
The blueberry bee is part of the Megachilidae family and is native to the western parts of North America. They have a beautiful coloration of metallic blue or black and are a medium-sized species that nests in tree holes often those created by woodpeckers. Being a solitary bee, females will create a nest on their own using leaf pulp to creature structures within the nest.
How do Bees Produce Honey?
One of the things that bees are most famous for is producing honey. There is a fascinating process behind this, but it takes a whole colony to produce enough honey for sustenance, as a single bee may only make around 1/12th of a teaspoon in her entire life, despite visiting more than 1500 flowers a day. In order to make just a pound of honey, it would take more than 500 worker bees traveling a combined 55,000 miles (88,514 km) and visiting more than 2 million flowers!
In order to make honey, bees must first forage for nectar; a sweet liquid substance produced by flowers. Different bee species have different adaptations for collecting nectar, such as a long tongue, known as a proboscis that allows the bee to reach deep into the flower for the richest nectar.
Since bees visit so many flowers every day, they need somewhere to store the nectar until they return back to the hive. They have a special organ known as the honey stomach that is set apart from the rest of its digestive system.
If bees find a good source of nectar, they will communicate this to other members of the colony using a waggle dance.
Processing the Nectar
Safely stored inside the honey stomach, the collected nectar now has to go through a process of being broken down. Inside the honey stomach glucose oxidase and invertase break down the nectar into simple sugars that are less likely to crystallize. This process is known as inversion.
Now the bee needs to pass the nectar onto another worker, known as a house bee, who will store the processed nectar in a honeycomb cell. They do this by regurgitating the processed nectar – yum!
Removing Excess Moisture
Once the nectar is inside the honeycomb cell, house bees will spend time fanning their wings, which aids in evaporation as all of the water needs to be removed. As the water is removed, the liquid gets thicker, and that’s where we get honey from!
Storing the Honey
Honey bees make honey to feed the colony over winter, so not all honey gets used right away. In order to prevent moisture or bacteria from getting to the honey, the bees will cap each comb with wax. Inside the cell, the honey continues to ripen and even more water is removed.
The honeycomb structure is an amazing use of space within the hive, and each cell is constructed using wax secreted from the bee’s abdomen.
In order for the honey to be as pure as possible, honey bees will ensure that the humidity and temperature within the hive is just right. When it’s too cool, the bees will use their body heat to warm the hive. But when the weather is warm, they’ll fan their wings with water that they’ve brought into the hive, creating a mist!
Extracting the Honey
Wild nests don’t have to worry about handing over their honey to humans, but there are millions of managed hives in the US and, when the honey is ripe, beekeepers are on hand to harvest it.
They do this by taking out the capped frames and using a variety of methods to extract the honey. These include using centrifugal force, crushing or straining. In any case, it’s essential that the beekeeper leaves enough honey for the bees in order that the colony survives the winter and can produce another honey harvest the following year.
When you buy honey, you’ll notice that it comes in different colors and flavors. That’s because the qualities of the honey are affected by the nectar source.
When you think about it, honey production is pretty amazing and relies on each bee playing her own important role within a huge team. This just goes to show how hard working and efficient these little insects really are!
Humans & Honey
While bees produce honey to feed the colony, humans have long been aware of the medical and nutritional value of this natural substance. There are cave paintings in Spain depicting a man taking honey from a nest that are thought to be more than 10,000 years old. In recorded history, various civilizations have used honey, including the ancient Egyptians, the Romans, and the Greeks. It’s also mentioned several times in the Bible.
Because of our love of honey, humans have practiced apiculture, commonly known as beekeeping for thousands of years. Even today, we are finding perfectly preserved honey in ancient tombs, and it’s thought that this food never goes bad owing to its acidity and low moisture content.
Threats Facing Bees
While there are millions of bees in the world, their numbers are in decline and this is because of several factors, including the use of pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change which has had a profound effect on bee populations in Europe.
