The Anatomy of a Bee
As you watch these fascinating creatures flying around your garden, dipping in and out of the flowers, are you intrigued by them and want to know more? In this article, you’re going to learn the intricate details of bee anatomy.
Firstly, there are thousands of species of bee—an estimated 20,000. These insects are members of the Apocrita suborder in the Hymenoptera family. I’ll detail the general traits that the seven families of bees share, with a few exceptions.
The characteristics of a bee’s head can vary dramatically, depending on the species, caste, and gender. Having said that, there are some core features of the head that most bees share.
Bees have two antennae at the front of their heads. The antennae may look simple, but they serve as complex sensory organs. A bee can touch, taste, and even hear with its antennae.
These long feelers can detect vibrations in the air around them. This is also how bees are able to smell, which is important for finding food sources and communication. Social bees use pheromones to deliver messages to each other.
Some castes, or classes, of bees, have more advanced antennae than others. For instance, the antennae of male bees (drones) are highly sensitive. This is to be able to detect the pheromones of viable females from a distance.
Bees are able to see, albeit not in the same way that we do. They actually have five eyes: two compound eyes and three ocelli.
The compound eyes are located on either side of the bee’s head. As the name suggests, each eye is made up of multiple parts.
Male bees typically have larger eyes than their female counterparts. As with their better-developed antennae, this is to assist in the mating process. The males have to be able to see well to locate and mate with a future queen.
The average eye of a honeybee consists of several thousand different units: these are called ommatidia. With these eyes, the bee has a full 360 degrees of vision. A worker bee has around 5000 ommatidia, while drones may have up to 10,000.
Bees are capable of seeing ultraviolet light that is invisible to our eyes. This light is one of the things that attracts them to bee-friendly flowers, along with the scent. The ability to see
ultraviolet light also helps the bee navigate on cloudier days.
The ocelli are three small eyes at the top of a bee’s head. These basic eyes can perceive light but not focus on an image, unlike compound eyes. Bees likely use their ocelli for orientation.
Mandibles are the teeth of the insect world. Bees use their mandibles for a wide range of purposes. Queen bees emit pheromones from their mandibles to control the colony. Most bees use their mandibles to chew or grasp whenever necessary. Some can use their mandibles as a method of defense.
Mandibles can be sharp or blunted—it all depends on the bee. Carpenter bees have mandibles capable of chewing through wood. The mandibles of honeybee workers can be used to manipulate beeswax and clean other bees.
The proboscis is the second mouthpart of a bee. The bee uses the proboscis to suck nectar from plants. It’s also used to transfer food mouth-to-mouth between bees.
Bumblebees are excellent pollinators because the proboscis of this species is longer than other bees. This allows them to feed off many species of flowers and plants, pollinating as they feed.
Honey-producing worker bees are equipped with special glands. These glands secrete royal jelly, a special substance fed to the queen bee. If female honeybee larvae are fed royal jelly throughout the larval stage, they will develop into queens.
The abdomen of a bee holds the insect’s essential organs. It is hard-shelled for protection. In terms of appearance, abdomens come in all shapes, colors, and sizes.
Some bees, such as honeybees and bumblebees, have hairy abdomens. This is to assist with pollinating. Others, such as carpenter bees, have smooth, shiny abdomens.
The abdomen is home to the bee’s two stomachs (yes, you did read that correctly!) and heart, as well as the circulatory system.
Honey-producing bees have a honey stomach, also called a crop. This is a pouch the bees store nectar in to take back to the hive to process into honey. It expands to accommodate a significant amount (proportionately) of nectar, and contracts when empty.
Bees that produce wax have glands on their abdomen for this purpose. Species like bumblebees make wax to build nectar pots. Honeybee workers use their wax glands to construct combs inside the beehive.
Bees that are a part of the Apis (honeybees) species have a Nasonov gland. This gland is found at the tip of a working honeybee’s abdomen.
It emits pheromones that the workers use to exchange messages. This can be anything from finding a good food source to keeping the colony together while swarming.
Venom Sac and Stinger
In stinging bees, the venom sac is what holds the stinger’s poison. It is located in the rear of the abdomen, near the stinger. When not in use, a bee’s stinger is retracted inside the abdomen.
Not all bees have reproductive organs. In bee colonies, the workers are sexually immature. They are incapable of reproducing. Only queen bees and male drones can reproduce.
A reproductive female bee (or queen) has her ovaries and spermatheca in the abdomen. Her abdomen is usually elongated, as her ovaries take up a lot of space.
The spermatheca is where sperm is stored over the queen’s life. Queen bees mate only once a lifetime. They are able to produce hundreds or thousands more bees from the sperm stored in their abdomens.
