Bee Biology Basics

When attracting bees to your property, you need to know how and where these pollinators live. With 4,000 species of bees in North America, it’s helpful to categorize them by their social, nesting and foraging habits.

 It’s a Lonely World

About 90 percent of bees lead a solitary life. This means a female bee builds and provides for her own nest without help from other bees. The majority of solitary bees (70 percent) nest in the ground. They dig complex tunnels in well drained, bare or lightly vegetated soil, or use abandoned beetle burrows or already dug tunnels in standing dead or dying trees (snags). Others nest in creative places such as abandoned snail shells.

Then the female constructs small compartments (five on average) to lay her eggs in. In each compartment, the female leaves a special mix of pollen and nectar as food for the egg and then seals it. This protects egg and food from drying out, getting too wet or becoming infected with diseases.

It takes one to three weeks for an egg to hatch. The white soft-bodied larva that emerges eats the pollen loaf and grows rapidly over the next several weeks, going through four or five physical changes until it evolves into an adult bee. In total, the life cycle of a solitary bee lasts only about one year.

 Social Bees- A Sisterhood

Social bees make up the other ten percent. Mostly when we think of bees, we imagine them in hives. In fact, only four percent of social bees live in hives. Bee hives consist of a queen and her offspring, all of which share in building the hive and providing for the young.

The majority of bees within a hive are female worker bees. Instead of laying eggs, they perform specific tasks such as building or maintaining the hive, guarding it, foraging for food, or tending to larval bees.

Laying eggs is the queen’s sole responsibility. This is an ingrained instinct to reproduce, not to dictate orders to others. Essentially, no one is in charge. Since each bee only has one task, they can not survive on their own outside of the hive.

 The Bumblebee's Life

Bumble bees are social, and they prefer to nest in the ground, in trees and walls of buildings. A mated female, who is the sole survivor of the winter, comes out of hibernation and locates a safe nesting spot, such as an abandoned mouse burrow.

The queen bee then builds a wax pot that will hold nectar and pollen for her to survive on as she incubates her eggs (4 to 16 at a time). She lies on top of the eggs and shivers her wing muscles to keep the eggs at 85 degrees, speeding up the incubation process.

The adult bees that emerge are all females, and help take care of the emerging young, protect the nest and forage for pollen and nectar. As the year progresses the queen produces male drones that leave the nest, as well as bees that will become queens next year. The new queens leave the nest, mate with male drones from other hives and spend winter in the ground. This process repeats itself every year.