Bees, with their yellow and black stripes, color our world. Their busy buzzing is quite a familiar sound. Whether or not you are a fan of bees, it would intrigue you to learn some of the 20 incredible facts about bees we have curated.
Bees have been around for about 30 million years7; what would our world look like without bees? We don’t know exactly, but we would surely have fewer flowers and no honey. Loved for its cuteness and feared for its painful sting, the bee plays a vital role in our ecosystem and economy.
Related: For more bee inspiration, check out our list of some of the best bee quotes to hear what people from all walks of life have to say about bees.
Honey bees have red or brown bodies with orange or yellow rings around the abdomen. The head and thorax have feathered hairs that pick up pollen. They have two large compound eyes and three simple eyes located at the top of their head5. For bees, sight is such an important sense that they have five eyes. For bees, sight is such an important sense that they have five eyes.
Generally, adult bees measure about 2mm (0.08 inches) to 4cm (1.6 inches)6. For honey bees, female bees, also called worker bees, grow to about 10-15mm, and the queens are much larger at 18-20mm3. Male honey bees are called drones and usually measure 15-17mm at maturity. Worker bees have longer wings than drones, and drones have bigger eyes than worker bees. Workers and queens have stingers, but the drones are stingless.
The honey bee, Apis mellifera, is the most popular type of bee, but there are many other types. We also called it the domestic honey bee, western honey bee, or European honey bee. There are about 26 subspecies of the Apis genus of honey bees. Bumblebees are another type of bee. And there are thousands of fly-like and wasp-like bees.
The Apis mellifera is native to Africa, Asia, and Europe, but in the 17th century, humans introduced them to other places, and now you can find them almost anywhere in the world. Honey bees prefer habitats with abundant flowering plants, such as gardens, meadows, and open wooded areas. Bees can also survive in deserts, wetlands, and grasslands.
For more about bees species and how to spot the difference, check out our article on the different types of bees.
Flowers provide everything that a bee would ever need for nutrition; pollen and nectar. Bees, however, have particular preferences for the pollen they gather. Polylectic bees collect pollen from a large variety of flowers. Oligolectic bees consume pollen with certain peculiarities, like flowers from a certain family or of a certain color. This restricts them to a smaller range of flowers to feed on.
Bees forage for food only during daylight but continuously remain active in the hive. They stay close to home and forage within a 3-kilometer radius around the hive. When resources are scarce, honey bees fly distances of 8-13 km to search for food or water.
Workers have straw-like tongues called a proboscis to suck up nectar, and store it in a part of the digestive tract, called the crop. They gather pollen into structures on their hind legs called pollen baskets.
Solitary bees build nests for laying eggs in the ground, softwood, pre-existing cavities, or on the surface of stones, trees, or buildings. The nest shelters the developing bees from predators.
The solitary bee builds its breeding nest like a house with different rooms. A nest may contain one to nine compartments we call brood cells. It deposits a mixture of pollen and nectar in each cell and lays a single egg in it. The larva feeds on the mixture as it develops.
In colonies, the workers care for the offspring of the queens. They source food and feed the larva until they mature. Male bees do not participate in gathering food, and only female bees care for the young.
The cuckoo bees are mostly brood parasites; they do not make provision for their offspring but usurp the nest of other bee species1. They lay their eggs on the pollen provision of another bee made for its offspring. Since the pollen nutrition storage can not sustain both the host and the cuckoo larva, the parasite larvae or its mother must kill the host larvae.
A parasitic female bee may invade a nest after the host has laid eggs and closed it. She kills the host’s larva and lays her eggs before closing the nest back up. Other times, after the parasitic bee invades a nest, she lays her eggs and leaves.
The parasitic larva develops faster than the host and has a sharp sickle-shaped mandible. They use the mandibles to pierce and kill off the host larva or other parasitic species found in the nest.
Honey bee colonies live in structures called beehives or honeycombs. A beehive can accommodate around 50,000 bees. The architectural complexity of beehives has long fascinated humans. Honey bees build their unique homes from wax secretions their body produces. The comb is double layered and has countless six-sided cells.
Apis dorsata, the giant honey bee, builds large combs with diameters as wide as nine feet. In these honeycomb cells, bees store honey, nectar, and pollen. Bees also start their lives in these cells as eggs laid by the queen bee.
