Hymenoptera - the bees, ants, wasps (social and solitary) & saw flies

Fast facts about Hymenoptera

  • Two pairs of membranous wings, the front pair usually larger.
  • Forewing and hind wing attached by a row of minute hooks on the front edge of the hind wing.
  • Bees, ants and wasps have chemoreceptors for taste and smell on their antennae as well as on their mouthparts.
  • Split into two groups; Symphyta (saw flies and wood wasps) which have no "waist", and Apocrita (bees, wasps, and ants) which have a distinct narrow waist.
  • All species of ant, some species of bee and wasps are social insects. Apart from the termites all the social insects are in the Hymenoptera order.
  • Over 115,000 species worldwide, over 16,000 in Europe, over 7000 in British Isles.
  • There are around 20,000 species of bee world wide, and around 4000 species native to the USA.
  • Recently a 100 million year old bee was found fossilized in amber. Preliminary studies of this bee confirm the belief that bee are descended from wasps.
  • Honeybees have been used by man to pollinate crops for over 4000 years. In the U. S. A. alone they pollinate almost 100 different crops for us.
  • "Killer bees" are a hybrid of two honeybee species - one from Africa and the other from South America.
  • The "industrious ant" is a myth. It is normal for 50% or more of the adult ants in an ant nest to be idle at any given time. And male ants contribute virtually nothing to the nest.
  • Bees evolved from wasps around 130 million years ago.
  • One third of the food eaten by humans comes directly or indirectly from crops pollinated by bees.
  • Click for the bumblebee pages.
  • Click here for mason bees, leaf cutter bees, carpenter bees and other bees
  • All Hymenoptera are haplodiploid, i. e. the females develop from fertilized (diploid) eggs, and the males from unfertilised (haploid) eggs. So males have no father.

Evolution from wasps to bees

About 125 million years ago, when the first flowering plants evolved, it is believed that some wasps diversified and started feeding their grubs on pollen which is full of protein and highly nutritious, instead of their usual diet of chewed up insects. And it is believed that these wasps evolved into the bees.

Social insects have three major traits

1. Individuals of the same species co-operate in caring for the young.
2. There is a reproductive division of labour.
3. There is an overlap of at least 2 generations in life stages capable of contributing to colony behaviour.

Bees, flowers, nectar and honey

Bees, whether social or solitary, eat pollen and nectar all their lives. So bees need flowers, and many flowers cannot breed without the pollinating ability of bees. In California every year about 1,000,000 hives (about 10 billion bees in all) are transported in from other parts of the US just to pollinate the almond crop in February.

Plants reward their pollinators with nectar - it has no other use. Most bees carry the nectar in their stomach (bumblebee honeystomach) and regurgitate it in the nest or hive.

Some species store the nectar, which with the evaporation of some water and the addition of enzymes from the bee's stomach, becomes what we know as honey.

Pollen is carried home either in pollen baskets on the bee's hind pair of legs (see left), or on thick hairs on the undersides of the abdomen.

The Apis mellifera (honeybee) genome has been published recently. It is the fourth insect to have its genome sequenced, the others are the mosquito, fruit fly and the silk moth.

The colour of honeybees varies according to the species, but is usually brown and covered in brown/gray hairs. The honeybee is not nearly as hairy as the bumblebee. The body of the queen is similar to that of the workers, but she is a little larger.

Apis mellifera, honeybee, female Bookmark and Share

Honey bees

On the left and below is the honeybee body which has the typical bee shape. Below right is the head of a honey bee showing the tongue. Honey bee size ranges from 12 - 20 mm long. The honeybee is not native to the USA, but was introduced by European settlers.

Honey bee lifecycle

There are around 60,000 - 70,000 bees in the average hive. The queen and workers (all female), and drones (males) are produced when needed.

Honeybee mating - out with a bang!

Usually just a few hundred drones are produced at a time. One or more drones fertilizes the queen during the single nuptial flight. The sperm from the drone is inserted into the queen explosively - the pop can actually be heard! The drone dies after this single mating because when the queen and the drone separate the drone's genitalia (along with some abdominal contents) are hauled out and remains in the queen. The queen can mate more than once however. The next male to mate with her will just scrape out the genitalia of the previous male as he mate with the same fatal, explosive end. The matings continue until the queen judges she has a sufficient store of sperm in her spermatheca to last her a lifetime. Then she returns to the hive. The queen can lay around 2000 eggs per day, and can live for five years, so can lay over one million eggs in her lifetime. It is the queen who has the power to decide whether the egg she lays will be fertilized or unfertilised as she can release or withhold at will sperm stored in her spermatheca. Fertilized eggs can develop into workers or new queens, and unfertilised eggs into drones (males).

The eggs are white and laid singly into the wax cells. They are fixed to the bottom of the cell by a sticky substance secreted by the queen. Fertilised eggs develop into females (workers or queens), and unfertilised eggs develop into males. The eggs hatch into maggot-like grubs (see below) and are fed by the workers. In the first 3 days of larval life the grubs increase their weight 100 times. It is during this time that the grub is fed royal jelly (see below for more about royal jelly). Then on the third day the food is changed to a honey/pollen mix. In just 5 or 6 days the grub is fat and ready to pupate. The workers gather pollen and nectar from flowers. Honey bees, like bumblebees get all their food from flowers. The honeybee worker's tongue is covered in tiny hairs and is long and flexible, so is good for sucking nectar from flowers (see right).

The nectar is carried back to the hive in the stomach of the bee, then it stored and becomes honey as the water in the nectar evaporates and the sugar is more concentrated. Pollen is carried back to the hive in pollen baskets in the bee's hindmost legs, (see below). The first leg has a comb to clean pollen and dust off the antennae and tongue

The drawing below shows, 1. the young larva, 2. the larva just before pupation, 3. the pupa.

