Common name: bee
Scientific name: superfamily Apoidea
Length: average of 12 mm for workers, 15 mm for males (or “drones”) and 18 mm for queens
Weight: N/A
Population: N/A
Distribution: worldwide (except polar regions)
Issue: colony collapse disorder, pollution
IUCN Red List status: N/A

Bees are part of the superfamily Apoidea, which also includes wasps. Bees are plant-eating social insects that forage, meaning they fly from flower to flower looking for food and other substances. Bees gather four main items: pollen (tiny grains used to fertilize plants), nectar (the sweet liquid secreted by plants to attract pollinating insects, and the primary ingredient in honey), honeydew (a thick, sweet liquid excreted by certain insects, such as aphids, which can be used to make at type of honey) and propolis (a plant resin used to maintain the hive). Most of the pollen that bees gather goes to feed their larvae.

Bees are present on all continents except for Antarctica. There are nearly 20,000 species, and perhaps more. The most well-known of these is Apis mellifera, the honey bee, which makes honey and wax that humans have used for thousands of years. However, only seven species and 44 subspecies of bee produce honey, a tiny fraction of all bee species. Flowering plants reproduce by way of pollination, and because bees are important pollinators, they play a vital role in the world’s ecosystems.

Because of the variety of their traits and behaviours, forms of social organization, feeding habits, and activities, bees are a difficult group of insects to generalize. For example, some lack stingers; some are much larger than other species, with bodies 4 cm long and wingspans of 6 cm; others feed on carrion; still others sneak into the hives of other species to lay their eggs rather than building their own hives. However, all bees have the same basic body morphology: a head, a thorax, and an abdomen, and three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings.

In Canada, there are fewer than 1,000 bee species, including about 365 species in Québec. Apis mellifera, the prolific honey-producing bee, establishes colonies in hives that contain three types, or castes, of bee: the queen, which lays up to 2,000 eggs per day and lives about four years; the workers, the queen’s infertile daughters, who care for and protect the hive (a colony typically numbers about 40,000 workers, which live about six weeks and then die of exhaustion); and finally, the males, or “drones,” (a colony usually contains about 2,500 drones, which live for about three months) whose sole purpose is to fertilize the queen.

A mysterious phenomenon called “colony collapse disorder” has affected honeybees in recent decades, though it has worsened since 2006. The phenomenon causes colonies otherwise thought to be healthy to disappear, and it may also affect wild bees. The disorder has affected the beekeeping industry worldwide, and if bee colonies continue to decline, it could threaten not only honey production but also the very pollination of flowering plants, which rely heavily on the presence of bees to reproduce. In fact, nearly 35 percent of the world’s food resources depend on the pollination of plants.

The year 2007 was a particularly dark one for honeybee colonies (the species for which the most data exists). Many European countries announced that bees had deserted over half of all hives. In North America, similar cases were reported in at least 24 U.S. states and in Canada. Since 2007, about 30 percent of all hives are abandoned every year.

It would appear that a variety of causes is responsible for this worrisome phenomenon. Scientists are currently looking for parasites, viruses, chemicals, environmental factors, and poor practices that might explain the disorder. One of the most promising avenues of research is the insecticide imidacloprid, used in many pesticides spread on fields around the world since 1991. This substance targets the nervous systems of insects that eat plants where it has been applied.

Did you know?
Honeybees beat their wings 14,400 times per minute, or 240 times per second. This gives them their distinctive droning sound. To make one pound (0.5 kg) of honey, bees must make about 10,000,000 nectar-gathering trips to about 2,000,000 flowers, travelling a total of 85,000 km. One colony can produce up to 200 lb (90 kg) of honey per year.

REFERENCES: Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Encyclopedia of Life.

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