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.

Bees were sacred to the ancient Egyptians. They believed bees descended from the tears of Ra, the sun god, as he landed on earth. The bee was a symbol of kinship, and jars of honey were placed in tombs to aid the journey of the departed into the next life.

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