A drone’s sexual organs are internal; and will emerge during mating. Once the drone has mated, his sexual organs will remain inside the future queen bee. As you might expect, therefore, drones don’t survive after mating.
As with most insects in the Hymenoptera family, bees are winged. They have two pairs of wings attached to their thorax. The thorax is the segment between the bee’s head and abdomen.
The forewings are larger and toward the top of the thorax. The hindwings are smaller, hidden underneath the forewings. These two pairs of wings are hooked together with hamuli. These look like small, comb-like teeth.
Bees fly by contracting their flight muscles inside the thorax. The flight muscles squeeze both vertically and horizontally in pulses. These pulses happen at a rapid pace, causing the bee’s wings to beat together. A honeybee is able to beat its wings more than 200 times per second.
The development of a bee’s flight muscles depends on the type of bee. The more time a bee spends in the air, the more powerful the flight muscles are.
Bumblebees fly far from their nests to forage for nectar. The same is true of honeybees: they forage for food at great distances from the hive.
Male drones can also travel far to find a female to mate with. These bees must have strong flight muscles to stay in the air for long periods of time.
On the other hand, queen bees rarely leave the hive once the colony is established. Their flight muscles are weaker than those of the workers and drones. When bees leave the hive to swarm, the queen needs to rest frequently.
Bees have six legs, three on each side of the thorax. They can use their legs for more than just walking around. The legs of some species are designed to make their lives easier—see below.
The two forelegs of a bee possess curved spurs. These spurs are adapted for the bee to be able to clean his or her antennae.
Remember that the antennae are crucial sensory organs. If they get dirty, the bee has to be able to clean them off. The spur can be dragged down each antenna to wipe away debris or dirt.
Combs and Brushes
Most bees have stiff hairs covering their forelegs and hind legs. These hairs allow the bee to clean its body of pollen or dirt. This is handy for hairy species, such as bumblebees.
Some species of bees are equipped with a pollen basket on their hind legs. The basket is formed by bristles of stiff hair on each hind leg.
The hairs curve together to form a basket where the bees can keep pollen. They use their hairy legs to brush pollen from their bodies into the basket.
Worker bees that can produce beeswax have wax shears. These are pincer-like attachments on the bottom of the hind leg.
The bee uses wax shears to pluck wax scales from the abdomen. The scale is then passed to the bee’s mouth with its legs.
Claws on the bottom of each leg give bees traction when they walk. The claws only work on surfaces that aren’t completely smooth, like wood or concrete.
If a bee is on a surface such as glass, it engages the empodia. These are lobes at the bottom of the bee’s leg.
The bee will use it by flattening the foot to press the empodia to the surface. A sticky substance is produced by glands beside the empodia to keep the bee from falling.
When the bee is back on stable ground, it retracts the empodia.
The stinger is the part of a bee’s anatomy most people are familiar with—and afraid of! Only female bees are equipped with stingers—males are stingless.
Bees are often confused with other stinging insects, such as wasps. Although they may be from the same family, they are distinct from one another.
Not all bees are able to sting. Meliponines earned the moniker of “stingless bee” due to their non-functioning stingers.
Stingers in female bees have evolved over time. Originally, queen bees used their stingers to deposit eggs in cells. The slim stinger would help the bee settle the egg into the cell.
Eventually, stingers evolved into defense mechanisms. Stingers are kept inside the female’s abdomen near the venom sac. For queens, they are most likely to use their stinger exclusively on other queens.
When needed, the stinger is ejected through muscle contractions. Venom from the venom sac will be injected into the unfortunate organism being stung.
The stinger of a worker honeybee is covered in barbs. She can sting another insect numerous times without dying. However, if she stings a larger mammal, like a human, her stinger will get stuck. When she attempts to fly away, the trapped stinger eviscerates her.
Other bee species have smooth stingers, bumblebees being one example. With a smooth stinger, the bee can sting repeatedly.
Most bees are not aggressive and won’t use their stingers unless provoked. Africanized bees are the anomaly. This species of honeybee is known to be aggressive.
If you are stung near a beehive, you need to get away from it quickly. Why? When they sting, bees also emit a chemical. This chemical is thought to attract other bees nearby.
In most individuals, bee stings are nothing to be concerned about. They cause painful welts that heal over several days. The exception is if a person is stung hundreds of times or allergic. If you’re allergic to bee venom, stings can result in anaphylactic shock.
Hopefully, you understand everything there is to know about the various parts of the bee anatomy. Future beekeepers can take advantage of this knowledge. It’s critical to be aware of the internal workings of your charges.
For those of you who were just curious about bees, now you’re better informed. The next time you see one of these insects, take stock of the bee’s anatomy. Share your newfound knowledge with fellow bee enthusiasts or as fun trivia