Bees seem to strike fear into the hearts of many people. In fact, almost anything with yellow and black stripes that flies about is considered a bee by most people. Bees belong to the order Hymenoptera as do wasp and ants. A bee is not a wasp nor is it an ant. There are certain characteristics that separate bees from wasp and ants. It is believed that millions of years ago, when insects first emerged, that the present forms of bees, wasp and ants had a common ancestor. A single organism from which they all descended. Today, every bee is critical, and sadly their numbers decline each passing year.
It is also somewhat sad to me that the word bee has such a broad meaning among humans. Even when we discuss the bee with awe and wonder, if we are not also including wasp and ant, then we almost entirely mean Honey Bee. There are approximately 4000 species of native bees in just North America. The sad part is that there are so many other kinds of bees that the general population of humans simply unaware of their existence. Honey Bee's are not native to North America. They were imported during colonization of the continent. In an effort to help change this misfortune, a number of different bees will be discussed in the following paragraphs.
To help understand the differences in bee species one of the key observation is about the social structure of the bee colony. Honey Bees, for example, are very social. They have casts and each member of the colony are born into a caste. Solitary bees, on the other hand, are not social organisms. Their colony is made up of a female queen or perhaps mother is a better term and her offspring. Many colonies are made up of only female bees while some colonies include males. Non-social bees have colonies that are very small, and many times the matriarch will lay either a single egg or a very small number of eggs. Honeybees, on the other hand, can have colonies that number in the thousands. Social bees also exhibit a trait that has placed the fear of bees in humans. That trait is called the swarm. Bees swarm for a variety of reasons, but the reason that I am referring to is the defensive swarm. This is a reaction to a pheromone that is released by a single bee. That pheromone calls all of the other bees to defend the hive. Non-social bees do not swarm. They may sting us, but we would have to go out of our way to get stung by a non-social bee. There are a number of bees that are stingless. Cuckoo bees are often without usable stingers. Honey Bees, on the other hand, have a single use weapon, and once she deploys her sting, she dies.
The Longhorn Bee is a pollinating bee. It is also a ground nesting bee. The Longhorn bee is also not a social bee in the same aspect as the Honey Bee. The males are not part of the hive, and there is but a single female who mates and then builds chambers in which she lays her egg(s.) The male Longhorn Bee is created for a single purpose and once he has mated with the female she has no need for him. In Summer, you will often find a flower full of male Longhorn Bees as the sun sinks into another night. They sleep together as guests of Sunflowers and other flowers that close up their petals at night. This phenomena can be seen with out risk by simply pulling back the petals of a sunflower in the evening time. Be not afraid to try. The male bee of any species is incapable of stinging. It is only the female that possess a Stinger if she is so equipped not the male. The female Longhorn Bee digs a burrow in the earth and lines the walls with a waxy substance. She then builds a few chambers, adds pollen-bread and then seals the chamber after laying a single egg on the ball of pollen-bread. Pollen-bread is made up of flower pollen and nectar, and it will be food for her young, Bee saliva contains an antibiotic and anti-fungal element that keeps fungus and bacteria from harming her egg. She then moves on to the next chamber and repeats the process. At night, she positions herself in the entry tube to her burrow and sleeps. She is the only line of defence against burglars, intruders, and organisms bent on consuming her children.
Xylocopa sp. Carpenter Bees are absolutely one of my favorite bee. They are round, fuzzy and look an awful lot like a Bumble Bee. Carpenter bees are huge, often the size of the first digit on a man's thumb. They are also not afraid of humans. Carpenter Bees are word boring bees in that the female bores an almost perfectly round hole ½ inch in diameter into a wooden surface and then goes about constructing brood cells. People often think that Carpenter Bees eat wood they do not. They simply use wood as the structure for which to house themselves and their small brood. Carpenter bees are active pollinators. The adults gather pollen and nectar some of which is consumed, and some of which is used to make pollen-bread. Carpenter bees can be annoying to anyone who owns a wooden home that the bees have taken an interest. A simple remedy for dealing with Carpenter Bees who are munching on your house is to erect posts or old telephone poles around your home. It seems like an off fix, but the bees love to use these as home and will often leave your home alone. To help dress up a telephone pole, use bat boxes, owl boxes, or even bird houses. Like the Longhorn Bee, males are excluded from the females brooding chambers just as soon a the male bee is able to forage. On occasion males will offer pollen to females. Male Carpenters are aggressive. It is in their best interest to defend a group of females bees, who in reality need no defence. The males can not sting, but they will get up in your face literally and make you think you are going to get stung. Nothing amuses me so much as the sight of a grown adult human hastily beating a retreat with a Male Carpenter Bee hot on its heels.
