We all know bees are amazing. Without these pollinators, humans and many other creatures would starve to death. But there is so much about bees that most of us don't realize, including the sheer amount of diversity. There are over 4,000 species of native bees in North America alone. And with such diversity comes extraordinarily cool quirks and behaviors. Photographer Clay Bolt is on a journey to document all of North America's bees, and he has come across some fascinating facts.
He has provided us with a handful of the coolest things he has learned during his work with these insects. From pheromones that act as invisibility cloaks, to eggs that hatch in an orderly fashion in the nest, to bees that compete with the European honey bee as most efficient pollinators, prepare to have your eyes opened about bees.
1. Built-in heaters
In the spring, a new queen bumble bee incubates her eggs in a little nest of straw much like a mother bird. By placing her abdomen over the eggs she is able to control their temperature, speeding up the development of her young. Once the eggs have hatched and the larvae have emerged, she will continue to keep her daughters warm until they are old enough to leave the nest for foraging. In order to retain her sitting position eggs for as long as possible she first constructs a little wax pot filled with sweet nectar next to the nest that she can sip from so that doesn’t have to leave her young too often.
2. Invisibility cloaks
After copulation, a male cuckoo bee in the genus Nomada transfers an "invisibility cloak" of pheromones to his mate that allows her to slip, undetected, into the nest of her host bee species. The entrances of solitary bee nests are lined with a unique chemical signature that serves as a type of intruder detection system for unwanted visitors. However a female cuckoo bee is able to pass by without much trouble thanks to this unique gift from her mate.
3. Night flight
Most bees fly during the day. However a few North American species (such as a sweat bee, Lasioglossum texana) are able to navigate by the light of the moon and stars, which allows them to collect pollen and nectar from nocturnally blooming plants such as the evening primrose. Nocturnal species, such as the night-flying South American sweat bee shown here, have enlarged simple eyes known as ocelli (the 3 small eyes centered between the larger compound eyes) that help them to navigate in very low levels of illumination.
As for the mechanics of flying, a new study sheds light on how bees' relatively small wings can keep their bodies in flight. Bees have tiny tornado-like airflows that form on the leading edges of their wings, known as leading edge vortices (LEVs). “Initially, everyone thought this was the magical solution we’d been looking for. People worshiped vortices and assumed they must be responsible for the extra lift,” Mostafa Nabawy of University of Manchester, the study's lead author, told New Scientist. “Instead we found that LEVs mean the wing can fly at a much higher angle of attack without stalling,” said Nabawy.
The swirls of air at the wing's edge help the bees angle their wings more sharply toward the sky, improving the air flow over the wing. This sharper angle is what gives bees enough lift to fly.
4. Wake-up calls
Leafcutter bees are raised in narrow, tube-like nests that are lined with leaves by their mother. Typically, the bees hatch from the entrance (the last eggs laid) to the back of the nest so that everyone can leave in an orderly fashion. Occasionally, a young bee may "sleep in" too long, blocking the exit and causing a traffic jam for the remainder of its nest mates. When this happens, the nest mate who is next in line will give her drowsy sibling a gentle nip on the end of the abdomen as a cue that it is time to wake up and get moving.
5. Suspended sleep
Solitary bees, as you might guess from their name, don’t live in colonies like honey bees. Since there is no communal home to return to, many solitary species such as the thistle long-horned bee will rest at night by clamping their mandibles onto a bit of vegetation. After finding a suitable roosting site at dusk, the bee will enter in a state of suspended animation until the next morning when the sun’s warmth makes it possible for it to fly once again. This is a trait that is also still shared by some of bees’ ancient wasp ancestors in the family Sphecidae.
6. Wasp ancestors
Which came first, bees or wasps? Many evolutionary biologists believe that bees are essentially a lineage of pollen collecting wasps that are directly descended from a group of predatory wasps in the family Crabronidae. Wasps in this family — beewolves, for example — often visit flowers in search of insect prey to feed their young. The captured prey is often coated in pollen when fed to the young wasps. In the beginning this served as an additional source of protein for the young wasps but over time one or more species began to feed their young a strict pollen diet. This eventually led to the rise of the insects that we now call bees. Bees feed strictly on nectar and pollen and utilize uniquely shaped hairs called scopa that allow a female bee to collect pollen for her young.
7. Stingless bees
All bees don’t produce honey — the kind that we like to have on our toast, anyway. Most people are familiar with honey bees and their ability to take a flower’s nectar — via an amazing biological process — and turn it into delicious honey. However, the majority of bee species are solitary, or only social on a very limited basis, which means that they don’t need to store up a stockpile of readily available food for their ever-growing colony. While many solitary bees do mix a bit of a honey-like substance with a small provision of pollen for their young, true honey is only made by a few species of bees in the family Apidae, which includes honey bees and a diverse group known as stingless bees. Stingless bees are also reared for honey throughout much of the world’s tropical regions.
8. Productive pollinators
Native bees deserve more credit for producing the foods that we enjoy each day. Did you know that honey bees are not always the most efficient pollinators of native North American crops such as blueberries and squash? Blueberry pollen is held tightly within the flower’s anthers, which makes it very difficult for honey bees to access it. Bumble bees and specialist species such as the Southeastern blueberry bee use a technique known as buzz pollination or sonication to release this pollen. To do this, the bees unhinge their flight muscles and vibrate them at a rapid pace, dislodging the pollen and causing it to fall from the blueberry flower onto their bodies. It has been estimated that a productive Southern Blueberry Bee will visit as many as 50,000 flowers in its lifetime, resulting in the production of somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 blueberries. Not bad for a little bee!
9. Endangered insects
While there are approximately 4,000 species of native bees in North America, many are in serious trouble due to a variety of factors including loss of habitat and the use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids. In many cases, pesticides don’t directly kill a pollinating bee but rather do so indirectly by affecting its ability to reproduce or store body fat, resulting in a slow death. A tragic example of a North American bee in serious decline is the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), whose numbers have dropped 87 percent in the past 15 years. This beautiful bumble bee and other closely related species have been inflicted with an internal pathogen that was introduced into North America when bumble bees imported from Europe to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes escaped into the wild and came in contact with wild bees. Franklin’s bumble bee (Bombus franklini), a relative of the rusty patched bumble bee that has also been affected by this pathogen, has not been seen since 2006.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in November 2014.