Types of Bees.

Most people, when asked about their idea about what a bee is, only think about the honey bee and the honey that they produce. Actually, there are more than 20,000 kinds of bees in the world and only about 10 species of honey bees. In this article, I will discuss the non-Apis or native bees, as they are commonly called. Most of the information is from the web site, www.bugguide.net.

Native bees are an unappreciated treasure, with 4,000 species from tiny Perdita to large carpenter bees, they can be found anywhere in North America where flowers bloom. Most people don’t realize that there were no honey bees in America until the white settlers brought hives from Europe. These resourceful insects promptly managed to escape domestication, forming swarms, and setting up housekeeping in hollow trees, other cavities, or even survived exposed to the elements just as they had been doing in their native lands. Native pollinators, in particular bees, had been doing all the pollination in this continent before the arrival of that import from the Old World. They continue to do a great deal of it, especially when it comes to native plants.

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Non-native honey bee, Apis mellifera: 1. Queen surrounded by attendants. 2. Swarm. 3. Combs of a feral colony

The honey bee, remarkable as it is, doesn’t know how to pollinate a tomato or an eggplant flower, while some native bees are masters at this. The same thing happens with a number of native plants, such as pumpkins, watermelons, blueberries, and cranberries, which are more efficiently pollinated by native bees than by honey bees. Let us take a closer look at this forgotten treasure of native bees.

Native bees come in a wide range of sizes and are also varied in their shapes, life styles, places they frequent, nests they build, flowers they visit, and season of activity. They remain unnoticed by most of us and yet they provide valuable services to all kinds of flowering plants, from wild flowers to some important crops. For instance, the Southeastern blueberry bee is a hard working little creature, capable of visiting as many as 50,000 blueberry flowers in her short life and pollinating enough of them to produce more than 6,000 ripe blueberries worth about $20 at the market. Not every bee that you see flitting about may be worth $20, but all of them combined keep the world of flowering plants going; flowering plants are a key component of most land ecosystems.

Bees are descended from wasps. Most wasps are carnivores; they either prey upon or parasitize other little creatures, mostly other insects, and use this rich protein source to feed their babies. Many millions of years ago, when the first flowering plants begun to bloom, some wasps made a switch from hunting prey to gathering pollen for their brood. Perhaps they were hunting for insects that visited flowers and ate some of the pollen along with their prey. It didn’t take much to find the advantages of consuming pollen over hunting. Pollen is also rich in proteins and doesn’t fight back so it is easy to imagine why they were happy to become vegetarians. Gathering pollen and nectar requires certain adaptations different from those of hunters, so they started to change to meet these requirements and consequently became bees.

Most bees have very furry bodies and the hairs are feathery – better for trapping loose pollen. If you observe bees or bumble bees at flowers, you will notice that some are totally covered by pollen grains.

However, this would not be a very convenient way for transporting their cargo back to the nest, so most have pollen baskets of one sort or another, either on their hind legs or under their bellies. They frequently brush themselves, picking all those loose pollen grains and transferring them to their pollen baskets. They have a fairly long tongue to sip the nectar usually buried in the heart of the flower, and a large crop or a second stomach for carrying it. A few less visible adaptations also took place when bees were evolving from wasps, including a knack for finding flowers through smell, colors, and patterns and a good memory to keep going back to the same flowers that yield a good recompense.

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The mother bee uses some of the nectar to mix it with the pollen. She also uses it for her own nutrition; nectar is a high octane fuel and with all the flying she does, she needs a lot of fuel. In this respect, bees resemble many of their relatives, the wasps.

In the next blog, I will talk about the different kinds of native bees.

 

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