It’s often noted that humanity simply would not survive without bees. But how true is this? RSPB England’s Beth Markey answers this and all your other burning questions on bees.

Most of us know bees as fuzzy, charming little chaps that live in hives and grant us with endless supplies of honey. But there’s much more to these winged invertebrates than meets the eye - from their invaluable role in keeping the natural planet ticking over, to their distinctive behaviour (or rather bee-haviour) – much of which is curiously similar to our own.

So settle in as we aim to answer the most pressing questions you have on these fascinating little creatures…

Why are bees so important?

Bees collect pollen and nectar as a food source for their colony and, in the process, pollinate plants. In laymen’s terms, this simply means that they transfer pollen from the male part of a plant to the female part, thereby enabling fertilisation. Without this happy accident, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy walks in the countryside, tuck into our favourite meals, and many other important species wouldn’t have homes.

“But don’t other species also pollinate plants?” we hear you ask. Sure, many of our other much-loved species like butterflies assist in pollination. But bees pollinate a whopping 80% of flowering plants. So could humanity survive without them? The answer is no, and nor could other wildlife that assist in pollination – just one of nature’s peculiar catch-22s.  

 

What’s the difference between a honeybee and a bumblebee?












Photo 1: honeybee; photo 2: cuckoo bumblebee

The two types of bee we mostly hear about are bumblebees and honeybees. Both are important pollinators, but they differ significantly in their appearance and habits. Bumblebees are the rounder, fluffier fellas that typically exude the ‘aww’ factor. Honeybees are slenderer in appearance, and too often meet the business end of flyswatters when they get mistaken for wasps. There are over 250 species of bumblebee and only one type of honeybee.

But what honeybees lack in cuteness, they make up for in pragmatism. With well-constructed colonies containing tens of thousands of hive-mates, honeybees produce surplus amounts of honey making them a firm favourite with beekeepers. In contrast, bumblebees live in sloppily constructed nests with usually only a few hundred other bees. They produce enough honey to comfortably sustain themselves but no more.

 

Is it true that bees have jobs?


Remember that thing we just said about bee behaviour being curiously similar to our own? Hive society in honeybees and bumblebees serves as a prime example of this. The key difference is that whilst we can spend years agonising over whether to become an engineer or scientist, the division of labour is innate in a hive. Key roles include the queen, who is the only fertile female in the hive, drones (honeybees only) that mate with the queen, and workers – which are the bees we see out in the field collecting pollen.

It’s worth noting that not all bee species conform to this structure. Some, like our mining bees, are solitary and nest in the ground by themselves or in very small colonies.

 

How long do bees live?

This very much depends on the species in question and beyond that, the role they play in their hive (and let’s not forget factors like the weather, plant life availability and insecticides). Much like with everything else, honeybees have good stakes in the life expectancy game, compared with bumblebees. A queen honeybee can live from between 3 – 6 years, which is pretty good going. Worker and drone honeybees aren’t quite so lucky, living anywhere from one to two months.

Queen bumblebees can live for around a year if all is good and well, whilst the males generally live for a couple of weeks. As for solitary bees, if there was ever a case to be made for staying single for life…well, they are not it. With over 200 species of solitary bee, it’s difficult to give an average life span, but most rarely live longer than two months.

Why are bees threatened?


It’s no secret that bee populations are falling across the world, with nearly 1 in 10 of Europe’s wild bee species facing extinction. There’s no single cause to blame for the decline of bees, but some of the largest drivers of this loss include:

Habitat destruction – since the Second World War, we’ve lost a staggering 97% of our wildflower meadows, leaving bees with very few places to nest and forage.

Farming – intensive farming has played a big part in the loss of habitat, with the destruction of trees, wildflower meadows, hedgerows and more. Another huge obstacle is pesticide use in non-organic farming, which causes severe damage to bees. Whilst many of the worst bee-harming pesticides have been banned, there’s still a long way to go. It’s part of the reason we advocate strongly for nature-friendly farming.

Climate change – as the seasons shift, bees become increasingly disoriented. Much like most British wildlife, they are sheltered creatures that rely on a stable routine. Climate change means that many of our bees are emerging later, and the vegetation they rely on is shifting too, so understandably, they don’t know whether they’re coming or going.

Other threats to bees include mites, land use change and invasive species, like Asian hornets.

 

How do bees make honey?

Remember joking as a child that you had a second stomach for desserts? Bees can use that excuse and get away with it – lucky! They start the process by collecting nectar – a sugar-rich liquid – from plants and storing it in their honey stomach. This is separate to their food stomach.

Once they’ve stocked up enough, they head back to their hive and pass the nectar from bee to bee. Each bee chews the nectar for around half an hour before passing it onto the next bee, slowly turning it into a syrup. Once it’s ready, they store the honey inside honeycomb cells, which make up the hive structure. Impressive, huh!

 

Should you give tired bees sugar water?


The term ‘busy bee’ didn’t appear from thin air. Our bees get very little in the way of a work-life balance and this makes for an exhausting existence. For this reason, it’s common to find tired bees on pathways, walls and places you wouldn’t expect. In these cases, a simple mixture of around two tablespoons of white, granulated sugar with one tablespoon of water left on a spoon or in an eggcup is helpful for hardworking bees.

It’s important to avoid leaving out honey, or large containers of sugar water as these are simply not viable long-term solutions for bees.

 

If you want to help save our bees, why not plant a wide variety of wildflowers in your garden or build a bee B&B? Let us know how you get on.

Photo credits:
Photo 1: Graham madge
Photo 2: Jenny Tweedie
Photo 3: Andy Hay
Photo 4: Andy Hay
Photo 5: Nikki Gammans
Photo 6: Andy Hay

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