General Bee Biology

Bees belong to the insect order Hymenoptera which also includes the sawflies, ants, and wasps. Unlike other hymenopterans, bees tend to specialize on exclusively vegetarian diets. Both immature bees and adults eat plant-derived pollen for protein and nectar for energy. Some social species feed their young glandular secretions produced by nurse bees, conceptually like lactating mammals. But even these secretions are metabolically derived from pollen and nectar. Some social bees with long-lived colonies dehydrate nectar into honey, a process which preserves the nectar for long-term storage.

Bees have body features that further distinguish them from other insects. Many of the body hairs on bees are finely branched so that pollen grains cling to them readily. Most bees have external body structures specialized for carrying pollen. With some, a segment of each hind leg has a structure called the corbiculum or pollen basket for holding loads of pollen while the bee is foraging. Others carry pollen on long hairs attached to their hind legs. One group carries pollen loads on the underside of the abdomen. Bees’ pollen-carrying capabilities and flower-visiting habit make them one of the most important crop pollinators worldwide.

Developing immature bees go through a complete metamorphosis. Individual bees start life as a single egg laid by their mother. After a few days the egg hatches into a larva (plural larvae) which is a grub-like, rapidly-growing feeding stage. As they grow, larvae shed their skin several times by a process called moulting to advance to the next larger stage, or instar. Eggs are laid and larvae develop in cells varying in complexity, ranging from hexagonal beeswax cells to simple dead-ends in earthen tunnels. The mother or siblings provision each larval cell with food. Some species add pollen and nectar to the cell regularly as the larva needs it; others feed it all at once as a large, moist lump at the time the egg is laid. Because bee larvae literally live in their food, defaecation is a problem. Larvae solve this by postponing defaecation until their feeding career is over. When it completes its feeding period, the larva defaecates, stretches out (then called a prepupa), and transforms into a pupa (plural pupae) which is a quiet stage during which larval tissues are reorganized into those of an adult. Finally, the pupa moults into an adult, complete with six legs and four wings, and breaks out of its cell. Species vary in the amount of time immatures spend in each stage.

Female bees control the sex of their offspring. They store sperm from their matings in the spermatheca, an organ connected to the oviduct which is the passage down which eggs pass during oviposition. Females have muscular control over the spermatheca. By opening it and releasing sperm on to a passing egg, the female can fertilize the egg and the result is a female. Unfertilized eggs result in males. This ability to regulate sex of offspring is important in solitary tunnel-nesting bees because they tend to lay male eggs near the nest -entrance so males can precede the females in spring emergence. For social species it is important to time male production according to seasonal food availability.

The adult stage of bees is dedicated to dispersal and reproduction. Bees do this with a variety of life strategies and nesting habits, ranging from solitary to social, from simple burrows to elaborate comb nests.

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