The Honeybee: A Special Insect

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Detail of bee or honeybee sitting on the violet or blue flower

Regardless of the many thousands of years that humans have used/exploited honeybees, there remains a deeply misunderstood notion that the bumblebee, and NOT the honeybee are responsible for the making honey in hives.

And, of course.  We’re all losing touch with those rural roots.  We’ve (mostly) been urbanized.  Being taught from an early age that living in a city and wearing a suit is somehow superior to learning a trade or working the land.  Anything that might put us closer to our roots of being ONE with nature.

Honeybees are most often misrepresented with misleading images, ads, movie, TV, and even “belief-based” nonsense.

There are more than 25,000 species of bees that we know of today. They range greatly in size from giant carpenter bees (with bodies up to 1.5 inches in length) to the tiny non-stinger tropical bees that can be as small as 1/16th of an inch.

The Mix Up of Bees and Other Flying Insects

Nature hasn’t made it easy on us or other animals.  She has muddled our views on the honeybee by producing so many look-alikes that it’s almost impossible, to the untrained eye and unless real close (a spot most people don’t want to be with any flying insect) to tell the honeybee apart from others.  Wasps, most notably.  But even the un-armed hoverfly gets confused for bees.  (Hoverflies survive by mimicking the look of a dangerous, armed insect when in reality they don’t have stingers.)

Check out this infographic that we had created to help everyone better understand and discern the differences between honeybee, bumblebee, and the wasp.

The Grouping of Insects

Wasps, ants, and bees make up an entire group of insects called the hymenopteron species.

Did You Know?

The term hymenopteron is derived from two Greek words.  “hymen” meaning membrane and “pteron” meaning winged.

And this group of insects is vast and diverse.  The hymenopteron group includes sawflies, galls wasps, and even ichneumons (a parasitic insect that lives off of caterpillars and others by laying eggs inside their hosts).

Inside the hymenopteron, there are separate divisions. This division of ants, wasps, and bees is called the Aculeata.  The word aculeata means “pointed”.  To a layman, and more often than not actual insect specialists, they are called “stinging insects”.

And there is the real problem.  Ants are usually easily recognized.  They’re small, mostly wingless, and subterranean nesters.  They’re a lot different than bees and wasps.  So, you can see why people will often lump honeybees, wasps, bumblebees, “hornets” etc into one big, bad, scary insect.  Many people just refer to all of them as “bees”.

The Main Difference Between Wasps and Bees

While wasps surely do drink and gather nectar from flowers as well as eat, sweet fallen fruit, they are mainly carnivores.  That is, they kill and eat tiny insect prey.  And, more importantly, these carnivorous killings are what they feed to their larvae.

Bees are herbivorous.  They feed solely on pollen, nectar, saps, plant secretions, etc.  So, their larvae are purely vegetarian.

The problem is that when a wasp and a bee go on these gathering and feeding trips, it is often VERY difficult to identify the activities and discern bee from a wasp.

The main differences between a honeybee and wasp are not quite as evident as we would hope.

Generally, yellow jackets and wasps live in colonies of massive size.  They build colonies mainly underground or in attics and trees.  Strikingly, though, these insects tend to have bright yellow and orange colors that is outlined by think black stripes and colors.  The honeybee, on the other hand, is more subtle in color.  They are primarily orange/brown or a muted yellow in color.

Wasps are not hairy except or a few bristles.  Most bees have hair, anyways, and the amount or thickness differs in species and insect-to-insect.  At first glance and from a distance, the honeybee may appear smooth and even shiny.  Upon closer examination, though, you’ll see that honeybees have bands of hair sticking from the thorax and along the entirety of its abdomen.

The Main Difference Up Close

Under a microscope all bees have hair.  They appear feathery with ting, branching plumes popping out along the bees shaft like body.

The wasp’s bristles, on the other hand, appears much different than that of a feather.  Their bristles are sleek and tubular.

A Confusion with Bees

Don’t mistake a honeybee for their furrier cousins, the bumblebee.  While honeybees colonize in nests, the bumblebee is known as a “solitary” bee.  These groups have an individual female, a smaller nest, and tiny, rough cells within it where she lays. Bumblebees have not evolved and mastered the complex colony behavior of the honeybee and others.

About 87% of the 25,000 types of bees fall into similar categories.  They’re small, brownish/yellow/orange, winged insects.  This includes SO many bees.  Lawn mining bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees (like the salty liquids of perspiration), and carpenter bees (these actually dig into wood and make nests in it).

Don’t Worry if You Don’t Have it Down Yet

Worry not, my friends.  The differences between all of these insects are complex, trying, and almost non-evident to most of the world.  Even trained entomologists are still racking their brains over this dilemma at times…all around the world.

In the end, and why you’re reading this article (hopefully), the easiest way to be able to note a honeybee from a bumblebee to a wasp is by study.  The more familiar you’re with a honeybee’s general appearance then the easier it can be to call a spade a spade.  Or, a honeybee a honeybee.

Then there’s another HUGE problem:  Drone Flies.  These droneflies so closely mimic and look like honeybees that sometimes (and hopefully NEVER on this website) you’ll actually see high-def images that are labeled as a “honeybee” BUT they’re actually drone fly.

Drone flies, or hoverflies, are so adept at survival that the honeybee is NOT THE ONLY victim of having their identity stolen.  The hoverfly has many different variations and are able to mimic social wasps, wasps, solitary wasps, and even the bumblebee.

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