I’ll look at these factors in more detail throughout this section, but there are things we can do as individuals to help protect bees. This might not initially sound like an important thing but without bees, we would notice a significant impact on our food supply since honey bees alone are responsible for pollinating as many as 70% of human crops.
By reducing the use of pesticides and opting for more organic methods of pest control in the garden, you’re starting your journey to protecting bees. What’s more, ensuring you plant a good range of native flowering plants will ensure these flying friends have good access to nectar and pollen. It’s also a good idea to have a water source in your backyard with a landing surface so bees can take a drink as well as providing a nesting area such as bare soil, logpiles, or even a beehouse.
Without suitable nesting and foraging habitat, bees around the world are under threat. Humans are largely responsible for this habitat loss because of things like urbanization and more agricultural land taking over bee habitats and removing many of the local flowering plants.
Not only this, but bee habitats are being fragmented. Areas like meadows, grasslands, and wetlands are all being taken over and being broken into smaller patches. This is detrimental to bees’ survival since they need good access to a range of flowering plants, and this fragmentation ends up isolating populations.
If that wasn’t enough, we have to consider that the diversity of flowering plants is being impacted by urbanization which leads to bees not having the variety they need to thrive. Furthermore, removal of viable nesting habitats like hollow trees, bare soil, and vegetation means that bees are struggling to raise their young.
However, even in your own backyard you can mitigate the effects of urbanization simply by replacing the native flowering plants that have been lost. Moreover, if local authorities can create bee-friendly habitats in green spaces and parks, we can go a long way to preventing their decline.
It’s also essential that landowners and farmers perform responsible land management practices. This may include using organic farming methods as well as replacing and restoring plant life. After all, having bees around a farm is essential to the crops through pollination.
The use of pesticides is one of the main threats to bees, yet there are so many viable alternatives. Not only will these chemicals kill bee populations, but even those that survive may sustain irreversible damage to the brain. Moreover, pesticides can affect the bee’s immune system, reproductive abilities, and their overall health. If the immune system is compromised, then bee colonies become more susceptible to diseases and parasites.
This is especially true of pesticides within the organophosphate and neonicotinoid groups. When bees are exposed to these chemicals, their ability to communicate with one another is also impaired. Communication between members of a colony is essential as bees will use pheromone cues to tell others where the food source is.
You might think that spraying your yard with pesticides won’t do much harm to bees if they’re not in direct contact with the chemicals. But this simply isn’t true. Runoff in water sources and ingesting contaminated pollen or nectar can be just as lethal to a bee.
And it does end when the bee gets back to the hive. When bees collect pollen and nectar, they don’t only use it to make honey; it’s also used to make wax, which is the building blocks of the comb within the hive. If a bee has fed on contaminated substances, this can be transferred into the wax, potentially exposing the entire colony, as well as its larvae to the contaminants, possibly killing off the entire colony. When you consider that a single colony can contain tens of thousands of individuals, it’s easy to see the snowball effect.
Whether a managed colony or a wild one, consistent exposure to chemicals along with other threats, such as climate change will ultimately weaken the bee population. But you can help by eliminating the use of chemicals in your garden and creating pollinator friendly areas.
If you aren’t sure about where to begin with pest control on an organic level, then there are several options.
- For agriculture, Integrated Pest Management combines a number of approaches, such as biological control through the use of beneficial insects, crop rotations, and using resistant plants meaning that there is less need for chemicals and promotes balance within the ecosystem.
- Instead of using chemical pesticides, there are plant based products which break down much more rapidly, having less of an impact on bees. You want to look for products containing ingredients such as rotenone and pyrethrin.
- If you’re looking for an organic pest control approach in the garden then neem oil has been used for hundreds of years. It also works well on a larger scale for farming and will eliminate pests without having a detrimental effect on bees.
- To combat pests in the garden such as whiteflies, mites, and aphids, the use of insecticidal soaps can be very effective. There may still be a small risk to bees, but it’s minimal in comparison to chemical products. Moreover, by following the usage instructions and only applying the product during the morning and evening, when bees aren’t as active, they should be relatively safe.
