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Bees: Facts, Importance & Types

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

Although bees are often feared by humans, they are essential for our ecosystem and our food supply. We will learn some interesting facts about bees, why they are important and explore the different types of bees.

What Are Bees?

Picture a day at the pool. Everyone is relaxing in their lounge chairs until someone sees a bee. Some people jump away from their chairs, terrified of this small insect. Although people can have an allergic reaction to bee stings, for most people bees are completely harmless. Their painful stings give them a bad rap, but bees are essential for all life on Earth.

When we think of bees, we usually think of the small honey bees that can be seen making honey and beeswax. But, there are over 20,000 species of bees and most are solitary, not living in large hives like we see with honey bees. Despite their scary reputation, bees are actually vegetarians. They feed exclusively on nectar and pollen from flowering plants.

Why Are Bees Important?

Pollen is plant sperm. Although it might seem strange, pollen is very important. Like human sperm, pollen is used for plant reproduction. The pollen must be carried from the male parts of a plant to the female parts inside the flower. Although the wind can assist in the process, the main pollinators of plants are insects, like bees.

Bees are especially useful in pollination because some species of females have pollen baskets on their back legs. These pockets are constructed from hairs and trap pollen when a bee visits a flower. When the bees move from flower to flower, they take the pollen with them, fertilizing the female parts of the plants and allowing for reproduction.

So, why should we care about plants reproducing? Plants form the base of all ecosystems. Plants provide 100% of the energy in the food web. Without plants, there will be no food for the herbivores, and thus no food for other animals that depend on them.

Humans are also desperately dependent on bees. Like natural ecosystems, crops form the basis for our food supply, not only feeding humans but the farm animals we depend on. Bees are the pollinators for these plants. Artificial pollination of crops has been attempted, but it is nowhere near as efficient as bee pollination.

Despite their importance, many species of bees are in danger of going extinct. In 2006 colony collapse disorder was identified as a cause of the massive decline in bees worldwide. This problem occurs when worker bees die off leaving only a queen and a food supply. Eventually, the colony dies without worker bees. Scientists think a number of factors contribute to this problem including human activities like climate change and overuse of pesticides.

What Types of Bees Are There?

Clearly, bees are a keystone species in the ecosystem. But, there are many types of bees all over the world. Let's look at some common types.

Honey bees

Honey bees are the stereotypical type of bees. Living in large colonies, these bees are only about the size of a paperclip. They produce honey and beeswax that we humans use and are the bees that we farm agriculturally. All summer they collect nectar and pollen to create stores of honey inside the hive. During cold winters, they vibrate together in the hive, producing warmth to help them survive until spring.


Honey bees produce honey and beeswax used by humans
honeybees


Bumble bees

The round, large bees that we see buzzing around our gardens are bumble bees. They have larger hairs, a rounded body, and lack the thin characteristic stripes of honey bees. Unlike honey bees which build a hive above ground, bumble bees nest underground in abandoned bird or mouse burrows. Although they don't make honey, these bees are still expert pollinators. Bumble bees have been found to vibrate at a perfect frequency to get flowers to release pollen, similar to shaking a head of lettuce to remove any excess water.


Bumble bees are large bees that nest underground
bumblebees


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