What do you really know about bees?

Learn about the top four misconceptions about all bees.

Mason bee, Osmia calla, found in Yosemite National Park in California. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory, Flickr.com.
Mason bee, Osmia calla, found in Yosemite National Park in California. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory, Flickr.com.

What do you think of when someone is talking about a bee? Do you think of their tasty product, honey? Do you think of them pollinating your flowers in the summer? Many facts that you know about bees might actually be misconceptions. There are over 20,000 species of bees known today and there is a vast diversity of size, appearance, lifecycle and nesting habits among them. Of those, a quarter of them (approximately 5,000) are native to North America. Now, let’s review the top four misconceptions about bees.

1. All bees make honey.

Actually, less than 4 percent of all bees (less than 800 species) actually make honey. The most well-known bee—the honey bee, Apis mellifera—does make beeswax and honey. This bee species is used commercially to pollinate many commercial agricultural crops and is also reared for honey in the beekeeping industry. The honey bee is not representative of the diversity of bee species as a whole. Therefore, the remaining 19,000-plus species make no honey at all.

2. All bees live in colonies and nest in hives.

Less than 8 percent of all bees are considered to be “social” and live with other individuals of their species. Many are solitary (live alone) and do not live in hives. In addition, the vast majority of bees actually nest in the ground. In North America, approximately 30 percent, or about 1,500 species of bees are tunnel-nesting. These bee species nest in cavities aboveground, such as in plant stems or beetle holes in wood. The three main kinds of tunnel-nesting bees in North America are mason bees (Osmia spp.), masked bees (Hylaeus spp.) and most leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.). Even fewer bees live in hives. In fact, less than 3 percent of the world’s bees live in hives.

To learn more about tunnel-nesting bees and how to create habitat for these species, check out “Building and Managing Bee Hotels for Wild Bees” by Michigan State University Extension.

3. All bees work hard pollinating flowers.

While bees might be most visible to us while they are hard at work pollinating flowers, there is an entire group of bees that do not work hard. The cuckoo bees are parasitic bees that lay eggs in other bee’s nests. While cuckoo bees still gather nectar for their day-to-day activities, they do not need to gather food for their young. Instead, they focus on finding other bees’ nests to parasitize. The female cuckoo bee might even eat the egg of the host bee species. More than 18 percent of bee species are cuckoo bees.

4. All bees sting.

Yes, some bees do sting. However, there are many species that have evolved to not have the stingers. Within the species that do have stingers, only female bees can sting.

Additional facts and resources

In addition to these top four common misconceptions about all bees, many bees are actually confused with wasps and hornets. Wasps and hornets are relatives of bees, but are more aggressive and may pose greater threats to humans.

So, what is the take-home message? The poster child for bees— the honey bee—possesses many characteristics that are unusual when compared with other bees. Honey bees do produce honey, are social, live in hives and can sting. There is an incredible diversity of bees around the world and most of which are nothing like the honey bee, but are just as important!

To learn more about bee diversity, check out resources such as “Bees of the World” by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw. To learn more about bee biology and common misconceptions about bees, check out “Keeping the Bees: Why All Bees Are at Risk and What We Can Do to Save Them” by Laurence Packer. Also, check out “Bees: An up-close look at pollinators around the World” by Sam Droege and Laurence Packer.

For a resource on bees developed by MSU Extension, check out “Bees of the Great Lakes Region and Wildflowers to Support Them” and “Protecting and enhancing pollinators in urban landscapes for the U.S. North Central Region.”

Thank you to Dr. Laurence Packer, professor of biology at York University, for his keynote, “Bees: Importance and Diversity,” discussing these topics at the Second National Protecting Pollinators in Urban Landscapes Conference hosted by MSU Extension and North Carolina State University in October of 2017. Thank you to Dr. Packer for his review of this article. 

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