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Ten things you probably didn’t know about bees

It’s summer time.  And the bees… they’re everywhere!  You’ve heard them buzzing on a lazy day, your kids have been stung, or someone has remarked on the bees busy at flowers.  They’re everywhere… and yet so misunderstood, poor things.

Here are ten interesting facts about the wonderful creatures known as bees.

How is it that I know these things about bees?  Because I’m a certified geek, and when I’m not cooking or taking pictures, I’m thinking about bees.  And okay, so I’m studying bees for my PhD.  But whatever.

Spout these little factoids off to your kids and wow them with your worldly knowledge.  Or just take a moment to marvel out how cool these little beasties are.

1. There are between 20,000 and 30,000 species in the world. In North America there are between 3,000 and 4,000.  New species are found every year.  Really.  Every year!  It’s like Lewis and Clark or Dr. Livingstone out there in the bee-world.  “Where are most bees found,” you’re wondering?  I’ll tell you:  the deserts.  Unlike butterflies, beetles, monkeys, hummingbirds, frogs, sloths, and many, many other creatures, bees love dry heat, and are most diverse in the hot and dry places of the world.

2. Most of them don’t live in hives. In fact, only bumblebees and honeybees live in hives (and a few species in the tropics).  The rest build fantastic homes in the ground, inside twigs and decaying wood, in sandstone, even in snail shells.  Some even build them out of mud and small rocks, like a mason.  Many of them even line the insides of their nest with flower petals, or plant wool.

3.  Most bees don’t make honey. Only the ‘hive bees’ really do that.  And even then, bumblebees don’t make nearly as much honey as honeybees do.  “Do they make something else instead” you’re wondering?  Nope.  Not really.

4. It’s every woman for herself in the bee-world. Honeybees and other ‘hive bees’ split up the work.  There’s a queen, whose job it is to make babies, and workers, who gather all the food and take care of home-maintenance.  All the other bees (well, I should say, the female bees) do everything themselves.  Each female builds and maintains her own nest, gathers food all by herself, and lays all the eggs.

5. Female bees get to choose whether their offspring are going to be males or females. When mating happens, a female stores away the sperm, and decides later if she will fertilize an egg or not.  A fertilized egg becomes a female, an unfertilized egg becomes a male (which means male bees only have half the genetic material that female bees do!)

6. Only female bees can sting. The stinger on a bee serves double-duty; it is both a stinger and an ovipositor (egg-layer).  Since males aren’t laying eggs, they don’t have a stinger.  Incidentally, most bee stingers aren’t barbed like the honeybee… if it was, and the stinger stayed behind, they wouldn’t be able to lay eggs!  A honeybee worker can get away with leaving her stinger behind, because she doesn’t need it to lay eggs (not that she really gets away with anything–stinging you, and ripping out her organs in the process, means she’s not long for this world).

7. Bees spend more than 80% of their lives in their nests. When you see a bee flying around, know that it is on its last legs…er… wings.  You’re seeing the very end of a life that was spent almost entirely in a nest developing into an adult.  They go through several stages, not all that different from a butterfly, starting as an egg, developing into a ‘grub’ or a caterpillar of sorts (or a larva if you want to get all technical), then becoming a pupa, and finally emerging the following year as an adult.

8. Bees are vegetarians. All those nasty flying creatures that buzz around while you’re grilling?  Those aren’t bees. Those are wasps (cousins to the bees), and flies (second-cousins, twice-removed).  How do you tell them apart?  Well, bees and wasps are kind of hard to tell apart: technically the only differences is that somewhere on the body of a bee there is a split hair, whereas there isn’t a split hair anywhere on the body of a wasp.  Nope.  I’m not kidding.  But more simply, wasps eat meat, and bees eat pollen and drink nectar.  Of course, there is one exception in the middle-of-nowhere South America, but we won’t worry about that today.  And how do you tell a fly from a bee?  Flies have short, stubby antennae, and only half as many wings.   And they’re ugly, whereas bees are adorable.  Here’s a more official approach to telling them apart.

9. Some bees are very picky eaters. Just like your four-year old, many bee species are extremely selective when it comes to what they eat.  Many would rather die than eat something other than the plant on which they ‘specialize’.  Unlike your four-year old, many bees are well-adapted to their plant-of-choice, with special hairs just the right size for their favorite pollen grains, or long legs for reaching deep inside a flower.

10. Bees come in all shapes and sizes. The smallest is the size of your pinky fingernail.  The biggest is the size of your thumb–I mean the WHOLE thumb.  They come in stripes, polka-dots, zig-zags, with smiley faces on their backs, and in solids.  They’re green, red, brilliant blue, gold, black, fuzzy, shiny, crew-cut, down-right ridiculously hairy, and all variations in between.

And each one is useful!  Bees pollinate something like 70% of the flowering plants you see.  What’s more they help in the pollination of almost all of the colorful fruits and veggies you eat–everything from kiwis to coffee, apples to avocados, squash, cranberries, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, coriander, and peppers.  I could go on, but I won’t, I’ll just provide you with this link.

 

Want to know what kind of bees you have in your backyard?  Check out these bee guides for all bees in North America!

Want more info on bees?  Maybe start here… lots of good links.  And this one is good too!

12 Comments so far

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  1. Great photos! Post reminds me of my grandpa who was a beekeeper. I grew up on fresh honey that came in a glass gallon jug, which is a pretty far cry from the cute bear shaped thing that you can buy from shelf in a store.

    If it’s one thing I remember about Grandpa, it was his fondness for bees. He taught me and my cousins repeatedly that bees are “good guys.” I remember day trips out to the desert when he’d tend to the hives and make us kids work. He was awesome.

    thanks for the post…..

    • Mark: Those sound like wonderful memories. You’re making me crave fresh honey–there is really nothing as tasty!
      Glad you enjoyed the post. =)

  2. Laura

    flies = ugly
    bees = ADORABLE
    right on sister!!!

    Love your posts!

    • Hey Laura!
      Spoken like someone who knows. ;)
      Glad to know you agree so whole-heartedly, and glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Skylar Topham

    Oliva, first I’d like to say how much I dig your writting style. Second the article fun and super interesting to read. I found number 7 to be the most interesting but enjoyed them all.

    • Why thank you Skylar! I’m glad someone enjoys my writing style–it makes my professors cringe! =) Regarding #7: Now you know why they say “Busy as a bee”: when you’ve only got a month of your life to fly around doing stuff, you better make it count!

  4. W Miller

    Hi, Liv!
    I loved the photos. Did you take them yourself? I keep thinking of making an easy-reader science book for kids titled “Not All Bees Are Green”, with full color photos of multi-colored bees doing their thing… I wonder who might publish it? And where to get the photos… PhD now, huh? Good for you!

    • Hey Wensdae!
      Glad you liked the photos! Yes they’re ones I took; when you sit around staring at bees all day, inevitably it occurs to you to snap a few photos! I think the book idea is a great one. You could include all the hair patterns too (the ‘w’ bees, the ‘smiley face bees’, etc. etc.). PhD is a work in progress, hopefully someday soon!

  5. judy

    LOVE THE PICTURES WHAT LENS DID YOU USE FOR SUCH BEAUTIFUL PICTURES; MACROPHOTOGRAPHY? MAYBE 100MM WITH 2.8F STOP ? JUST WONDERING.

    • Thanks Judy! I used a 100mm lens for almost all of them (a few were with my 28-80mm), f2.8. I love my macro lens, but the depth of field is a real challenge sometimes! There were about 30,000 that didn’t work out for the 10 or so that did! =)

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    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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