bee, name for flying insects of the superfamily Apoidea, in the same order as the ants and the wasps. Bees are characterized by their enlarged hind feet, typically equipped with pollen baskets of stiff hairs for gathering pollen. They usually have a dense coat of feathery hairs on the head and thorax. In many, the lip forms a long tube for sucking nectar. Bees feed on pollen and nectar; the latter is converted to honey in the bee's digestive tract. There are about 20,000 species of bees. They may be solitary, social, or parasitic in the nests of other bees. The solitary bees (which do not secrete wax) are called carpenter, plasterer, leaf-cutting, burrowing, or mason bees according to the material or method used to construct nests for their young.
The groups of social bees, including altogether about 400 species, are the bumblebees, the stingless bees, and the honeybees.
Bumblebees and Stingless Bees
Bumblebees belong to the genus Bombus. In the tropics bumblebee colonies continue for many years, but in temperate regions the workers and the drones die in the fall. Only the young, fertilized queens live through the winter, in hibernation. In the spring they begin new colonies, often laying their eggs in the deserted nests of field mice and chipmunks. The stingless bees are chiefly tropical. Some species release a caustic liquid that burns the skin. Tetragonisca angustula, a stingless bee of the American tropics, has soldier bees, larger than the worker bees, that guard the entrances to the nests.
The honeybee commonly raised for production of honey and wax in many parts of the world is Apis mellifera, of Old World origin. Honeybees build nests, or combs, of wax, which is secreted by glands in the abdomen. They store honey for future use in the hexagonal cells of the comb. In the wild the nests are made in caves or hollow trees, but beekeepers provide nesting boxes, called hives. Beekeeping is called apiculture.
A typical colony consists of three castes: the large queen, who produces the eggs, many thousands of workers (sexually undeveloped females), and a few hundred drones (fertile males). At the tip of a female bee's abdomen is a strong, sharp lancet, or sting, connected to poison glands. In the queen, who stings only rival queens, the sting is smooth and can be withdrawn easily; in the worker bee the sting is barbed and can rarely be withdrawn without tearing the body of the bee, causing it to die. The workers gather nectar; make and store honey; build the cells; clean, ventilate (by fanning their wings), and protect the hive. They also feed and care for the queen and the larvae. They communicate with one another (for example, about the location of flowers) by performing dances in specific patterns. The workers live for only about six weeks during the active season, but those that hatch (i.e., emerge from the pupa stage) in the fall live through the winter. The drones die in the fall.
A developing bee goes through the larva and pupa stages in the cell and emerges as an adult. The larva is fed constantly by the worker bees; the pupa is sealed into the cell. Fertilized eggs develop into workers; unfertilized eggs become drones. A fertilized egg may also become a queen if the larva is fed royal jelly, a glandular secretion thought to contain sex hormones as well as nutrients, until she pupates. Worker larvae receive this food only during the first three days of larval life, afterward receiving beebread, a mixture of pollen and honey.
When a hive becomes overcrowded a swarm may leave with the old queen and establish a new colony. The old colony in the meantime rears several new queens. The first queen that hatches stings the others to death in their cells; if two emerge at once, they fight until one is killed. Mating then occurs. A newly hatched queen is followed aloft in a nuptial flight by the drones, only one of which impregnates her, depositing millions of sperm that are stored in a pouch in her body. The drone dies, and the queen returns to the hive, where for the rest of her life (usually several years) she lays eggs continuously in the cells.
Importance of Bees
Bees are of inestimable value as agents of cross-pollination (see pollination), and many plants are entirely dependent on particular kinds of bees for their reproduction (such as red clover, which is pollinated by the bumblebee, and many orchids). In many cases the use of insecticides for agricultural pest control has had the unwelcome side effect of killing the bees necessary for maintaining the crop. Such environmental stresses plus several species of parasitic mites devastated honeybee populations in the United States beginning in the 1980s, making it necessary for farmers to rent bees from keepers in order to get their crops pollinated and greatly affecting the pollination of plants in the wild. In 2006, commercial honeybee hives first suffered from "colony collapse disorder," which, for unclear reasons, left many bee boxes empty of bees after overwintering. Dead bees from affected colonies since have been to be infected with a fungus and a virus that, acting synergistically, are now believed to be the cause. Bee venom has been found to have medicinal properties. Toasted honeybees are eaten in some parts of the world.
Bees are classified in the phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta, order Hymenoptera, superfamily Apoidea.
See M. Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee (1913); K. von Frisch, The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees (1965, tr. 1967); M. Lindauer, Communication Among Social Bees (rev. ed. 1971); C. Mitchener, Social Behavior of Bees (1974); F. Ruttner, Biogeography and Raxonomy of Honey Bees (1987); M. Winston, The Biology of the Honey Bee (1987); James L. and Carol Gould, The Honey Bee (1988).