To BEE or not to BEE

May 14, 2008

Did you know that Native Americans called honeybees “white man’s flies”?  Honeybees are not native to North America, but were brought over by European settlers in the 1600s.  They are now completely naturalized here.  The Africanized bee (more on her some other time) is a different strain of the same species – indeed the two are virtually indistinguishable except in their behavior.


The Bees from our hive in the Museum
pollinate the plants outside.

Despite not being here naturally, honeybees today are vital to our economy and to our health!  They pollinate most of the fruits and vegetables we eat, as well as cotton, almonds, many wild flowers as well as garden cultivars, and more.  In fact, it’s hard to think of a non-grain food crop that is NOT pollinated by bees!  Of course, bees also produce honey and other products (wax, pollen, propolis) – but these are much less important than their pollination services.  The recent concern over the health and well-being of honeybees is because of their huge importance to agriculture, not because of a potential honey shortage.  I’ll digress about “colony collapse disorder” in a later blog.


When not in an established hive,
honeybees are not agressive.

People typically use the term “bee” to denote any flying, stinging insect, and “bees” are generally feared because of their sting.  However, most stings blamed on bees are actually due to social wasps such as yellow-jackets and bald-faced hornets.  Social wasps do not collect pollen or make honey but are predators of insects and spiders.  They do defend themselves and their paper nests with a painful sting!  Moreover, unlike honeybees, they can sting more than once.

In fact, away from their colonies, i.e., when they are out foraging for nectar and pollen, honeybees are unlikely to sting.  Yes, they will certainly sting if their nest is threatened, but in general they do so reluctantly.  Because a honeybee loses her life when she stings, every sting needs to count. The barbed tip of a worker bee’s stinger holds fast into whatever is stung – and pulls out her venom sac and other innards along with it – a kamikaze end to a short and busy life.

If you walk through a meadow of wildflowers in mid-summer, you may see (in addition to honeybees) many different native bees visiting flowers.  Large bees include bumblebees and carpenter bees.  Smaller ones might include leafcutter bees, orchard bees, sweat bees, digger bees, and more.  Of these only honeybees (and bumblebees to a much lesser extent) collect nectar and make honey.  The others are solitary, and mostly collect pollen, which they use to feed their young.  Female solitary bees do have stingers, but since they do not have a large nest to defend, they only sting if they are handled carelessly.

Coming next week: Adventures in Beekeeping!

Authored By Nancy Greig

Dr. Nancy Greig is the founding director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, which she oversaw from 1994 to 2016. As emeritus director she continues to work with the museum doing outreach and education. Her academic training is in botany and entomology, with a specialty in the interaction between insects, especially butterflies, and plants. In addition to cultivating backyard butterflies, she grows vegetables and bees

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