Bees have become increasingly popular, with “Save the Bees” campaigns becoming common-place and many people taking up backyard beekeeping as a hobby. As a bee-searcher (that’s a bee researcher, for those not in the know), I’ve been asked tons of questions about bees over the years. I’ve realized that many of them are asking similar things that relate to the fundamentals of bee biology. So here, I present to you some basic background information about bees to get you grounded in their wonderful world. Please enjoy: the Bee Basics (or Beesics, if you will).
- There are 20,000 species of bee in the world. That’s more than the number of mammal and bird species combined. There are about 4,000 species in North America.
- Bees are insects, and their closest relatives are wasps, ants, and sawflies. Technically, bees are a sub-group of wasps that have evolved to get all their protein from pollen rather than from hunting (like most wasps do). They’re vegetarian wasps!
- Bees get their food from flowers, using nectar as a carbohydrate source and pollen as a protein source. They’re important pollinators because as they visit flowers they accidentally carry pollen between different flowers, which is how the plants reproduce.
- Of those 20,000 species, only eight species are honeybees (give or take, what counts as a species differs depending on who you ask). The only honeybee in North America is Apis mellifera, the European honeybee.
- The European honeybee isn’t native to North America. It’s a domesticated and managed species here; there are no “wild” honeybees in America per se. Any non-managed honeybees in the US are feral and invasive.
- Honeybee health is agriculturally and economically important, but they aren’t in danger of going extinct. Starting a “honeybee sanctuary” to save the bees (like Morgan Freeman allegedly did) is like starting a chicken sanctuary to save the birds—it just doesn’t make sense. That said, definitely get into beekeeping as a hobby if you want, but look into ways to support native bees too!
- We mainly think of bees as living in big social colonies, with a queen and workers. The truth is that less than a quarter of bee species live like this. Around 75% of all bee species are solitary, where a single female will make her own little nest (e.g. in the ground, in plant stems, in wood, etc.), lay eggs, and raise young.
- In a social bee colony, all the worker bees are female. Males don’t usually do much to help the group, but rather focus on going out to find a mate. All the workers are daughters of the queen. Both queens and workers can lay male eggs.
- Honeybee colonies are perennial, meaning they last over multiple years. This is why they make honey—it serves as a food source over the winter. Bumblebees, on the other hand, are annual. This means bumblebees don’t make honey and the entire colony dies at the end of the year, except for the new queens, who instead mate and then hibernate over the winter and emerge to start new colonies in the spring.
- Only female bees can sting. The stinger is a modified egg-laying organ called an ovipositor, so males don’t have them.
Thanks for reading my Beesics! Hopefully, this list clarifies some things you might have wondered about bees in the past. If you want to learn more about how to help native bees, I’d encourage you to learn more from the Xerces Society’s website here: https://xerces.org/endangered-species/wild-bees
Darren Incorvaia: If you have bee questions, I’m happy to take them and then forward them to somebody smarter than me on Twitter: @MegaDarren.
Image: Female Perdita luteola, one of the many solitary bees of North America. Photo from the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.