Every bee matters

The difference between honey and wild bees

Honey and bees are naturally mentioned together. However, it is actually just the honey bee which produces honey. There is an abundance of other ‘wild’ bee species, who play a vital role in the pollination of both cultivated and natural plants.

Worldwide, there are over 20,000 bee species of which more than 600 live in Switzerland [1]. Just like honey bees, other bee species also play a vital role in pollination. Each specie has its own unique characteristics and preferences. Some bees might visit a large variety of plants while others visit just one specific flower. Some bees live in colonies while others prefer to live solitary and lastly, not all bees can sting.

Social or solitary

The honey bee is a very social animal as they live in highly organized colonies. Here, a strict division of labor dictates the role of every individual bee. The queen is responsible for laying eggs and the drones (male bees) are solely there to mate with the queen. The workers bees (females) perform all the other tasks. Depending on her age, she may either tend to the larvae, building honeycombs or forage for nectar and pollen. Honey bees classify as a so-called ‘superorganism’. A superorganism is an organized group of many organisms, that act as one unit. Each individual organism would not be able to survive on its own [2]. Some particular wild bees species also live in colonies, bumblebees for example live in colonies ranging from 50 to 400 worker bees. However this number is dwarfed by the size of a honey bee colony which can consist of over 50,000 worker bees.

In contrast to honey bees, most wild bees aren’t that social. Some species only interact with their peers to mate. These «solitary bees» build nests, typically in the shape of a tunnel with different cells. The cells are filled with pollen and nectar to feed the larvae. Solitary bees can build their nest in any sort of cavities, like hollow stems or wood pecker holes. Each specie has its own preferences, for example ‘mining bees’ tend to choose to construct their nest in the soil, while ‘carpenter bees’ drill holes in wood. Recently scientist even discovered bee nests made out of plastic [3]. 

Some solitary bees work together to some extent, for example by sharing the entrance to their nests.

Typical example of a solitary bee nest, with different cells for different larvae.
Typical example of a solitary bee nest, with different cells for different larvae.

Pollination

Wild bees are very efficient pollinators, for example the «mason bee» can pollinate as many apple trees as 120 honey bees together! It is estimated that wild bees provide the majority of pollination services [1]. However, this does not imply that wild bees are the better or more important pollinators. Scientific studies show that a diverse group of pollinators increases the pollination of wild and cultivated lands [4]. It is therefore not a question of which bee is best in pollination, it is about having a diverse group of bee species. Every specie has its own traits and preferences. For example, the mason or bumblebees have longer tongues compared to honeybees, which make them more suitable to pollinate certain plants, like red clover or tomatoes [1]. A diverse group of pollinators is more resilient then a single one, as some species might perform better by certain temperatures, amount of sunshine and plant types.

Wild bees need a continuous supply of flowers throughout the growing season to ensure their survival. As most species are active for only 1-2 months. Species that live in colonies, like bumble bees, depend on a continuous flower supply from March to October. Source [1]
Wild bees need a continuous supply of flowers throughout the growing season to ensure their survival. As most species are active for only 1-2 months. Species that live in colonies, like bumble bees, depend on a continuous flower supply from March to October. Source [1]

Species which live colonies, like the bumblebee and honey bees, are active the entire growing season. In contrast, most solitary bee species are active for a much shorter time, in general just about 1-2 months.

Other pollinators

Besides bees, other insects like hoverflies or butterflies also play a role in pollination. Hoverflies can carry less pollen on their bodies, but compensate for this by making more visits to plants [5]. Butterflies might seem inefficient pollinators, because of their tall and tiny legs they cannot close to the plants pollen. But, they carry the pollen they do collect over much larger distances [6].

Every bee matters

As of now honey bees are the main pollinators of cultivated plants [7]. This is mainly is because the honey bee has traditionally always been used for pollination by humans. Their important role in our food system is therefore a results of human choice. However, research on which bees are best suited to pollinate which plants is continuously being done and new insights will undoubtedly come up in the future. However, it is evident that a wide range of bee species and other insects results in effective pollination for both cultivated and natural plants. Which leads to more resilient and healthy ecosystems. In sum, every bee matters.  

Literature

[1] Pfiffner, L. & Müller, A. 2016. Wildbienen und Bestäubung. Forschungsinstitut für Biologische Landbau (FiBL). ISBN 978-3-03736-301-0

[2] Moritz, R., & Southwick, E. E. 2012. Bees as superorganisms: an evolutionary reality. Springer Science & Business Media.

[3] Starr, M. 2019. Wild Bees Have Been Found Building Nests Entirely Out of Plastic Waste. Science alert. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencealert.com/wild-bees-have-been-found-building-nests-entirely-out-of-plastic-for-the-first-time

[4] Aebi, A., Vaissière, B. E., Van Engelsdorp, D., Delaplane, K. S., Roubik, D. W., & Neumann, P. 2012. Back to the future: Apis versus non-Apis pollination-a response to Ollerton et al. Trends in ecology & evolution.

[5] Larson, B. M. H., Kevan, P. G., & Inouye, D. W. 2001. Flies and flowers: taxonomic diversity of anthophiles and pollinators. The Canadian Entomologist, 133 (4), 439-465.

[6] Herrera, C. M. (1987). Components of pollinator” quality”: comparative analysis of a diverse insect assemblage. Oikos, 79-90.

[7] Greenpeace. 2013 Bye bye Biene? Das Bienensterben und die Risiken für die Landwirtschaft in Europa.

Vatorex, Felix Poelsma
27 June, 2019
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