Although their hive doesn't have a lot of lightning, bees need bright and clear vision when they go outside. Bees have eyes that can detect UV light wavelengths that are beyond the visible spectrum. This is how they can see flower markings that only show in UV light and find the sun on cloudy days. A part of the honey bee's eyes is attuned to polarized light, which it uses to navigate.
Honey bees are somewhat endothermic. That is, they can raise the temperatures of their bodies and hive by working their flight muscles. During cold weather, when temperatures drop below around 50 °F (10 °C), the queen and her workers cluster up into a tight ball to keep warm.
They rapidly move their wings, shaking and shivering to generate heat2. At the center of the cluster where the queen stays, temperatures can rise to 90–100 °F (32–37 °C).
Whenever the weather warms up and temperatures rise above 50 °F, the bees go outside to rest and pass waste.
Honey bees work together to find food, and when one bee finds flower patch food sources, it relays the information to the others through dance. We call the bee’s dance the waggle dance; it consists of a short straight run and a circular movement.
The dance tells the other bees the location and distance of the food source to the hive and the sun. It even expresses such things as the size and quality of the flower patch.
Bees also communicate by releasing chemicals. As workers groom larvae, drones, the queen, and one another, they pass on pheromones. These pheromones indicate the state of health of the hive. Every hive has a chemical signature unique to them. It helps from the same hive to recognize each other and detect intruders.
Usually, there is only one queen in a hive, and that's because the position of the hive queen is highly competitive.
Swarming is how new colonies develop. Worker bees feed royal jelly to many virgin queens, and shortly before the new queens emerge, the old queen leaves the hive with about half of the worker bees to establish a new colony. At the old give, the new queens emerge, and if the worker population is still robust, one or two new queens may leave the hive with workers to set up their colony.
When resources become short, and they can no longer form new colonies, the remaining new queens fight for their place by stinging each other to death, the survivor becomes the new hive queen.
People think of bees and picture swarms and colonies, but honey bees are the only social species of bees that live in large colonies. Other types of bees don't live together in any way, not even in small families.
The bee superfamily is solitary bees and is not social. They live in nests built with chimneys or turrets at the entrance. Honey bees and bumble bees are social insects, and they live in caste societies called colonies.
Around 1957, scientists were working on creating a bee hybrid that would adapt to tropical climates and produce more honey in Brazil. The experiment created the killer bee, a hybrid of the European and an African subspecies of honey bees. It was called the killer or Africanized bee.
The scientists accidentally released some killer bees, and they migrated northward towards Mexico and texas. Today, the Africanized bee lives in Arizona, some parts of Nevada, California, and Florida.
Killer bees are smaller than European honey bees and do not help with cross-pollination that much. They are said to be the cause of death for hundreds of people. This is not because they have particular venom. They have the same amount of venom a European honey bee has, but killer bees react more to a perceived threat. That is why there are more fatalities.
Humans are not the only ones with caste-based communities; bees do too. In a honey bee colony, there are two female castes. We have the worker bees and then queens. The worker bees are sterile and do not attain sexual maturity, but they are the most populous members of the hive.
Queen bees attain sexual maturity and are responsible for procreation in colonies. The queen is bigger than the worker bees. Worker bees care for the hive, forage for food, and care for the young larva.
The queen honey bee is the only female that can procreate in the colony. She mates with many drones and stores sperm in a structure known as the spermatheca. She will lay eggs throughout the year and may pause when the cold climate of fall hits. A fertile queen can lay up to 1,000 eggs/day and 200,000 eggs throughout her life.
The spermatheca allows the queen to control the fertilization of eggs. So when the queen lays eggs, some are fertilized, and others are not. The eggs not fertilized develop into drones, and fertilized eggs grow into females, which may be virgin queens or worker bees.
There is an exception to the rule that only the queen lays eggs. Workers may lay unfertilized eggs that become drones if the queen bee dies or is weak during swarming season.
The queen bee is the most important member of the bee colony. Eggs deposited in special large vertical cells known as queen cells develop into a virgin queen. Virgin queens feed on royal jelly.
The royal jelly is a milky substance secreted by a special gland found in the worker bee's head. It is also called bee milk, and workers, drones, and queen larvae feed on this initially.
