Types of Bees
While most people think of honey bees when they think of bees, there are actually a very large number of bee types in the world. Bees are divided into two major groups: social bees and solitary bees. Social bees are those that live in colonies and have caste systems that include drone bees, worker bees, and queen bees. Solitary bees are those that live alone in individual nests, breeding and raising their young in a solitary fashion.
While there are varying levels of sociality in bees, and different ways that caste systems can be organized, it is fairly easy to know whether a bee is social or solitary. For one thing, social bees always have one queen bee who lays all of the eggs for the nest. Solitary bees, instead, have many fertile female bees who all mate for themselves and dig or build their own nests.
Regardless of whether they are social or solitary, bees are always very important pollinators. They are necessary for the maintenance of human agriculture, as well as central to natural ecosystems of all sorts. Because so many animals and insects depend on plants for food, it would be disastrous if plants were unable to reproduce. Because pollinators are the reason that plants are capable of reproducing, they are essential for the survival of both humans and all natural ecosystems.
Bumblebees are another type of social bee, but unlike honey bees, bumblebees do not make honey. They do store nectar in small nectar pots in their nests, but do not process it the way that honey bees do, and it therefore remains nectar and never becomes honey.
Bumblebee colonies are much smaller than those of honey bees, reaching only 500 individuals at maximum. Bumblebees live mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, although a few species appear in South America. These bees are rounder and fuzzier than honey bees and most other bees. There are more than 250 species of bumblebee still living in the world today.
Bumblebees are mostly black just like honey bees but are much fuzzier and plumper than honey bees. They have orange, yellow, or even whitish-gray stripes on their bodies depending on the species. Like all insects, they have six legs, two antennae, and a chitin exoskeleton.
Like honey bees, bumblebees form colonies including a reproductive queen, fertile male drones, and infertile female worker bees. The queen bee hibernates during the winter, being the only bee to survive winter each year. In the spring, she emerges from hibernation and begins to build a nest and lay eggs.
Bumblebee queens build their nests in existing cavities in trees or underground, where they are sheltered from the elements and from predators. Once the queen has laid worker eggs and the eggs have hatched into the first worker bees of the season, the queen primarily stays inside the nest and simply lays eggs. The worker bees perform all of the work of the colony, including feeding and cleaning the queen so that she can focus on egg-laying.
At the end of the summer, the queen begins to lay unfertilized eggs that develop into male drone bees. Then, she lays eggs that are raised to become new queen bees. These new queen bees leave the nest when they hatch, to find the male drone bees and mate. After mating, the drone bees die and the new queen bees find a place in the ground to hibernate during the winter.
Unlike honey bees, female bumblebees can sting multiple times without dying because their stingers are not barbed. However, bumblebees are not very aggressive and only sting if they feel threatened by a human or animal.
Drones are male honey bees whose sole function is to mate and pass on the genes from the queen of their own colony. The drone will not mate with the resident queen in the colony but will embark on mating flights to reproduce with a virgin queen from a different colony, ensuring genetic diversity.
Honey bees are the most well-known type of bee because of their honey production. People commonly keep honey bees for this very honey production, in order to harvest honey and consume or sell it. When people think of bees, they are usually thinking of honey bees, or sometimes bumblebees.
There are actually nine different species of honey bee, but the kind that is typically kept in the United States is the European honey bee, or Apis mellifera. There are other species of honey bee that live in South and Southeast Asia, including the Giant Honey Bee and more.
Most species of honey bees, while varying in size, appear fairly similar to each other. They are largely black with yellow or reddish-orange markings and brownish, translucent wings. Their thoraxes are fuzzy and usually all black, while differently colored markings appear on their abdomens. They have two antennae, six legs, and a chitin exoskeleton like all other insects.
All honey bee species are social insects, and they all make honey in one way or another. Apis mellifera was one of the first insects that were domesticated by humans and is the main species that is kept for its honey production and pollination functions. European honey bee colonies can reach more than 60,000 individual bees.
Honey bees’ social nature means that they live in colonies made up of queen bees, worker bees, and drone bees. These colonies are typically kept by humans in manmade hives, where they live and make honey. The queen bee is responsible only for laying eggs to create new worker and drone bees. Worker bees perform all of the daily activities of the hive, including foraging, nest defense, and caring for the larvae and pupae. Drones only exist to fertilize new queen bees when they are ready to mate.
