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ABOUT SOLITARY BEES

Common Understanding

All bees are yellow and black, live in a hive, make honey, serve a queen and sting.

Reality

There are roughly 22 000 described species of bees worldwide, of which the common European honey bee Apis Mellifera (described above) is only one species. The majority (over 90%) of the other species are solitary NOT social like the honey bee. They vary greatly in size and appearance, and some are stingless.

FACTS

Solitary bees:

  • Differ greatly in size, colour and shape – some look like ants with wings, others more like wasps, and a few similar to honey bees. The smallest known solitary bee is less than 2mm long, while the largest is almost 4cm. Colours vary from metallic green, blue or red to plain black.
  • Differ greatly in where they choose to nest – solitary bees do not live in colonies like honey bees, but rather choose to nest alone in burrows in the ground, pre-existing or self-made cavities in wood or reeds.
  • Do not make honey or wax.
  • Are not aggressive, do not swarm and are either completely stingless or rarely sting - if they do it is under duress.
  • Do not serve a queen and all females are fertile.
  • Females prepare their own nest, gather pollen and nectar and create a “pantry” for their offspring. Once they lay their eggs they seal up their nest and leave their offspring to grow up on their own. In contrast to honey bees that require a team of worker bees to raise the young.
  • Are extremely efficient pollinators as they have specialized body hair to carry pollen unlike the honey bees that utilize baskets on their legs, so they lose far more pollen as they visit each flower. A single red mason bee, for example, pollinates 120 times more flora than a single worker honeybee.
  • The majority (over 90%) of bees in the world are solitary bees, of which South Africa is home to roughly 1 300 species.

For the more scientifically minded:

  • Bees all belong to the Class Insecta, Order Hymenoptera, Superfamily Apoidea.
  • Hymenoptera are the 3rd largest order of insects (<150,000 species described) and comprise the bees, wasps, ants and sawflies. 

  • Hymenoptera comes from the Greek words hymen meaning membrane and ptera, which means wings. This refers to their filmy, or membranous, wings.
  • The superfamily Apoidea, in which you will find all species of bee, has six families found in the Afrotropical region: Colletidae, Andrenidae, Halictidae, Melittidae, Megachilidae and Apidae.
  • Bees are divided into two broad, informal groups, short-tongued bees (Families: Colletidae, Andrenidae, Halictidae, Melittidae) and long-tongued bees (Families: Megachilidae and Apidae). Most families of bees have an additional unique feature that does not occur in any other bee family.
  • Interestingly, among the different groups of bees there are a variety of different biologies. Most are solitary, many are semi-social and some are eusocial. Whereas most are pollen collectors some are social parasites (they replace the queen and use the host workers to raise their progeny), cleptoparasites (cuckoo bees, who lay their eggs on the host species larval provisions) or robbers (who steal pollen and honey from other bee’s nests). The Bee Genera and Subgenera of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • There is still a significant amount unknown about solitary bees such as distribution, nesting sites and behaviour.
  • Dr Connal Eardley, retired, from the Agricultural Research Council, is the South African specialist on solitary bees having worked on the taxonomy, biodiversity, and conservation of African bees for 40 years. (His email address is Connal.Eardley@gmail.com)
  • For more information please visit Resources