So we all know what a bee is, right? Yellow and black with wings, flies around and likes flowers. But wait, is that a wasp? Do bees die when they sting you? Do all bees make honey? What’s the honey even for?? Some bees look different, are they bees or something else? Not all bees live in bee hives, so where do the others live? Do they all have queen bees? I realised I had a lot of questions when I really started thinking about bees, so I did some research and have written this little back-to-basics post. Some of the stuff I learnt really surprised me, its amazing what you think you know, and then realise its wrong…
There are lots of different types of bees in the UK, about 250 species! Mind blown right there. We have:
* 24 species of bumblebees
* 1 species of honey bee
* About 250 species of solitary bee
Bumblebees look pretty different from honeybees and solitary bees, they are larger and rounder and fluffier (and I think, kinda cute). Bumblebees eat pollen and nectar, but as they are flying between plants collecting their food, they will accidentally transfer pollen between them, and its this pollination thats essential to crop growth.
They have lots of awesome adaptations that make them great pollinators: firstly, all that hair on their bodies and legs means the pollen literally sticks to them when they go looking for sweet tasty nectar from flowering plants. They then move this pollen into their pollen-baskets on their legs to take back to the nest, but some will transfer to other plants and ensure pollination. The 24 different species are all adapted slightly differently too, which makes sure all the different flowering crops are catered for. They all have different tongue lengths so bees with short tongues will pollinate flowers which a short corollas (the name of the tube that leads to the nectar), and those with longer tongues will pollinate plants with longer corollas. Bumblebees have one final amazing trick (this one was new on me!) – they can do something called ‘buzz pollinating’. Some plants make their pollen hard to get to (its costly for them to produce so they only want the very best pollinators to get to it) by packing it tightly into a small space. The bumblebees are the only bees who can get to this pollen, by vibrating their wings so fast that the vibrations make the packed pollen explode into a cloud which the bees can then collect up and take on to pollinate other plants. Tomatoes and aubergines are two of the plants who pollinate in this way, so we wouldn’t be able to grow these crops if we didn’t have bumblebees!
They live in messy nests in dry, dark places of anything between 50-400 other bees, with a queen bee in charge. Bumblebees only live for a few short months but the queen lives for a year – she hibernates over the winter, finds a suitable nest and starts the new population and is then replaced by a new queen. Unlike the honeybee, bumblebees only make a very small amount of honey to eat, tending to prefer the pollen and nectar in its basic form. They live completely wild in our gardens and countryside, and need a good supply of flowering plants and suitable nesting sites to live. Both of these things are in short supply in our modern world, which is why the bumblebee is declining rapidly.
Compared to bumblebees, our single species of honeybee is much smaller and more streamlined, a bit like a wasp. They have shorter tongues too so prefer more open flowers to the bumblebee, ensuring all flower types are pollinated.
Honeybees have quite a different home setup – although there are a few wild populations, most honeybees are owned by beekeepers and live in designated hives. The colonies are huge, up to 80,000 bees: one queen, hundreds of male drones and thousands of female workers. Hives are made of honeycomb: layers of wax which house nectar and honey as well as the larvae which will eventually hatch out as adult bees. The secret behind this efficient honeycomb is the hexagonal shape. This starts off as a circle, shaped round the bees’ body, and gradually turns into hexagonal for maximum storage efficiency with the wax gently melting, the cell walls naturally falling flat and taking on the shape of a hexagon, like adjoining bubbles in a bath. The honeybees themselves eat pollen and nectar, but back in the hive this is converted into honey which the larvae eat, and is then harvested by the beekeeper for us to eat too. Watch this incredible time-lapse video of bee larvae hatching inside the hive, its unreal:
Its honeybees that perform the legendary ‘waggle dance’ – a form of communication that tells other bees back at the hive which direction to head for a really good pollen source. They do this by shaking their behinds in the correct direction…. Honeybees can only sting once before they die, so will only do so if really aggravated. They are declining due to diseases such as the Varroa mite, and while their population is more managed as they are owned by beekeepers, the lack of wild populations and less people keeping them (although this is on the up now) means that overall numbers are drastically less.
Bumblebees and honeybees are social bees, they live and work together. Solitary bees, as the name suggests, live and work alone without any social structure, so no colonies or queen bees. There are about 250 different species, varying in size and colour, but generally have more of the streamlined look of the honeybee than the fluffy rotund bumblebee. About 70% of solitary bees are called mining bees and make their nests un underground burrows, such as tawny mining bee; other bees nest in buildings are are called cavity nesting bees, such as red mason bees. The female builds the nest and feeds the young on her own. She doesn’t produce wax to make the cells in the nest, but instead uses a variety of different materials, such as mud or leaves like the leaf cutter bees. Sometimes solitary bees will form burrows close to each other if the habitat is good, but they still function alone.
Solitary bees are the best pollinators because they are not so efficient at collecting it for themselves. They don’t have the pollen baskets of the bumblebees and honeybee and so a lot more of the pollen drops off their furry legs and bodies when they visit a new flower. Not as good for them (but then they aren’t feeding such a big colony, the female only lays 20-30 eggs in her life) but great for flowering plants and crops. Apparently a single red mason bee is equivalent to 120 worker honeybees in terms of the number of plants it pollinates! As they are solitary they don’t form aggressive swarms so they are perfect to encourage into your garden or shed, more on how to do this in a later post.
So, now you know some of the basics about the different types of bees we get in the UK. I learnt a whole tonne of stuff doing the research for this, bees are super amazing! More coming up on why bees are declining and what that means, as well as what you can do to help them.