Bees: An Overview

Honey Bees versus Other Bee Species

For crop pollination purposes, bees are more easily distinguished as either honey bees or non-honey bees.

‘Pollen bees’ is a recently-coined term intended to include all pollinating bees that are not honey bees. Bees in this group concentrate on collecting pollen compared to the honey bees that collect large quantities of nectar. The term pollen bees is aesthetically more pleasing than other choices (i.e. ‘non-honey bees’), but it is ambiguous because both honey bees and pollen bees collect pollen and pollinate crops. Plus, the life histories and management of pollen bees are so diverse that the term quickly loses descriptive usefulness. We prefer the terms ‘honey bees’, ‘non-honey bees’ (includes managed and non-managed species), and ‘non-managed bees’ (includes wild populations of honey bees).

Most non-honey bees have relatively simple life cycles and make simple burrows in wood, grass thatch, hollow stems, or soil and produce, at most, only a few offspring. One exception across much of the temperate developed world is the social bumble bees that make complex comb nests and colonies with several hundred individuals. Culturing and management methods for some non-honey bees are well developed and covered in ‘ ‘.

Compared to honey bees, non-honey bees can pollinate certain crops more efficiently because of their distinctive behaviours, morphology, or life habits (Kuhn and Ambrose, 1984; Cane and Payne, 1990). Bumble bees and others sonicate or buzz-pollinate blossoms by shaking pollen from the flower with high-frequency muscle vibrations; this improves pollination efficiency in relatively closed flower structures such as blueberry and tomato. Some non-honey bees have longer tongues than honey bees and this enables them to pollinate tubular flowers, such as red clover, more effectively. The strongly seasonal life history of many solitary bees serves in some cases to enhance their effectiveness as pollinators. These bees have a simple life cycle in which adults emerge, fly, mate, and provision brood cells during the few weeks of peak bloom in their area. Thus many solitary bees are specialists for those plants blooming during their brief flight season, and this specialization works in favour of the grower if those plants are flowering crops. Social honey bees and bumble bees, on the other hand, visit many flowering plants over the course of a season. They are generalists, not specialists, and they are more easily lured away from the crop of interest. The urgency with which solitary bees must work during their short active season also works in favour of the grower; compared to honey bees, non-honey bees often work longer hours, work faster, visit more blossoms per day, and fly more readily during inclement weather.

Solitary bees are generally less likely to sting than are the social honey bees and bumble bees. Bee handlers who propagate solitary pollinators such as alkali bees, alfalfa leafcutting bees, and orchard mason bees routinely do so with little or no sting-protective clothing. There are also disadvantages and uncertainties with non-honey bees and non-managed bees. First, non-honey bees pollinate several crops more efficiently than honey bees on a per-bee basis, but no study has accounted for the overwhelming population advantage of honey bee colonies. Honey bees produce the largest colony population sizes of any bee species. Conceivably, one honey bee colony, with thousands of inefficient (for argument’s sake) pollinators could match or exceed many nests of efficient, but solitary, bees (see Corbet et al., 1991, for an experimental design to determine the pollination value of a given bee species). Populations of non-managed bees are often too small to support commercial pollination needs (Morrissette et al., 1985; Parker et al., 1987; Scott-Dupree and Winston, 1987) or vary considerably between years and geographic regions (Cane and Payne, 1993). Just like honey bees, non-honey bees have diseases, predators, and parasites that limit their natural populations or, for managed populations, must be controlled by the bee-keeper. Nevertheless, where they occur in sufficient numbers, whether through favourable habitat, mass introductions, or culturing, non-honey bees can replace or supplement honey bees for commercial pollination in some crops.

Solitary versus Social Bees

There are about 25,000 described species of bees in the world. Most are solitary species in which females single-handedly make a nest and produce the next generation of fertile offspring. Most solitary species produce only one or two generations per year.

Social species live together as a colony of related individuals in which there is: (i) cooperative care of the young; (ii) more-or-less infertile female workers; and (iii) offspring that stay at the nest to help their mother produce more siblings.

In social species, individuals of the same sex occur in different sizes and forms called castes. The queen is a female fully equipped to mate and lay fertilized eggs that become female workers or queens. Workers are females that do not mate but on occasion do lay unfertilized eggs that become males. Workers do most of the house cleaning, brood nursing, temperature regulating, foraging, and defending for the colony. Male bees, sometimes called drones, are visibly distinguishable from workers and queens; their only known function is to mate with queens. Both solitary and social species can be important crop pollinators.

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