- Nature has its own way of taking care of things, so allowing it to take its course is one of the most effective pest control methods you can use. Introducing beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybugs to the garden will control pests without harming the bees.
Climate change is a cause for concern for many species, but none more so than bees. Take the bumblebee, for example, which is one of the first bees to emerge in the spring. Because of warming temperatures, these bees are coming out of their nests much earlier but they’re met with a lack of food.
And it isn’t just the impact on their food sources that is being threatened. With changing climates, bees are less able to communicate with the world around them and each other, which can lead to problems with breeding. Even their interactions with predators are changing, and this causes an imbalance within the ecosystem. These changes also increase the number of pests which can lead to more frequent problems with diseases and parasites like the dreaded varroa mite which can quickly wipe out an entire colony.
Not only this, but serious changes to the weather are having a devastating effect on bee populations. Things like drought, heatwaves, floods, and storms are responsible for destroying nesting sites and cause damage to the plants from which they forage. Suitable habitats are being wiped out, and there is a decline in the availability of native plants because they’re no longer able to grow in these new climates.
This is particularly detrimental to bee species that have very specific habitat requirements. They need a certain variety of plants and nesting sites that are spot on. But with climate change, these are lessened, directly impacting populations and putting them under threat.
Diseases & Parasites
A strong colony of bees is something not to be messed with, but as with anything, it can be brought down by certain factors. Beekeepers will tell you that the varroa mite is one of the biggest threats to honeybees, and once they infest the hive, they’ll feed on the hemolymph; a fluid in the bees’ blood, and quickly weaken the entire colony.
This isn’t the only parasite that bees are susceptible to. There are a couple of species of microsporidian fungi called Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae that affect the digestive tract of bees, which affects their ability to absorb important nutrients.
They’re also prone to bacterial and viral infections such as Deformed Wing Virus, American foulbrood, and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, all of which can reduce the lifespan of individuals and affect the development of the young.
While you can do everything in your power to protect any colonies within your care, global trade and the movement of bees is a leading cause of these diseases spreading. It is possible that global authorities could implement rules and restrictions on trading to prevent the spread of disease, although this could be a long way off.
However, using responsible beekeeping practices, such as monitoring the colony for early signs of disease and applying controlled pest management approaches, the chances of disaster are much lower. Moreover, it’s important that beekeepers collaborate with scientists, and associations to share research and results. What’s more, these people can raise awareness with the public and educate on the importance of saving the bees.
There are as many as five diseases that affect honeybees that have been passed on to native bumblebees in the United Kingdom. Gardeners can ensure that they create healthy pollinator habitats which help to support the bees and make them more resilient.
Each ecosystem is perfectly adapted to work in sync. But when you introduce species that were not intended to be a part of this, it can really interfere with the balance. Take the introduction of the Asian hornet in France. This had a very detrimental effect on local bee populations.
In Chile, an invasive bumblebee species has all but depleted the native bees. What’s more, they take nectar from the Chilco flower which is usually pollinated by hummingbirds. Since their short tongues cannot reach the depths of the flower, they’ll chew at it, ruining the plants chances of making seeds.
And when it comes to plants, they can be invasive too. You’ll be aware by now that gardeners are encouraged to plant native species, but when nonnative species are abundant, this reduces the available food sources for bees. What’s more, there are even some invasive species whose nectar and pollen may not be of the best quality, and some can even be toxic to native bees. When these plants are introduced, there is also the potential of pathogens that could be fatal to native bee colonies.
Even if we do not actively introduce these plants to North America, climate change is creating an environment where they can thrive. All it takes is one plant in the right conditions before the species takes over and upsets the delicate balance of our ecosystems. We need to be mindful of this and all actively monitor invasive plant species in our local area in order to eradicate them.
While bees are part of the food chain and predated by many birds like woodpeckers, adding non-native predators into the mix could cause a significant decline in their populations. The European starling is a non-native bird that has caused havoc in many ways. Where bees are concerned, they are known for destroying hives and nests in order to prey on the eggs and larvae and will even happily feed on adult bees. These birds are now common across North America and it’s thought there are currently around 200 million.
