My insect posts continue with another plant (or plant part) eater, the bee. Even though bees eat a part of plants, they are considered to be good bugs by gardeners . How can this “bee” you may ask? Well, bees collect pollen which is basically the male sperm cells of seed producing plants. Flowers produce pollen. When a bee moves from flower to flower (preferably of the same species), it has a very high chance of transferring that pollen to the female part of the flower in turn allowing that flower to make seed and reproduce. This process is called pollination. Of course bees aren’t the only pollinators, they just happen to be very good at it.
Bees and flowering plants (known as angiosperms) have a long history together (probably around 100 million years) and through that history have developed characteristics facilitating the pollination process as it benefits both parties significantly. Bees are often equipped with hairs on their legs that act as pollen carrying baskets or, their bodies may be covered in pollen collecting hairs. Flowers come in bright colors making them stand out from their surroundings so that bees can locate them easily. Some have nectar guides on their petals leading pollinators to the base of their flowers. The antennae of most bees have chemoreceptors sensitive to floral volatiles. Flowers produce nectar, a sweet liquid, to attract pollinators, and bees sometimes have a tongue length that matches the tube length of a specific flower.
Similar to ants, some bees live in social colonies. These are the honey bees and bumblebees. Most bees are solitary. These are the carpenter bees, leafcutter bees and mason bees. In solitary bee families, every female is fertile and makes her own nest and there is no division of labor because there are no worker bees or queens. Solitary bees don’t make honey or beeswax, substances used to feed and house a colony of bees. Most solitary bees nest in the ground or in wood or twigs. Only 10% of the world’s bees are social. Social bees usually live in hollow trees, the ground (as in bumblebees) or human made beehives.
Bees eat pollen and nectar. Solitary bees begin the season in spring when they emerge from hibernation and mate. Then the mother bee forages for pollen and nectar which she needs to develop ovaries and lay eggs. Pollen and nectar are also the ingredients for something called bee bread which is mixed with gut microbial symbionts. She puts the bee bread in a nest chamber which she then seals off. This process is repeated until the nest tunnel is full. Food provision is similar for social bees except quite a bit more complicated. You can learn more about that here.
I planned to go into all the different bees in my garden but my introduction turned into a kind of rabbit hole of information. So for now, I’ll end with saying only female bees sting and this is usually a social bee that’s been threatened or is defending its nest. In all my years of gardening with bees flying everywhere I’ve only gotten stung once or twice and I believe that was by yellow jackets that aren’t even bees, but wasps. But I think most importantly, to most of us, life without bees would be a very bland place.
A Review of Native Wild Bee Nutritional Health
Bugs 101: Insect-Human Interactions
Which Foods Depend on Bees?