Introduction: Bees come in many colours, shapes and sizes – more than you might initially think – but most of us will be more familiar with the honey bee and the bumblebee, which we notice buzzing around the garden flowers in spring and summer on pleasant days.
There are approximately 20,000 different species of bee worldwide, (Britain has some 250 plus species of bee alone) and although some of them are solitary insects, others form complex social orders to ensure their perpetuation as a highly structured species. Other bees, on the other hand, have evolved as parasites which feed and utilise other bee colonies to their own ends, sometimes taking over the host colony completely.
One third of the human food resources rely entirely on insects for their survival, and most off this involves the humble bee. Fruit, vegetable, and cereal crops would not be able to reproduce without the aid of pollination, and this is where bees come to play a very important and active role within the cycle of Mother Nature. Domesticated bees also play an important role in this, and as well as doing their bit for flowering plants, they also produce, honey, wax, and other products which we all make use of.
The importance of the bee to the world ecosystem cannot be understated, and since the start of the twentieth century we have seen a decline in the bee populace and pollination of certain species of plant as a whole. And as we get closer to these wonders of nature we will see how really important and wonderful they are.
Evolution: The oldest definitive bee fossil ever discovered was found in New Jersey amber between the 1920s and 1930s. It was dated back to the late Cretaceous period (some 70.6 to 65 million years ago), and is called Cretotrigona prisca. It is believed bees, like ants, evolved from wasps, from the ancestoral family known as Crabronidae. Bees were thus carnivorous in their early nature, and somewhere along the line they branched off and took a liking to pollen. Because of the close symbiotically of bees and flowering plants, their evolution must have had an equally close association.
Biology: Bees belong to one of the largest insect orders called Hymenoptera, from Ancient Greek it literally translates as ‘membranous wings’ – humen (membrane) pteron (wing). Sawflies, wasps, and ants are also included in this order. From this follows the suborder Apocita, and then the family Apidae, which now generally covers all types of bee where before they were split up into several different families.
Bees are high consumers of pollen and nectar, and during this process they aid in the fertilisation of many flowering plants. Pollen is protein rich, and it is this they mostly feed to their larvae. The nectar is a high energy source, and the adults use this as a food source. They are well adapted to gaining and gathering pollen, and have evolved long proboscis’s (tongues) to aid them in this process. Pollen is collected by the worker bees via hairs on the forelegs, head and other parts of the body, and this is then transported to the pollen carrying organs (pollen baskets or corbiculas) during flight from one blossom to another. A single hair usually pins and secures the compacted pollen load in place.
As typical for the superfamily, bees have antennae which are universally made up of 13 segments in males and 12 in females. They also have two pairs of wings, the hindwings being the smallest. They see the world with compound eyes which are made up of hundreds of small simple eyes called ommatidia. They see the world through these specialised eyes in a completely different way than we do, and although they can see in colour, they can also see in the ultraviolet light spectrum and are also able to distinguish polarised light which they use as an aid to navigation. The stinger evolved from the ovipositor (a long egg-laying tube which some wasps still retain) and so it is only the female of the species which can defend itself in this way.
Bees go through a metamorphosis stage, from egg, to larvae, pupation, and eventual emergence as an adult bee. The larvae are white legless grubs which are entirely dependant upon the worker caste for food and protection within the colony. They are fed on a diet of nectar and pollen before being sealed in their cells with wax in readiness for the pupation stage. Eventually the grub is no longer, and a winged, hairy bee is freed from the cell ready to explore the world outside the nest.
Bee Species: There are various species of bee which have evolved different ways of living in comparison to one another. Most of us are familiar with the honey bee and the quaint timber built bee hives set in sunny rural surroundings, and the way they work together under a hierarchy of order and control, but few realise that other bees are solitary, belonging to no colony or order, and others still are parasites which use other social orders of bee to shelter, feed, and protect them. Some bees nest in trees, others in the ground or in walls, and whilst most bees’ sting, some bees harbour none at all, such is their diversity.
Note the above was written in May 2007.
Below you will find various species of bee, some familiar, some not so familiar. I have arranged them via their families except for the bumblebees of which, my favourite of the bees, I have separtaed into their tribe. Clicking on the images will open up new pages so you can learn more about these beautiful and fascinating insects.
Tribe Bombini: Bumblebees
Family Apidae: True Bees
Family Megachilidae: Mason, Leafcutter, Carder, and Resin Bees
Family Andrenidae: Mining Bees
Family Halictidae: Sweat Bees
Family Colletidae: Plasterer Bees