Bees are flying insects closely related to wasps and ants, and they play an integral part in the ecosystem. They’re one of the key players in pollination, the process which fertilizes flowers and thus enables them to reproduce. They also produce honey and beeswax – two commercial commodities with immense practical uses. While the size and look may vary from specie to specie, bees are generally small-ish insects (never more than an inch in length) with black and yellow coloring and two pairs of wings. The hind wings are generally smaller than the front. While no bee specie is wingless, some are known to have extremely short wings, making flight difficult.
While a lot of people are afraid of these busy little buzzers and would sooner swat them dead than look at them, fact of the matter is that these gentle creatures would much rather gather pollen and go about their business than aggressively sting you. The wasp is, vicious insect predator that it is, may be the bees’ ancestor, but rest assured their tinier evolved versions are much less hostile. Bees are thought to be the result of wasp larvae being fed insects that were flower visitors and thus covered in pollen. The larvae got used to the taste of pollen more than the taste of insects, hence the switch. However, even if they aren’t aggressive, bees will still sting as a defense mechanism. Bee stings and bee venom have quite a list of effects on a person. They can cause allergic reactions (some people can die from bee venom), rashes, break outs, and anaphylactic shock, just to name a few.
Are They Near You?
Bees build their hives in hollow areas such as caves, rock cavities, and holes in trees. Some species build exposed aerial combs, hence the typical cartoon depiction of a have hanging from a branch. Bees build their nests at heights between 1 meter and 5 meters. Because most bees – especially the honey bee – have been domesticated to produce honey for human consumption, they can be found in varying habitats all over the world. However, here’s a little checklist for you to know where they’re more likely to hang out.
- TROPICAL – research indicates that bees were originally from tropical climates. So the warmer the temperature, the more appealing to them.
- HEAVILY FORESTED – bees, in their natural setting, prefer building hives in places with lots of trees and plants. While they can travel a fair distance to get food, they will still try to nest as close to a food source as possible.
- FLOWERS – most bees can thrive in both domesticated or natural environments. However, they’re more likely to nest in gardens, meadows, orchards, or other places where flowering plants are abundant.
- HOLLOW – hollow trees, rock crevices, and wood cavities — it’s in a bees instinct to build nests under edges and in hard-to-reach areas in order to protect themselves from predators impervious to their stings.
- They have a long proboscis (tongue) which they use to get to the flower nectar.
- Most bees posture rather than sting; they will hold up their stinger for the threat to get a good look at it, but most species of bee would rather it end there. Some of them can even die once they sting, so it’s definitely a last resort in their case.
- While bees feed on both nectar and pollen, pollen is primarily a food source for their babies (larvae)
- There are no wingless bees, but there are stingless bees! This species is absolutely tiny – no longer than 2mm.
- Speaking of size, the largest bee in the world are the leafcutter bees. Their females can reach a length of 39mm, or 1.5inches.
Average life span: 5 years
Modern commodities. Honeybee hives are the best source for honey and beeswax. They are the only surviving group of bees from the Apini tribe — insects that can produce and store liquefied sugar. Or, in this case, honey. Their workers can also secrete wax, which they use to build their nests.
Three classes. The bees in each have are divided into three types: workers, drones, and the queen. Workers are the only bees that most people see. They are the ones responsible for foraging food and building and protecting the hive. Worker bees are female bees that are not sexually developed. The queen bee is the single, solitary source for all the eggs that will eventually become the hive’s next generation. Male bees are called drones. Several hundred of them live in each hive, but are expelled during winter months when the hive enters survival mode.
Royal transformation. If the queen dies, workers create a new queen by feeding one of the females a special, jelly-like substance that enables the worker to develop into a fully-fertile queen.
Average lifespan: workers can only live up to a few months, while their queen can survive as long as year.
Girl power. Unlike other bees that die shortly after their sting (when they fly off after stinging, their stinger – along with their intestines – are ripped from their body) female bumblebees can sting repeatedly without adverse side effects. Don’t worry! They generally ignore humans. Meanwhile, some species of bumblebee, like the cuckoo bumblebee, do not build nests. Their queen invades the nests of other bumblebees, kills the resident queen, and then lays her own eggs. The resident workers take care of the new queens eggs.
Fuzzy transportation. While all bumblebees are fuzzy, you can often distinguish different types by their legs. The hair on the legs of the nest-making bumblebee are modified to form a pollen basket; a bare, shiny area surrounded by a fringe of hairs. Cuckoo bumblebees, on the other hand, are covered in hair all around where the pollen grains can be wedged for transport.
Bah, humble. Bumblebees used to be called humblebees! In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin refers to them as such. It wasn’t until World War 2 that the word fell into total disuse.
Average lifespan: Males die soon after they’re finished mating. Females can survive a little longer, but most don’t reach more than a year.
Masonry. The leafcutter bee is also called the mason bee.
Manpower. Honeybees may be the most common and sought after bee, but the leafcutter bee is more than just a glorified hedge trimmer. US Agricultural Research Service says that 1 leafcutter bee can do the job of 20 honeybees. That means that 150 little leafcutter bees can provide the same pollination service of about 3,000 honeybees!
Cavity-lovers. Leafcutter bees are cavity-nesting bees. This means that they build their nests in ready-made cavities rather than build a hive from scratch. They prefer soft materials – like rotting wood – that can be easily excavated. Once they find a suitable spot, they build cells and line them with little leaf pieces that – you got it – they cut themselves. Some species in Europe even line their cells with petals.
It’s an art. While many may worry that leafcutter bees will damage their plants, remember that leafcutters can cut away segments in a very neat fashion. They cut out crescent-shaped segments out of their chosen leaf. If the edges are jagged or ripped, that’s the work of a bird or a caterpillar.
verage lifespan: 1 year, although queens can live a little longer
Woodworking. Carpenter bees are so-called because of their habit of digging into wooden surfaces to make their nests. They’re not aggressive per se, but they are likely to sting you if you get too close to their precious woodwork.
Special characteristics. A carpenter bee’s thorax is furry and fuzzy, but its abdomen remains bare and glossy. Male carpenter bees also have black heads with white spots while female carpenter bees have purely black heads.
Why build when you can rent? While the female carpenter bees build nests in which to lay their eggs, they actually prefer using old nests. Female carpenters builds nests by biting right into the wood to make tunnels, so the building process is rather time-consuming and labor-intensive.
Flexing their muscles. Male carpenter bees are absolutely aggressive when it comes to defending the nest. Whenever a threat comes to close to the nest the female is building, the males react. In reality, this won’t amount to much damage against the threat, as only the females have stingers. Points for effort, though.