All About Bees: The Great Garden Pollinators

Bees play an important role in maintaining biological balance in our environment and recycling soil nutrients. Learn all about bees in this excerpt from "Bees, Wasps, and Ants" by Eric Grissell.

| May 6, 2013

Bees, Wasps, and Ants

“Bees, Wasps, and Ants,” by Eric Grissell gives an in-depth look at bees and the important role insects have in gardens.

Cover Courtesy Timber Press, Inc.

Bees are one of the most important insects to us. Not only are they great garden pollinators, they maintain biological balance and recycle soil nutrients. Learn all about bees — from the difference between bees and wasps to colony collapse disorder in Bees, Wasps, and Ants (Timber Press, 2010) by Eric Grissell. The following excerpt was taken from chapter 8, "The Garden’s Pollinators: Bees."

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The Garden’s Pollinators: Bees

Mention the word bee and our perspective on the subject immediately turns to the honey bee. On a good day we might even follow this with thoughts of bumble bees or carpenter bees. At that point most of us will have run out of any sorts of thoughts about bees at all. But what of the resin bees, don’t they deserve our thoughts as well? Or the mason bees and sweat bees? The leafcutter bees? The cuckoo bees? The mining and digger bees? The green bees and yellow-faced bees? The squash and gourd bees? The plasterer, polyester, or cellophane bees? The carder bees? And my favorite moniker of all, the shaggy fuzzyfoot bee? There are bees galore and many more, and some deserve a bit of attention now and then, so in this chapter we’ll examine aspects of bee life that may prove interesting, if not useful, to the gardener.

Bees, it is currently hypothesized, are simply pollen-collecting wasps. That is, some predatory wasps began to collect pollen instead of insect prey to feed their young. The pollen wasps (subfamily Masarinae) are an example of a possible intermediary step in the road to beedom. The main difference between bees and wasps (as well as other Hymenoptera) is that the bees have branched or feathery hairs and the wasps have simple hairs. During this evolutionary transition, it is believed that the unmodified body hairs of wasps became branched to better trap pollen grains. In addition, structures associated with the legs became modified to scrape and consolidate pollen from these hairs. In some cases the pollen was formed into packets and stored in the corbicula (a sort of pollen basket) on the hind leg, and in others, pollen accumulated in hairs on the underside of the abdomen. Transporting one grain of pollen at a time would have been rather time consuming, so consolidating and transporting as much pollen as possible soon became the imperative. Thus, when you get right down to basics, bees are just fuzzy wasps.

Compared to predatory wasps, bees are much less diverse in what they feed their young: in every case pollen and nectar and rarely plant oils. If we ignore the honey bee, which has about as complex a life as is possible, the basic life of a bee is arguably less complex than that of a predatory wasp. Within bees there are levels of sociality from solitary to eusocial, but analogous behaviors may be found in the wasps. Some bee species are thieves (that is, cleptoparasitoids) of other bees, in which case their larvae eat pollen provisions given to the host bee larvae, thus inadvertently starving the host larvae. This behavior is also found in predatory wasps, though the food is other insects, not pollen. And there are a few colonial bee species that are social (or brood) parasites, invading a host colony and living among the worker bees as if they belonged there — another behavior found in social predatory wasps.

As with predatory wasps, the majority of bees are solitary, building and provisioning nests by themselves. Solitary bees are much less well known than the eusocial kinds (that is, honey bees and bumble bees). Of all the solitary sorts, the large carpenter bee (Xylocopa) is likely to be the most readily recognized member of the group. The leafcutter bees are more likely noted by what they do than their actual appearance. They are responsible for the circular cutouts in leaves of roses and other plants. Other than these few examples, there is a tremendous variety of lesser-known characters about which much can be said.

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