Urban Bee Legends
by Jaime Pawelek
From doing our many talks throughout the state to a variety of audiences we have decided that we need to dispel some myths people have about bees. These are the most common misconceptions that we have heard and we hope to bring to light the real truths.
1. All bees live in hives, are social and have queens, workers, and drones.
Actually, only the social honey bee (Apis mellifera) builds and lives in hives. Very few bees in North America are social and live in colonies; one other type that is social is the bumble bee. Bumble bees have queens, workers, and males, but they are only active from early spring until fall. Queens start a new colony each year in the springtime, and the colony builds up throughout the year then tapers off with the decline of flowers in the fall. They don’t live in elaborate hives, but build a more free form colony typically in abandoned rodent holes. Most other bee species are solitary, which means they do not live in colonies, and for the most part, are not social creatures. The female does all the work of building a nest, collecting nectar and pollen to provide provision for the young, and laying eggs. Solitary bees build their nests in a variety of different substrates. Most nest in the ground and burrow in soil to build their nests. Some bees are cavity nesters, which means they look for preexisting holes in wood, hollowed out plant stems, empty beetle holes, and even wooden blocks with holes drilled in them to build their nests.
On left, a swarm of honey bees gathering on the end of a piece of drift wood (Photo by Jaime Pawelek). On right, a solitary female digger bee leaves her ground nest to gather provisions (Photo by Rollin Coville).
2. All bees make honey.
Only honey bees make honey, well, enough that we can harvest that is. Bumble bees also make a tiny amount of honey, but only enough to feed the queen when she helping her brood to develop, and to the young before they emerge as adults. Honey is made by regurgitating nectar that was collected by workers to other worker bees back at the hive. The nectar mixes with enzymes in the bees’ stomach and then gets spread across the honeycomb. Bees help dry it out by fanning it with their wings and then it finally becomes thick syrupy honey. The comb is sealed off with wax and honey is saved to be eaten later. Humans then harvest the extra honey that the colony makes.
3. All bees sting.
Not all bees have the ability to sting. Actually, only females can sting. The stinger is also their egg laying apparatus, and since male bees don’t lay eggs, they don’t have the ability to sting either. Female bees can decide when to use their stinger as an egg layer or as a defense mechanism. Bees don’t want to sting us, and in fact only do it as a last resort. Bees’ first instinct is to fly away if they get scared, much as we would run away from something that scares us. Next they would buzz you (image us screaming) if you get too close to them. Last and finally, the female would sting you if they felt the threat was large enough.
4. Bees die after they sting you.
Native solitary bees do not die after they sting, and actually only honey bees die after they sting someone. When a honey bee stings you some of their muscles, a portion of their abdomen and their venom sac (with stinger) rips off and stays lodged in you. Muscles associated with the venom sac can continue to pump venom into your body even when it becomes separated from their body. The best way to remove the stinger is to just scrape a fingernail over it. The only honey bees that you see flying around are all female worker bees and since they are non-reproductive (only the queen can lay eggs) they don’t need to use their stinger to lay eggs. Native solitary females on the other hand can sting more than once, if needed; they don’t die, and they don’t lose their stinger. This is because they still have to continue their work of collecting nectar and pollen to feed their young, so it would not be advantageous to the next generation of bees if they died after stinging.
5. Bees and wasps are the same.
Many people ask us about yellow jackets and other wasps and it seems they are confused as to whether they are the same as bees. Yellow jackets are wasps, and wasps are not bees. Most bees are built with fuzzy bodies perfect for pollination and are vegetarians. Wasps are mostly hairless and are carnivorous. Some wasps do visit selected flowers to drink the sugary nectar, but they differ greatly from bees in that they are meat-eaters, collecting insects to feed to their young. We often see them (only a very few species) hanging around at picnics searching for a sip of cola or a bite of your hamburger, but that should be the first tip-off that they are not bees. Bees are only focused on flowers to gather nectar and pollen. Occasionally some wasps can be very aggressive, especially if you stumble upon their nest, but many species perform valuable services by controlling insects that feed on our plants. For the most part bees are very docile and non-aggressive. For information, see the Urban Bee Garden website article, “Wasps vs. Bees.”
On left, a relatively hairless potter wasp with a tapered waist (Photo by Rollin Coville). On right, an Anthophora pacifica female sips nectar from manzanita, note the hairy body and pollen collecting hairs on legs (Photo by Rollin Coville).
6. Small bees are baby bees that eventually grow into larger bees.
Bees come in all different shapes, sizes and colors. It might be natural to think so, but small bees are not baby bees that will eventually grow into bigger bees. Bees are part of a group called ‘Hymenoptera’ which also includes ants and wasps. Hymenoptera undergo complete metamorphosis, which means that in a nest an egg develops from egg to larvae, then pupa and finally into an adult. When bees emerge from their nests they are already their adult size. They are also mature and sexually reproductive. They are not like mammals that grow from their infant form to adult form over a period of time. See “Bees: How diverse can they be?” for more information and close-up pictures relating the different sizes of bees.
7. All bees are affected by CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), not just honey bees.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) only affects honey bees in managed hives. Native bees are not affected by this disorder, but they do have their own problems to worry about. It is not known what is causing CCD at this time, but it is thought that a combination of factors may be contributing to it, such as: pesticides, stress, disease, and malnutrition. Hives are abandoned by the adult bees and only the queen and various stages of immature bees remain. As 100 crops in the U.S. and Canada are pollinated by bees, mostly by honey bees, this is becoming a very serious problem. Farmers are paying more and more money to have hives shipped into their farms to provide their pollination services. Some crops, like almonds in California, are completely dependent on honey bees for pollination. It is possible that many species of native bees could be potential crop pollinators (some, like the squash bee are more effective than honey bees) in the future, but more work and research is needed.
8. There are only about 12 species of bees in California.
California actually has about 1,600 species of bees, both native and very few non-native, living throughout the state. This is actually a very large percentage of bees as the United States has only about 4,000 species of bees. Worldwide there is estimated to be about 20,000 species of bees. California is home to a large diversity of flowering plants (~6,000 plant types), most of which are associated and have evolved with native bees. Our statewide survey of California’s urban areas has identified almost 250 species of bees living in seven cities, and we expect to add more species as we survey more cities. Typically, people are most familiar with honey bees, bumble bees, and carpenter bees, but there are many other types that can be easily observed in gardens and other floral rich places. Some of the most common bees we observe in urban areas include many types of sweat bees, the ultra-green sweat bee, digger bees, long-horned bees, leafcutting bees, yellow-faced bees, and wool carder bees.