Busting Bee Myths

My first memory of interacting with a bee was when I was quite young and sat on the lamppost across from my house—simultaneously sitting on a bee that promptly stung me.

My second memory was camping when I was about 10 years old. I was drinking a deliciously cold Cream Soda pop—but as I brought the can up to my mouth, a bee, attracted to the sugary nectar, followed the can, and ended up in my mouth. I had a huge fat lip for the rest of the camping trip.

Proof that bees are nothing more than terrifying, ferocious flying insects that want to sting you.

Right?

Well, no, not at all. I might have fervently tried to convince you of this fact when I was younger, but now that I know a lot more about our beautiful bees, I’ve gained a lot of respect and appreciation for our flying friends. There are a lot of misconceptions about bees—both from people who are scared of them, AND from people who want to protect them.

I got to do my Honours thesis research on pollinators. In the process of doing this research, a whole new world of fascinating pollinators was opened up to me. So I thought I would set the story straight about some of the more basic ideas that most of us have about bees. Plus I’ve always wanted to be a Mythbuster. 😉

Myth #1: All bees look kind of similar: big and fluffy with black and yellow stripes.

If I asked you to draw a bee, you’d probably draw something like this:

HUGE size differences! This is a queen bumblebee (top) and a tiny sweat bee (bottom)

HUGE size differences! This is a queen bumblebee (top) and a tiny sweat bee (bottom)

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But actually, bees come in all different shapes and sizes. Some as big as my thumb, others are tinier than my pinky nail. Some are totally black, others are metallic green or purple. Some are very very hairy, others have almost no hair at all!

Let me introduce you to some of these bees! (Pictures used here have Creative Common licensing).

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Sweat bee (Agapostemon). This is one of my all-time favourite bees. The females of this species are entirely bright metallic green, but the abdomen of the males is black and yellow striped. My friends and I say that this guy always has his ‘party pants’ on 😀

yellow faced bee

Yellow-faced bee (Mining Bee). Now does this look like a wasp or what eh? But it’s a bee! It doesn’t have many hairs on its body for collecting pollen, which makes it look even more like a wasp! But these are a more primitive bees. Yellow-faced bees swallow pollen when foraging, and later regurgitate the nectar and pollen.

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This is another kind of sweat bee (Dilictus). These are very small bees that I’ve often seen swimming sideways amongst the flowers of a dandelion. Since they are difficult to ID to species, these bees will always hold a special place in my heart due to the endless hours I’ve spent looking closely at them under a microscope.

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This is a Megachilidae—also known as a leaf cutter bee or a hairy-belly bee. It has these mega-big jaws that cut leaves that the bee uses to line and create egg nests. See how hairy its belly is? That’s where this bee collects its pollen.

Myth #2: All bees are social. There is one queen bee and a bunch of sister worker bees that live and work together.

This is only true of honeybees and bumblebees (there are 32 bumblebee species identified for BC). But there are over 450 native bee species in BC alone… that’s about the same number of bird species in all of Canada! So besides honeybees and bumblebees, the other ~418 species are solitary, or only semi-social, which means that they nest near each other, but they don’t really work together, and there is no queen bee or social hierarchy.

Myth #3: All bee live in hives

Only honeybees build and nest in the kinds of hives that you find on Winnie-the-Pooh. So where do these other bees nest?

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This is a mason bee nest in hollow-stemmed plant. You can see that these clever bees use mud to separate their egg compartments (thus the name: Mason Bee).

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The leaf-cutter bees nest in holes in wood, but they use leaves to line and separate their egg compartments

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Other bees, like this mining bee, nest in the ground.

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Bumble bees also commonly nest in the ground—mostly in old mouse holes or air spaces in compost! This is a cool picture that clearly shows their honey pots. However, usually, when I’ve found bumblebee nests it’s in the grass and you can’t see much of what is going on besides hearing a lot of buzzing.

Myth #4: Once a bee stings you, it dies

This myth might blow your mind a little, as it is a commonly repeated myth. Honeybees, which are not native to North America, are the only bees here that will die once it stings you. Their stinger is barbed, so it gets pulled out of the abdomen once they sting you, which is why they die. Other bees can sting multiple times, but are typically not aggressive. Honeybees tend to be more aggressive because they are so closely related to the rest of their sisters in the colony. Thus they are more willing to sacrifice themselves from an evolutionary point of view because their genes will still get passed on through their close-relatedness to the queen bee (this is a concept called inclusive fitness).

Most bees prefer not to sting you. I spent a whole summer (4 months) catching bees and I only got stung twice, and both times were because I accidentally put my hand right around the bee and squeezed. My coworker didn’t get stung at all. Bees will only sting you if they have a reason to!

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Myth #5: All bees create the honey that we eat

Again, this is only true of honeybees, the non-native bee. Honeybees are the only species social and large enough to produce honey on a scale that we humans can exploit. Bumble bees create honeypots, but not really on a scale large enough that we could use. However, all bees do create a kind of honey. Most solitary bees put a little pollen and nectar into each of their egg sacs so that once the baby bee (larvae) hatches, it has an energy-rich food to eat right away.

Honeybee (Apis mellifera) on Bird's foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

Honeybee (Apis mellifera) on Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

So there you have it. Most of the things we know about bees are actually specific to honeybees, which you now know are actually not even native to North America.

Many assume that ‘Saving Our Native Bees’ is the same things as ‘Saving the Honeybees’. Both managed honeybees and wild native bees really need our help, but I think its important to understand the difference between them. Becoming a bee-keeper won’t help save the native bees, but planting a garden and putting out mason bee houses will help.

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Thanks for reading!

For more info about bees and other pollinators of BC, check out my supervisor’s webpage here.

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