Bombus sp. Bumble Bees were the very first insect that I fell in love with. I remember then from when I was 4 years old. They are the very reason that I love insects so. Bumble Bees like the Honey Bee are in danger. It is very sad to me to know that they linger on the edge of extinction. The human impact on the environment around human settlements and even in wild areas has made its mark. The Bumble Bee like many native bees must compete for resources that are continually diminishing. There is a concept, or perhaps a fact that we entomologists use. That fact is called co-evolution. Before the religious minded pick up their pitchforks and form a mob, lets define co-evolution. In short, it means that two or more organisms evolve together and in doing so form a symbiotic (most of the time) relationship. There are several species of plants that are favored by the Bumble Bee and for that matter native bees. In exchange for pollinating services, the flowers of the plant have evolved to suite the Bumble Bee perfectly. The problem is that as man intrudes, builds towns, farms, and what-have-you, he removes the native plants to grow things like roses, and acres of corn, neither of which is suited to the Bumble Bee. This forces the bumble bee to compete with other native bees for pollen and nectar, and as a result, all of the bees suffer. Introduce pesticides into this picture and the bee populations begin to plummet in a downward spiral that is likely not going to be corrected. Further, we can natural disease and predation and the light that was the Bumble Bee will soon be exterminated. Already you can see that the Bumble Bee is in trouble, and we have not even brought up climate change. Climate change is damaging so many organisms that it is hard to fathom the impact. Plants have a range of temperature at which they function best. As the climate changes we see changes in plant populations. If those plants are hosts for native Bees like the Bumble Bee, then those bee populations will also suffer, which is another reason why every bee is critical.
Bumble Bees are an odd social bee. They are not as social as the Honey Bee, but they are social. They have casts and drones, and everyone has a function. They are not large colonies, usually less then a hundred of so bees, unlike Honey Bee colonies which can number in the thousands. The queen is very active in new colonies, and as the worker bee population builds, she becomes nothing more than an egg producer. Unlike Honeybees, Bumble Bees do not communicate pollen source locations among themselves. They also do not teach their young how to forage, that is learned by trial and error. Like the honey bee, bumble bee populations are hovering on the brink of extinction. Already some bumble bee species that were here ten years ago have become very difficult to find.
What is amazing about both the Bumble Bee and the Carpenter bee is this little odd thing called Buzz Pollination. Co-evolution? Maybe... If you grow tomato plants then some cool morning pull up a chair and just watch. Bumble Bees and Carpenter Bees will approach the closed tomato flower and BUZZ at a specific frequency. When the bee hits the right frequency, something amazing happens. The closed flower pops open like a secret door, and the bee goes to work pollinating the flower. Without pollinators, humans will starve.
Osmia Lignaria the Blue Orchard Bee is a solitary bee that is a wonderful pollinator. The Blue Orchard bee is a Mason bee, and it makes a better pollinator of fruit trees then do Honey Bees. Blue Orchard Bees are beginning to be used in much the same way that Honey Bees are used by farmers. The difference is that they are being used in orchards. It is like we humans have just realized, that not every tool is the best tool, and have gone back to mother natures plan. It is awesome progress.
The Blue Orchard Bee is a beautiful bee that is either a deep metallic blue or sometimes green color. These are solitary nesting bees that make their home in small wooden structures. Farmers use paper tubes, bamboo, and even drilled blocks to attract these bees. They are often referred to as BOB which stands for Blue Orchard Bee. They presence of native bees such as BOB will often make Honey Bees work even harder. Unlike most other bees, BOB is will pollinate when it is cold out or even if the sky is cloudy. They have one purpose in life, and that is to gather pollen and nectar for their breeding chamber. The breeding chamber is just a marvel of practicality. The chamber is about six inches long. When the BOB is ready to lay her eggs she builds a mud partition, deposits a pollen ball, lays a single egg and then repeats the process until the breeding chamber is full. Then she seals the entrance to the chamber
Every Bee is critical. Every Bee is needed. Bees are just not an optional organism, and people are going to have to start understanding that not only do bees need our help, we need bees if we are going to survive as a species. One out of every third meal that we eat comes directly from pollinators work. The amount of food that pollinators produce both directly and indirectly is amazing. Without pollinators, human populations would likely shrink due to starvation.