What is a bee

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What is a bee

A bee is an insect. If anyone should ask you, ‘is a bee an insect’, you may recall that insects are six-legged animals. They belong to an enormous sub-phylum called Insecta in Latin or Insects in English. Bees are insects because all bees have six legs. Beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, crickets etc are all insects too because they have six legs. Bumble bees are insects by the same definition.

Bees are insects and look very much like wasps. Bees feed on pollen produced by flowers. Most bees have fine hairs on their bodies to help them collect pollen. Flower pollen sticks to the bee’s hair when the bee visits the flower to collect nectar from the flower’s nectaries. Nectaries are special parts of flowers that produce nectar. The flower provides nectar to reward a pollinating insect such as honey bees and bumble bees.

Bees also have ‘pollen baskets’ on the back of their legs to carry pollen back to the beehive. Honey bees use stiff hairs on their legs to comb pollen off their bodies and place it into the pollen baskets on their hind-legs. Wasps do not have pollen baskets.

The oldest known bee fossil has been found in amber from Burma and this prehistoric bee is only 3mm in length. There are at least 17,000 known species of bees but there may be twice that number.

Scientists think that only 10% of bees form colonies with a breeding queen served by worker bees. These colonizing bees are called ‘eusocial’ bees because they have a community that works together with a clearly defined division of labour – i.e. the queen lays large numbers of eggs and the workers serve the queen by nursing and foraging for the young bees.

Is a bee an insect?

A bee is an insect and therefore belongs to the largest class of animals known as the Insecta. Insects are animals and therefore bees are animals.

The Anatomy of the Bee

The bee is an insect and therefore has three sections of her body: head, thorax, and abdomen.  A bee has six legs that are attached to her thorax.  She has two pairs of wings each pair joined together or ‘married’ as is the same with all Hymenoptera insects the family to which bees belong.

The bee has five eyes – two compound eyes and three smaller, simpler eyes that form a triangle on her head.  Each compound eye has thousands of closely-packed lenses which enable the bee to see all around her and calculate where she is flying and other details of her environment.  She can also see colors that other animals cannot see.


The bee relies on her two antennae on the front of her head to taste, smell and touch.  This is essential for life in the bee colony where communicates is with all these senses as well as visual information.  This visual information, in the case of the honey bee, is communicated with bee dances such as the waggle dance and tremble dance.

The honey bee has a ‘honey stomach’ in her abdomen which carries nectar back to the colony.  This nectar is regurgitated and passed to younger worker bees to be processed into honey.

Some bees are stinging insects but there are sting-less bees. The bee has a stinger which is an adaptation of her ovipositor.  Complex chemical substances provide a venom that can be used to defend her nest.  Unfortunately for the honey bee worker bee when she uses her stinger, there are barbs along its shaft which become lodged in the victim.  A honey bee worker will die when she uses her stinger.  The stinger has barbs along its shaft which become lodged into its victim.  It will cause the rear end of her body to snap apart causing her death.  Other bees and wasps have a stinger with a smooth shaft and it, therefore, does not cause their death.

Bee facts

The names Melissa in Greek and Deborah in the Hebrew language means bee.

The honey bee is an industrious, busy little lady who spends every one of her waking hours involved in collecting resources and taking care of her mother queen’s children – her sisters.   Most bees are female sisters to one another although they may have different fathers.  One sister becomes the breeding queen and takes on the role of mother to hundreds and thousands of worker bees.  The worker bees tend to young bees.  Therefore, they work as a giant team.

Since a bee colony becomes so large, there are many mouths to feed.  The worker sister bees forage all day collecting pollen, nectar, and water from flowers.  They return to the beehive colony and unload their heavy resources for housekeeper honey bees to process and store.  As foraging bees move from flower to flower their fluffy bodies become covered with flower pollen.

There is a Proverb in the Bible about ants but it applies just as well to bees as ants and bees belong to the same family of insects.  They are social insects otherwise known as eusocial.  It is also interesting that the Bible is correct in calling her a ‘she’ for worker ants, as well as worker bees, are female sisters:

Go to the ant, O lazy one; observe her ways and be wise, which having no chief, overseer or ruler, she prepares her food in the summer and brings in her provisions [of food for the winter] in the harvest.  (Proverbs 6: 6-8)

Types of Bees

Although bees and wasps look quite similar their major difference is that wasps provide for their brood food that is hunted and predated upon and bees feed their larvae a mixture of pollen and honey derived from flowers.  There are exceptions to this rule.  Bees also tend to be hairy to capture pollen grains whilst foraging and wasps are bald of hair.  Most bee species collect nectar and pollen for their larvae but invariably it is the females that carry out this function with the males only having the task of reproduction.  The males are short-lived and normally not allowed to live longer than necessary by the females.


Some bees specialize in gathering pollen and nectar from only one species of flower though most bees are known as polylectic meaning that they gather from a wide variety of flowers as available.  Beekeepers will know that this affects the taste of the honey that is produced.  Some bees only collect from flowers of certain colors.  Bees that are specific in what kinds of flowers they forage from are known as oligolectic bees.  ‘Poly’ means many and ‘oligo’ means few in Latin. Some bees such as the beautiful, gem-like euglossine orchid bees only collect flower fragrance of a specific type of flower. Euglossa bees store these fragrances in storage containers on their hind-legs.

Solitary Bees

Most bees are solitary bees and do not live in colonies.  Solitary bee species usually have one lone female who makes a small nest in the ground, woodpiles, a crevice in a tree or wall or even in a dead snail shell.  She will raise her own brood without help from workers.  In contrast, eusocial bees are not solitary bees at all.  These bees live in huge colonies and feed their larvae in specific stages that involve the whole community of workers.


There is a species of bee called the leafcutter bee that cuts semicircular pieces of leaf to make cells for her brood.  These solitary bees provide food for her larvae when she makes her nest, then seals the nest.

Some male bees collect scents from orchids and use them to attract females.



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