Interesting Bee Facts
The bee might seem like a humble creature at first glance, but there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. Let’s take a look at some amazing facts about bees.
1. Bees are Great Mathematicians
One of the most incredible things about honey bees is that they’re able to perform basic addition and subtraction, according to research.
In a recent study, scientists took 14 honey bees and placed them into a Y shaped maze. Inside, the maze had a decision chamber which featured blue and yellow markers. Before the test, the bees were exposed to a blue or yellow stimulus with a certain number of shapes. When entering the decision chamber, if they correctly selected the same marker by using addition or subtraction, they would be rewarded with a sugary treat.
Amazingly, the bees made the right decision up to 75% of the time, demonstrating that they are capable of basic mathematics.
2. Bees Can Navigate Using a Number of Senses
Bees can fly as far as five miles from their hive in search of food, so you may wonder how they manage to find their way back home.
Amazingly, bees are able to use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation, so they’ll never lose their way back to the hive. This is thanks to a magnetic structure within their abdomen, and scientists have discovered that when the bee is placed next to a strong magnet, this sense is interrupted.
What’s more, bees are incredibly intelligent and actually notice landmarks and light which help to guide them home. They’re able to follow linear cues like roads and boundaries, and when placed in an unfamiliar environment, they’ll actively look for these features in order to navigate. Moreover, scientists have tested the theory that bees, who can see polarized light, might use this for navigation, and the results were positive.
3. Bees Can Recognize Human Faces
If you’re a beekeeper, there’s a good chance that your colony is able to recognize your face! During studies that rewarded the bees with sugar treats when they correctly identified a human face, they showed great proficiency in being able to do this. However, it’s thought that it’s less to do with recognizing the actual face and more to do with the layout of the features. Bees use this same strategy to identify specific flowers. So, while a bee may recognize you, it doesn’t see you as a human and more likely sees you as a strange-looking flower!
Despite this, it is believed that bees have the ability to distinguish between different humans. While their brains may be no bigger than a poppy seed, studies have shown that, even in the absence of a treat, bees would still recognize the faces associated with a treat in the first place.
4. Bees Have an Acute Sense of Smell
Among other great senses, bees have an incredible sense of smell. They’re able to detect a plethora of scents, including that of the flowers they seek and even human breath!
And it’s a pretty handy sense to have when you consider that bees often use pheromone clues to communication with one another. However, while their sense of smell has been reported to be better than that of fruit flies and mosquitoes, this does come at the sacrifice of a decreased sense of taste.
In their antennae, bees have as many as 170 odor receptors, making them much more efficient sniffers than dogs! 50 times better, as it happens! So efficient is their sense of smell that bees have even been trained to sniff out landmines owing to the fact that the TNT has a similar sugary aroma to their favorite food; nectar.
When flying through the air, the honey bee’s amazing sense of smell allows it to pick up on floral scents on the ground. But without this sense, bees would struggle to survive as they’d never be able to find food.
5. Bees are Excellent Learners
When you consider that a bee has a brain no larger than a poppy seed, it would be hard to imagine that they’d be very intelligent. But these are smart little critters!
Bees have been used in many scientific studies, and it’s been noted that they’re quickly able to learn how to do new tasks, showing their impressive cognitive ability. These fascinating creatures have demonstrated the ability to learn human faces, understand math, and even grasp the concept of zero and it’s thought that they learn better when they’re able to explore.
Other studies have shown that bees have an excellent memory. When shown a pattern, they were able to move through a tunnel and associate that same pattern with a treat. The results showed that bees were able to retain a memory for as long as five seconds. That might not seem a lot to you and I, but for such a small creature, it’s remarkable.
During the observation of bees, it has also been noted that they learn from one another. Younger bees will watch their more mature counterparts performing a waggle dance and take tips on how to do it themselves!
6. Bees Have Been Trained to Detect Landmines
Earlier, I mentioned that bees can detect landmines, partly due to their excellent sense of smell and their ability to associate specific odors with rewards.