Honey bees have the typical hexagonally faceted compound eyes of insects, each eye has around 6300 ommatidia (facets), see the drawing of the head above. They also have 3 ocelli, or simple eyes.

Food. Honeybee food consists almost entirely of pollen and nectar. - both from flowers. Pollen is mainly protein, and nectar is mainly carbohydrate.

Wax. Young workers secrete wax from scales on the underside of the abdomen. This wax is moulded to make cells.

honey bee head

Life span. After emerging as an adult a normal worker's life span is just 4 - 6 weeks during the summer months.

Flight speed has been recorded as 2.5 metres per second with a wing beat of 250 per second. Compare this with other insects.

On the right is the hindmost leg of a honeybee showing the flattened area of the pollen basket.

honeybee leg

honeybee larva and pupa


Honeybee Work

On emergence as an adult the worker does a variety of jobs; usually this depends on age and experience.

  1. Inexperienced young workers clean cells and feed older larvae.
  2. They move on to feed younger, more delicate larvae on royal jelly (see below).
  3. Next comes general housekeeping, cleaning, throwing out debris, storing food, ventilating the hive on hot days.
  4. This stage usually occurs at around 3 weeks into adult life. They emerge into the open for the first time and practice flying, then they take up guard duty at the nest entrance.
  5. Finally, the most dangerous job of all - they leave the safety of the hive and their sisters and mother to fly off to forage for food. They forage for food until they die. When winter approaches, or when cold weather prevents foraging, the workers huddle round the queen and feed on stored honey until the weather is better, or spring arrives.

Foraging range. Studies have shown that the normal foraging range of honeybees is 1 - 6 km., however in rare occurrences they have been known to forage as far as 20 km from the hive. Obviously this has implications for the spread of pollen from genetically modified crops.

"Queen substance" is produced by glands in the queen's mandibles (jaw). As long as the queen is healthy this queen substance prevents the development of the workers' ovaries. Once the queen is old or dies the workers ovaries develop and they feed some larva enough royal jelly to produce new queens.

Queen substance is passed throughout the hive like all the other contact pheromones by the bees licking, grooming and feeding each other.

Commercially produced bee products

  • Royal jelly is inappropriately named. Most royal jelly production in a hive is fed to ordinary female worker honeybee grubs (see above). It is a mixture of two liquids produced in the head glands of nurse worker bees - the hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands. Larvae that are destined to be workers are fed for two days on royal jelly. Larva that are destined to be queens are fed all their larval lives on royal jelly. Royal jelly is rich in amino acids, vitamins and sugars. Human uses include antibacterial, dietary supplement, and in cosmetics.
  • Beeswax. Used in polish, candles, modeling, casting and ointments.
  • Honey. Food for humans and others. Normal honey is made from necater collected from flowers. Forest honey and leaf honey is made from the sugary secretions of aphids and scale insects collected from leaves.
  • Bee venom. Used to decrease sensitivity to the venom. Used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, arthritis, rheumatism, chronic pain, neurological diseases, asthma, and dermatological conditions.
  • Bee brood. A high protein, high fat food.
  • Pollen. Produced by flowers, collected by the workers and mixed with a little nectar to make it sticky. It is used as a dietary supplement, and in the study of allergic reactions.

Why a honeybee dies after it stings us

When a honeybee stings a mammal the bee dies because its sting stays in the mammal's skin and pulls out the poison sac and some of the abdominal contents. This is because the sting is barbed at the end, and mammal skin is stretchy. If the bee were to sting another insect it could easily pull out its sting as the insect is covered with brittle chitin. The muscles attached to the poison sac continue to pump even though they are no longer attached to the bee, so it is important to scrape off or pull out the sting as quickly as possible. There is also an alarm pheromone released with the sting, and this recruits more bees to come and investigate/attack.

The only time a honey bee queen uses her sting is when she kills rival queens in the hive.

Honeybee swarming

Swarming is most common in spring and early summer. The old queen and about half of the bees leave the nest to form a new colony. A newly hatched queen will take over the existing hive and remaining bees. The swarming colony may rest temporarily in "unsuitable places" causing some alarm in the human population.

Local beekeepers will soon capture the swarming colony and re house it in a suitable hive. This is the natural way of increasing their stock.

Differences between bumblebees and honey bees

There are some very important differences between the bumblebee life cycle and the honeybee life cycle.

  • There is no mouth-to-mouth exchange of food between adult bumblebees, nor do adults groom each other or the queen as is seen in honeybees.
  • As yet no equivalent to the honeybee "queen substance" has been found. In honeybee hives workers licking the queen and each other pass the "queen substance" throughout the hive, and this pheromonal control enables the queen to maintain dominance.
  • Bumblebee queens appear to maintain dominance purely by aggressive behaviour.
  • With bumblebees the colony is started anew each year with only the new queens surviving the winter. Whereas the honeybee hive continues year after year, even though there may have been a change of queens during the summer.
  • During the cold winter months the honey bee workers cluster around the queen deep in the hive to maintain a high enough temperature to survive, they also feed on their store of honey. So when the weather warms enough for them to forage there are already a large number of workers.
  • Honeybee queens never forage, so unlike bumblebee queens they have no pollen basket; they live their lives inside the hive only emerging to found a new colony when they swarm with a full compliment of workers.
  • Bumblebees in temperate climates never swarm, however there are a few tropical species that initiate new colonies by swarming.

Varroa destructor

Varroa destructor is a mite that parasitizes honey bees leading to loss of honey and wax, as well as poor pollination of crops.

It was first identified in 1951 in Singapore, and has spread worldwide because of the movement of infected colonies, and the importation of infected queens. Beekeepers aim to "control" Varroa as the cannot eradicate it.

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