A bee is part of the insect class, due to a number of shared characteristics with other insect species, including an exoskeleton, three pairs of jointed limbs, a set of antennae and a body divided into three sections, the head, the thorax and the abdomen.
What is an insect?
When it comes to what animal counts as an insect, most of us will feel we have an instinctive handle on it. However, while we may happily label slugs, centipedes and spiders as insects, these all fall into separate groups. Slugs, with their soft bodies, are part of the Mollusca group, centipedes have their many legs to thank for being with the Myriapoda, while spiders sit with the Arachnida.
What makes us assume they are all insects is perhaps that they mostly sit within a larger group as arthropods. Arthropods have a number of shared features including having an exoskeleton, a segmented body and jointed limbs. Mollusca is the exception to this rule, with this group being separate from arthropods, as they lack the exoskeleton, segmented body and the jointed limbs.
Insects are a subsection of arthropods, so they still have these key characteristics, however, in order for them to be further separated out from other arthropods, like crustaceans, there are a number of other important characteristics.
Insects are divided into three main body parts; the head, the thorax and the abdomen. They also have three paired limbs, which is where arthropods with a different number of limbs can be separated out; such as spiders and millipedes. As well as pair limbs, they have a pair of antennae, and often a pair of wings.
Is a bee an insect?
Most people would be happily able to draw a bee without much need to refer to the original. A small head with two large eyes and a set of antennae, a thorax with three pairs of legs and a set with wings attached, and a large abdomen with a stinger attached to the end.
This is very much how all of the 21,000 species of bees across the world are put together. Where they vary is largely in colour, size and how hairy they are. These variations are mostly due to the variety of different niches the bees occupy, and the various lifestyles that they have taken up.
Some bees, for example, are solitary, and they will create their own nests to raise their young in. Mining bees will dig into soft sandbanks or soil to create chambers to lay their eggs in. Other species may nest in hollowed branches or rotten wood. There are even species that create nests in old snail shells.
Some bees are also famously colonial, such as bumblebees and honey bees. Within these species, there can be variation between the individuals in the colony, as this helps them to perform different jobs. In bumblebee colonies, the female is significantly bigger than the workers or drones. This is presumably to do with the fact that she is the only one to live through the winter, and will need additional reserves for producing young as well.
Varying in size can also allow bees to feed on different flower species, with some flowers being too small for larger species to easily access the nectar.
Colour also varies a great deal. We tend to think of bees as having black and yellow stripes. Though many of them do keep roughly to this colour scheme, there are also many that use another pallet. The blue orchard mason bee for example is a metallic blue, while the ashy mining bee is a silvery grey.
While yellow and black stripes are used as warning colours, indicating to other animals that the bee is armed with a vicious sting, many bee species will instead opt for camouflage. This is in part because smaller solitary bees do not have stings large enough to put off predatory species. For these bees, it’s more useful to remain hidden than to shout out their defensive abilities.
Despite all these differences and variations within the vast bee family, it’s their shared characteristics that make them a bee, and then their shared characteristics with other insect species that make them an insect.
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It’s very easy to see why a bee is counted as an insect, however, something that can be more complex is deciding why a bee is a bee and not a wasp. While we may be happy to recognise a honey bee and a common wasp, we may be more confused between the many solitary bees and wasps.
What makes bees and wasps so similar is the fact they both belong to the Apocrita suborder. This group contains bees, wasps and ants. It may not seem like there’s much in common between ants and bees, but actually, if you look closely at the various components of an ant you will see the family resemblance.
This group is separated out from other species due to their ‘wasp waist’. This thin waist is thought to have been designed to help the ancestors of bees, wasps and ants to twist their abdomen round to sting prey or inject their eggs into other animals and insects. These parasitic beginnings changed as bees began to take advantage of the pollen and nectar as food sources rather than meat.
Due to their adaptation to feed largely from flowers, bees have evolved to be much hairier than wasps. This helps them to capture pollen when they visit flowers, which they can later harvest. This is one of the key identification features, however, some solitary bees are much less hairy than the more familiar bumblebees and honey bees.
While bees will largely feed on pollen, most wasp species are predatory, feeding on other insects, though many also rely on pollen and visit certain flower species.
Other important insect pollinators
While bees are incredibly important for the amazing work they do pollinating our plants, there are a number of other insect species that deserve similar praise. Though ants and wasps may not have the popularity of bees, they do also serve as important pollinators. The difference is that many ant and wasp species have predatory lifestyles, meaning they come into contact with pollen a lot less.
Other important insect pollinators include butterflies and moths, who spend almost all their time flitting between different flowers. Another commonly misidentified insect species that visit flower species include the hoverflies. Hoverflies have a tendency to disguise themselves as bees and wasps to scare off predators, though they don’t have the same defensive ability. They lack the distinctive ‘wasp waist’ however.
Many beetle species are also significant pollinators, travelling between flowers to feed on pollen. These flowery feasting sessions make them ideal pollinators, however, the lack of hairs on their body means that less pollen becomes attached to them.
While we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of all these other pollinator species, some like hoverflies being equal to or more important than bees, it can’t be denied how vital bees are to our environment and our wildflowers.