Honey bees are kept for the honey, wax, propolis, and pollen products that they create in their hives. Beekeepers collect these products in a variety of ways, and people use them for various purposes. Honey is often eaten or used in cosmetics, beeswax is used for candles, and pollen and propolis are used as dietary supplements.
The European honey bee is one of the only types of bees that live in temperate areas and survive the winter as a colony. While there are other species in which the queen will survive the winter, in most species the workers and drones all die off before winter begins. Honey bees, unlike most other bees, huddle together in their hives all winter in order to use their collective body heat to survive the cold.
Carpenter bees are those that belong to the genus Xylocopa. There are about 500 species of carpenter bees, and they are named for the way that they burrow into wood and other hard plant material.
Most carpenter bees are black with some yellow or white markings. Carpenter bees are easily confused with bumblebees, but they are shinier on their abdomen than bumblebees. Many carpenter bees, especially males, have white or yellow faces, which is another way to tell them apart from bumblebees.
Carpenter bees dig their nests by vibrating their bodies to use their mandibles to chew through hard plant material. They build a single entrance with several or even many adjoining tunnels where eggs are laid and food is stored. They do not eat the wood that they chew off, but rather discard it or use it to build partitions within their nests.
Mason bees, or bees of the genus Osmia, get their name because they use mud and other masonry products in order to build their nests. They use these materials to construct small burrows in cracks between stones and other crevices and often nest near manmade buildings. Some Osmia bees like to nest in holes left behind in wood by insects such as termites.
Mason bees mostly live in the Northern Hemisphere in temperate climates and are only active in the spring and summer. There are more than 300 species of mason bees.
Mason bees are usually metallic blue or green, with some being black or dark red. They vary in size and are very beautiful insects. Like all bees, they have two antennae, six legs, and two sets of wings.
Mason bees overwinter in cocoons, unlike mining bees. The males leave the cocoons first and wait near the nests for the females to emerge. Some males even pull the females out of the cocoons. The bees then mate, and the males die quickly afterwards.
The females, after mating, begin constructing nests in which to lay eggs. They choose narrow cracks and crevices or cylindrical cavities left behind by other insects or naturally occurring in wood or bamboo. The females do not dig the nests, but rather use mud, clay, and plant materials to construct a nest within their chosen cavity.
After building the nest successfully, the female bee begins to forage for nectar and pollen. She drinks nectar for herself and collects pollen to feed her young. She builds a small ball of pollen which she lays an egg on top of, and seals it away with more mud. She will lay as many eggs as will fit in her nest, with the female eggs laid in the back of the nest and the male eggs laid near the entrance. After the nest is full of eggs, the mother bee plugs the entrance with more mud and may build an entirely new nest if the seasons permit.
Mining bees are those belonging to the Andrena genus. There are over 1,500 species of Andrena bees, making it one of the largest genera of insects and animals. Mining bees can be found almost anywhere in the world, although not in South America or Oceania.
Andrena bees are called mining bees because they dig their nests in the ground, creating tiny mines in which they live. Mining bees of different species have different preferences for what materials they like to dig into for nesting, but most prefer dirt or sandy soil because they can move it easily with their mandibles and legs.
Andrena bees are usually medium-sized and black with white, tan, or yellow hair. Most Andrena bees carry pollen on the tiny hairs all over their bodies, though some have special mechanisms on their thoraxes where they can carry additional pollen.
Some species of Andrena bees nest communally or in aggregations, meaning that they will build nests very close to each other or even share a nest entrance to build brood cells off of. But all species of Andrena bees are technically solitary, because they do not have a queen, do not make honey, and do not really share nests as social bees and insects do.
Andrena females mate in the spring and then dig their nests in the ground, where they store collections of pollen to feed their young. Each egg is laid in a brood cell lined with a material that the bees secrete, and is given a small ball of pollen to feed on throughout development.
The larvae, once they have developed into adult bees, spend the winter in their nests and do not emerge until spring. In the spring, bees come out of their brood cells and mate to begin the cycle anew. All of the previous year’s mothers and males die before winter comes.
Many species of Andrena bees are specialists, meaning that they only feed on a select few types of plants. This makes them somewhat vulnerable, because they are selective about what food they are willing to eat, and if that food becomes unavailable they can struggle to find anything to eat.
Plasterer bees, or the Colletidae family, use secretions from their mouths to line the cells of their nests. These secretions acts somewhat like plaster walls to protect the eggs and food stores within the nest.