Worker and drone bees stop getting the jelly by the third day of life, but the queen bee larvae get it throughout the larval period. Any virgin queen that doesn't get a consistent diet of only royal jelly will turn out to be an average worker bee.
The special food, royal jelly or bee milk, contains water, carbohydrates, proteins, mineral salts, and vitamins. Vitamins in it include vitamin B6 and pantothenic acid. Vitamin B6 aids the breakdown of amino acids and pantothenic breaks down fats and carbohydrates4.
Honey bee eggs hatch within three days and then develop into larvae that we call grubs. When fully grown, the grubs transform into pupae. Queens become adults in 16 days, workers take about 21 days, and drones 24 days.
Adults usually live for 2-4 weeks in the summer, but if they survive the winter, they stay alive for up to 11 months. Drones survive for 4-8 weeks in the summer months and don't live through the winter. They usually die soon after mating. Queens live 2-3 years, but some stay alive for as many as five years.
When the weather is mild, drones exit the hive to assemble at nearby areas. Virgin queens fly through the drone assembly areas and release pheromones that attract them. Drones attempt to mate with the queen in flight, and each one that succeeds drops off and dies in a few hours or days.
The rush to mate often results in drones forming clusters around the queen, with a line of drones struggling to catch up; we call these clusters comets. These flights happen several times, with queens mating with up to 10 males per flight. After this mating period has occurred, she never mates again in her lifetime.
Honey bee queens exhibit a polyandry mating behavior whereby several males simultaneously father bees in the hive. Scientists believe that bee polyandry improves colony fitness by increasing genetic diversity. Colonies that are genetically diverse increase the overall bee population because they have a higher population, foraging activity, and food supplies.
Honey bee workers exhibit changes in their duties as they grow older. Newly emerged workers are responsible for cleaning the honeycomb cells to prepare them for eggs or food storage. In a few days, they take on duties like taking out waste, processing nectar, feeding the queen and larvae. They also work to maintain air circulation and keep temperatures stable.
Their wax gland becomes active in their second week, and now they start to help with building and repairs of the comb. Workers' wax glands become active, and they help build and repair the comb while continuing to tend the queen and feed other workers.
From their 12th to 25th day, workers take on guard roles and defend the hive from infiltration and attack. After three weeks, their wax and food glands shrink, and they begin to fly out on foraging duty.
The bee is the only insect that makes food that humans can eat; honey. Worker Foragers collect nectar from about 2 million flowers just to make 1 pound of honey. The average worker produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
Apart from honey, we get beeswax, propolis, pollen, and even bee milk which are used for cosmetics and homemade remedies. Some researchers suggest that the venom of honey bees may have medicinal value in treating inflammation or auto-immune diseases.
Bees are valued pollinators. As bees move from flower to flower to feed, pollen clings to the hairs on their bodies. Bees carry pollen from one flower and rub it off on another.
The economic value that we get from bee pollination is far greater than their wax or honey. Honey bees pollinate billions of dollars worth of commercial crops all over the world each year. In the US, bees pollinate 130 crops, including fiber, fruit, nut, and vegetable crops. This adds an estimated 14 billion dollars annually to crop quality and yield.
Pollution, pesticide, and pollution created by humans have resulted in declining bee populations across the world. Beekeepers in the US reported over a 45% loss in their colonies in 2021. As bees pollinate large amounts of the flowers that result in our food crops, the FAO estimates that if the trend continues, we could find ourselves without many of the fruits, nuts, and other food crops we’ve become used to.
As such global efforts have begun to help protect bee populations from further damage. At home, we can play a role in helping by planting for the bees.
Read more: Why are bees important to biodiversity
Bees are an essential part of our ecosystem, and without them, food supplies could be seriously affected. They are pollinators that work their whole life to fertilize flowering plants. Clearing hectares and hectares of bee habitats can put their population at risk.
Jessica R. L (2019) Under the radar: detection avoidance in brood parasitic bees. The Royal British Publishing.
Jonathan Hogeback. Where Do Honeybees Go in the Winter? Encyclopedia Britannica.
Animal Diversity Web. Apis mellifera
Encyclopedia Britannica. Royal jelly
Encyclopedia Britannica. Honeybee
Encyclopedia Britannica. Bee
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.