Bees are part of a group of insects known as Hymenoptera which also includes ants, wasps and sawflies. Bees are found on every continent of the Earth except Antarctica. There are about 20,000 different species of bees around the world. 4,000 of those species live in the United States. Honey bees and bumblebees are probably the best known.
The honey bees in the United States were brought here when Europeans migrated here in the 1600s and 1700s. Other bees, such as bumblebees and carpenter bees, are native to the U.S. Bees are a very beneficial insect that are necessary for the pollination of many plants.
Most bees live in communities known as colonies. Sometimes they build their hives in trees or abandoned rodent holes. Some kinds of bees actually dig holes into the ground to live or make their homes in small spaces in fences or rocks. People have kept bees and used their honey since ancient times. These days, people raise huge honey bee colonies by providing spaces especially for the bees to build their hives. They then harvest the wax and the honey to sell.
The Queen, the Drones, and the Workers
Honey bees and bumblebees have very organized communities called colonies. Each hive has only one queen. She became a queen when her larvae body was selected out of all the other larvae and she was fed something called royal jelly — a substance secreted by the worker bees that care for the larvae. Her body is now larger than all of the other types of bees. Her only job is to lay eggs. This starts in the spring and can continue until fall. She lives to be about five years old. Queens rarely leave the nest.
The drones are the only males in the hives and do no work except feed themselves. Their only job is to mate with the queen. Then they die. After the egg-laying season is over, those that didn't mate are forced to leave the hive.
Workers are all female and do all of the work within a colony. Workers create the hive from wax that they produce from their bodies. They gather all of the nectar used to make honey. They care for the eggs and the larvae, raise the young bees, clean the nest, get rid of dead bees and other debris, defend the nest, and feed the queen. A honey bee colony may have as many as 50,000 workers. Bumblebee colonies are much smaller.
Bees do not have bones. They have an exoskeleton; a hard outer shell that gives them structure, protection and support. The exoskeleton is covered in several kinds of hair. Like other insects, the body of a bee is divided into three body regions: head, thorax, and abdomen.
Bees have a head with a pair of antennae and five eyes. Three of the eyes are simple eyes and work similarly to our eyes. The other two are compound eyes; each compound eye has 150 seeing parts. A proboscis is a tube-like straw which allows a bee to collect nectar. The thorax is the middle section of the bee's body, between the head and the abdomen. The thorax is similar to the chest of a human. Bees have four wings — two in the front and two in the back. The arrangement of the wings gives them special flying ability. Their legs have hairs that act like a pollen-carrying basket. In the abdomen, they have a honey stomach for storing the nectar that they collect until they return to the hive. At the very end of the abdomen is the stinger, which is attached to very strong muscles, and the venom bulb.
When flowers begin to bloom in the spring, the worker honey bees are attracted to them because of their color and fragrance. They love to drink the nectar the flowers contain. Their hive is made of little rooms or combs. The nectar is deposited in the combs later when the worker bees return home. They fan the combs with their wings to help water evaporate from the nectar. This thickens the nectar into honey. When the honey is ready, they cover the comb with wax to protect it.
Today's bees have been bred to be far more efficient than bees of old. This allows them to make far more of the honey than they need. Beekeepers take the excess and leave what the bees need to survive. Honey bees use the honey for the same reason we do. They eat it.
While the worker bees are crawling around in the flowers drinking nectar, they are also doing a huge service to the plant world. Pollen is a fine, powdery substance that plants use to create fruit and seeds. It grows on the anther of a flower. But it needs to be deposited on the pistil of the flower for the flower to make its fruit. The plant is unable to perform this function on its own. When the bees crawl around inside the flowers, they gather pollen on their legs — lots of it. Some of the pollen is then transferred from one flower to the pistil of the next flower. The pollen then makes its way down into the fruit-making part of the flower. There, the pollen combines with the material inside the ovary to grow into fruit filled with seeds. Learn more about the plant-bee partnership at Science Trek's Botany page.
Bees communicate through two dances that they perform to tell other bees about the location of nectar. The first dance is known as the "waggle dance" and involves waggling their tails and turning in a figure eight. It is used to point out the location of food more than 35 yards away from the hive. It is so specific and accurate that scientists have actually been able to translate the movements and actually "read" the directions the bees are giving. The "round dance" is for telling about food less than 35 yards and is done after sharing some of the nectar with the other bees. They do not get direction from her about location, but they can use the scent of the shared nectar to help them find it.
If you have Apple QuickTime loaded on your computer, you can watch bee dances at this NOVA site. If not, here is a YouTube version.
Bees do not sting as an aggressive act. They sting to defend their hive. Drones do not have the ability to sting. Workers are primarily the bees that sting. Their stinger has a barb or hook at the end of it which causes it to remain in the skin of the victim. When the bee tries to fly away, the stinger is pulled off of the worker and they subsequently die. The queen can sting, but since she rarely leaves the hive, it is uncommon for her to do so.
Stingers inject venom, and the venom sac remains attached even after the bee has flown away. Removing the stinger is the best defense against the venom. The venom is usually only an irritant. Only people with bee sting allergies ever get sick or die from a sting.
Besides dancing, bees also communicate by buzzing, by emitting chemicals known as pheromones, and by sharing food — an activity called trophallaxis. The queen uses pheromones to keep order in her hive. Pheromones are also exchanged during the passing of food from one bee to another. The bees do this just before the round dance and when they feed their young or the queen. They are very complex, and it seems, very intelligent creatures.
Bees also use pheromones to create a swarm. When a hive becomes too large for the queen to accommodate all of the worker bees, a new queen will be created. The old queen will produce pheromones to gather a portion of the hive together just before going off to create a new hive. The bees all fly around the queen looking for a new place to nest. The new queen then takes over in the old nest to control her hive.
Africanized Honey Bees: In the 1950s honey bees were brought from Africa to Brazil in hopes that they could be bred with the European bees that lived there. The goal was to create a better kind of honey bee that could make more honey. These Africanized bees spread throughout South America and parts of North America. They have been given the name "killer bees" because they are more aggressive and more likely to sting than the common European honeybee. However, like other honey bees, they are only defensive at the nest.
Missing Bees: Many native plants and food crops require bees for pollination. Throughout the world, bees pollinate more than three-fourths of the food crops that people eat. Different species of bees pollinate many of the different plants that make up our food supply. One out of every three bites of food in the human diet is a result of bee pollination! Think about a hamburger: without bees, there would be no ketchup, mustard, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, onions, or even cheese which comes from cows who eat bee-pollinated alfalfa. And the chips or fries come from bee-pollinated potatoes. Bees also pollinate plants that provide food and habitat for all types of animals. Bees are a critical part of the ecosystems that support life.
So it is a concern that American and Canadian honey bees, as well as other kinds of native bees, have been declining in numbers over the past decade. Scientists don't know the exact reason, but it is probably a combination of factors: parasites, pesticides, infections, bee stress, and loss of important bee habitat. Today, scientists are working to collect more data about bees so they will know better how to help their survival. You can help bees by planting a variety of flowering plants, reducing pesticide use, and providing nesting habitat. Learn more about helping to protect bees.