While plasterer bees can be found worldwide, they are most common in Australia and South America. Plasterer bees make up 50% of Australia’s bee species. Only between two and five genera are found in Europe and North America.
The Colletidae family is one of few bee families that include nocturnal species, which are those that travel and forage at night. Typically, bees stay in their nests at night or sleep hanging on flowers because they cannot see well in the dark. But nocturnal species of bees have enlarged ocelli that help them see in the dark.
Sweat bees, or bees in the family Halictidae, are found worldwide on every continent. They are the second-largest family of bees and include almost 4,500 species. Sweat bees are attracted to human sweat, which is where they get their name.
They are often metallic and dark-colored, with some being even purple or blue. They vary widely in size, color, and markings. Males often have a yellow face, and all of the Halictidae bees have short tongues. Females are usually larger than males.
While most sweat bee species are technically social bees, they are not quite like honey bees or bumblebees. Many species of sweat bee are only primitively social, in that they share nests and live together but do not have the defined caste system of workers, drones, and queens that honey bees or bumblebees do.
Depending on the species, sweat bees can have more defined caste systems or less defined caste systems. Each species has its own way of doing things which varies from other species of sweat bees and from other social bees such as honey bees and bumblebees.
Some species of sweat bees are kleptoparasitic, meaning that they steal food from other species of bees, entering their nests and taking their nectar and pollen stores. Other species of sweat bees are nocturnal, with enlarged ocelli that allow them to see effectively at night.
Stingless bees make up about 550 species of bees that belong to the Apidae family. They are called stingless bees because, while they have a stinger, their stinger is very small and cannot be used to defend themselves.
Stingless bees are found in tropical or subtropical areas, including Africa, parts of Asia, Australia, and tropical parts of America. In these areas, they are farmed for their honey production because their honey is used as medicine in many cultures.
Stingless bees are able to be active year-round because they live in the tropics. When it is cold outside, the bees are simply less active than they would be in the warmer weather. They do not hibernate or huddle as bumblebees or honey bees do.
While stingless bees cannot sting humans effectively, they do have powerful mandibles that can deliver a powerful bite. Some species secrete substances out of their mandibles that cause painful blisters to form on human skin. So even though they don’t sting, they can still cause humans pain.
Stingless bees nest in cavities typically left behind by other animals or within trees. They sometimes nest underground but sometimes aboveground. Beekeepers who keep stingless bees keep them in traditional hives or in bamboo, logs, coconut shells, or pottery vases, depending on the culture that they belong to.
Stingless bees do not build honeycomb exactly like honey bees do, but they do build little egg-shaped pots within their hives where they store nectar and lay eggs. Similar to honey bees, they build these pots out of beeswax, though it can sometimes be mixed with plant resin as well.
Like honey bees and bumblebees, stingless bees have queens, drones, and worker bees. Queen bees are responsible for laying the eggs of a colony to create new worker bees and drone bees. Drones mate with the queen bees, allowing them to fertilize eggs. Worker bees perform the daily activities necessary for the survival of the hive, including foraging, nest defense, and care of the young larvae.
Social bees are bees that live in colonies and build nests together. They typically have a very distinct caste system within their colonies, in which there are queen bees, worker bees, and drone bees who all have specific roles that aid the colony’s survival. Queen bees are solely responsible for laying eggs, while all of the other female bees are sterile worker bees and perform the survival activities of the hive, such as foraging and nest defense. The male drone bees exist only to mate with new queens.
There are three major types of social bees: honey bees, bumblebees, and stingless bees. Honey bees are the most well-known type of bee, famous for the fact that they make the common honey that humans enjoy. Bumblebees are known for their fuzzy, round bodies and bumbling motions. Stingless bees, like honey bees, make a rarer type of honey that is more sought after than the common honey bee honey.
Solitary bees are those that live independently in nests, with each female mating and laying eggs alone in her own nest. Some species of solitary bees will nest in aggregates, meaning that the females will build nests very close to each other. Some will even share one entrance to a nest, but all solitary bees build their own egg chambers and brood cells in which to lay their eggs.
Solitary bees include mining bees, mason bees, plasterer bees, sweat bees, and carpenter bees. While there are some solitary bees that do not fall into any of these categories, these are the major types of solitary bees. Solitary bees constitute the majority of bee species.
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