In studies, bees were trained to locate landmines and did so with more than 97% accuracy! They achieved this by adding a chemical found in landmines to the bee’s food source. The bees were then able to detect this in the landmines, and scientists have concluded that this could be a much less expensive and safer alternative to using sniffer dogs.
7. Bees Can Detect Ultraviolet Light Unlike Humans
Bees see the world in a vastly different way to humans, which is not surprising considering they have five eyes! But their eyes also work in a different way, allowing them to see different colors and different light wavelengths to us.
For example, bees have no problem seeing UV light, which humans cannot detect with the naked eye. The reason for this is that some flowers reflect UV light, and this enables the bee to better detect a food source. With an ability to see between 600 and 300 nm, bees that are deprived of their ability to see UV light have been seen to remain in the hive, refusing to forage until they’re forced to because of starvation.
Moreover, bees see an amazing range of colors in the green/blue spectrum, but they’re unable to detect colors within the red spectrum.
8. Not all Species of Bees live in Colonies
When you think about bees, I bet you imagine a huge colony working together to survive. While this is the case with most honey bee species, there are thousands of species of solitary bees. In fact, around 75% of all bee species are not social.
They are so called because they do not nest in colonies but instead, the female will build a nest and raise her young alone. The only time these bees come together is for mating, although you may often see the males patrolling nest areas to protect them.
Different species nest in different places, but many solitary bees are ground nesters, making tunnels in the soil. Others may construct nests in tree hollows and wooden structures, although several individuals may nest close together.
9. Bees Use a Unique Way of Staying Cool & Warm
Bees have several unique methods for maintaining a healthy body temperature. For example, bumblebees are able to regulate their body temperature, which means they are able to fly in conditions that other bees would not. This is largely due to their thick fur which acts as insulation.
What’s more, bumblebees have strong thoracic muscles which allow them to shiver and produce their own body heat, staying warm in cold weather.
Honey bees are able to perform a similar heat-producing tactic within the hive. For a long time, it was thought that they kept warm from the heat from their larvae, but it’s since been discovered that they’re able to detach their wings from their abdominal muscles. They then tremble these muscles to generate heat, without wasting energy flapping their wings.
But that doesn’t mean that their wings don’t come in handy when it comes to temperature regulation. On hot days, honey bees will come to the entrance of the hive and flap their wings to fan hot air out and cool air in. You may also notice a cluster of bees in the shape of a beard on the outside of a hive on a hot day. In this aptly named phenomenon called bearding, the bees come outside of the hive to make space inside for cool air to circulate.
10. Bees Can Generate an Electrical Charge
When honey bees gather in a swarm, that swarm can produce an electrical charge that is reported to be eight times more powerful than that of a thunderstorm cloud! This was an incidental discovery by weather analysts who noticed that their equipment was spiking, despite a lack of weather associated triggers. The spikes occurred at the same time that honey bee swarms were present.
But is there a reason for this electrical charge or is it just a ‘by chance’ occurrence?
Well, according to scientists at Bristol University in the UK, it’s thought that an electrically charged bee can draw out perfume from the flowers it visits. The same study demonstrated that electrically charged bumblebees were able to obtain more pollen as it stuck to their charged fur!
11. Bees have Inspired Various Inventions
Are you one of the many people that enjoy flying a drone? If so, then you’re working with technology that’s been inspired by the flight patterns and navigation abilities of the bee. And this isn’t the only invention that these little creatures have given inspiration for.
Look at the hexagonal structure of the honeycomb within the hive; this is incredibly strong and humans have taken note of this, using similar structures in our own architecture. One example is the use of a similar structure for an energy management system. Moreover, the shape and strength of the honeycomb structure has allowed humans to build robust architecture while using minimal materials.
Throughout this guide, I have talked a lot about the eyesight of bees and that’s something that has inspired certain cameras. Using the compound eyes as inspiration, we’ve been able to create cameras that are incredibly motion sensitive, have a wide field of view, and amazing depth perception.