The world of the bee is much more diverse than many would assume. Most people are very familiar with the honey bee and the bumble bee. Other species, such as the mason bee, are less widely known but still draw occasional recognition.

But these examples barely scratch the surface of the huge number of bee species discovered across the world. Let’s look at the enormous diversity of the bee.

A Quick Zoology Refresher

There are well over 20,000 known species of bee, a number that continues to grow as we discover still more. In fact, the true number is probably well over 25,000. Of course, science likes to categorize and organize discoveries. Let’s first refresh, from our high school zoology days, the terminology at play here.

Super-families are divided into families, which are divided into sub-families, which are divided into tribes, which are divided into genera. Those with a good memory will remember that it is a tad more complicated than that, but you get the picture!

The Apinae sub-family contains the honey bee and has about 5,750 members alone. So, although beekeepers will understandably place an emphasis on their beloved honey bee, it is just one small segment of a much larger number of species of bees found across the world.

The scientific name for the European Honey Bee is...
…Apis mellifera. You will come across this term frequently in beekeeping books and magazines.

Before we look closer at the honey bee, let’s explore the variety in bees around the world.

Variety in Species

Across this wide range of species there are also a variety of sizes, behaviors, reproductive processes, colony sizes and more.


The smallest known bee species, Perdita minima, lives in the Southwestern US and reaches the princely size of…2mm (that’s about 0.08 inches). That is a small bee!

At the other end of the spectrum is a monster of a bee, the aptly named Wallace’s Giant Bee (Megachile_Pluto). This was discovered in the mid-1800’s, by Alfred Russell Wallace. As a side note, one can image Mr. Wallace wondering what he should call this giant bee he had found. He kept it simple!

Scientists lost track of this species for many years and assumed it was extinct, until it was discovered again in Indonesia in 1981. Missing a bee such as this is a little surprising – the Wallace Giant Bee can reach 39mm (1 1/2″)!

The honey bee is somewhere in the middle of these extremes. The worker bee is 12mm to 15mm, the drone is 15mm to 17mm and the queen is 18mm – 19mm.

Colony Size and Behaviors

While many bees live in colonies, most species are solitary including the mason, leafcutter and carpenter bees. In many such species, the queen inhabits a nest she builds herself. The nature of this existence means that solitary bees don’t need to produce honey or beeswax.

Where species live in a colony, the activities within the colony are fascinating! Such highly collaborative societies are referred to as eusocial.

Eusociality represents an advanced form of organisation in the animal kingdom. It is characterized by strong levels of collaboration and often a division of labor putting humans to shame! As well as the honey bee, bumble bees and stingless bees also have eusocial colonies.

One of the best examples of eusociality...
…is the highly collaborative way honey bees create and maintain honeycomb.

A colony of honey bees can easily number 60,000 or more bees. By comparison, a bumble bee colony is much smaller, with between 50 to 300 bees.

Life Cycle

Regardless of species, the transition from egg to larvae to pupae and, finally, to adult bee remains consistent. A fascinating aspect of the reproduction of bees is that male bees come from unfertilized eggs. When the queen lays an egg, she decides whether to produce a female (by fertilizing the egg) or a male (no fertilization).

A reproductive system where males develop from unfertilized eggs, referred to as haploid. It is also a fun word to say out loud at parties!

In short, honey bee reproduction has many fascinating characteristics.


Of course, pollination is one of the most important benefits of many species of bees. Most bee species collect pollen from a variety of different flowers, making the most of whatever resources exist locally. However, some species are referred to as oligophagous, meaning they collect pollen from a very small number of species of flowers, sometimes just a single genus. This can create risk to either side of the equation – the disappearance of such a species of bee may spell doom for the flower, depending on that species.

As to the mechanics of pollination, some bees use the fascinating process of sonication. This involves vibrating their flight muscles so fast as to dislodge hard-to-reach pollen from certain plants, such as the blueberry.

Buzz pollination
A name for the way bees use sonication during pollination.

Here’s a beautiful video showing bumble bees using sonication.

Some Curious Behaviors

Beyond the familiar hive-based existence of the honey bee, there are some fascinating – and sometimes downright quirky – behaviors. Here are a few…

  • The sweat bee can forage at night using the light from the moon and stars, which means it can pollinate plants that bloom nocturnally
  • Bumble bee queens build small nests in which to lay their eggs. They keep these eggs warm by sitting on them, to maintain an acceptable temperature as they progress through the larvae stage. To ensure she can stick around herself, the queen builds a small “pot” of nectar, right next to the nest, so she can tend to her young without having to leave to feed herself.
  • Some bees can determine the type of flower by its electrical charge! Flowers hold a positive charge and some bees can detect a minute electrical field. When they locate a type of flower that is rich in nectar they can remember the electrical “footprint” of that flower.
  • It is not only ants or termites that have soldiers. Recently, it was discovered that the Jatai bee has a soldier caste – the only bee known to feature this – with some rather fascinating behaviors.

A Word About the Honeybee

As a beekeeper you will come to know about Italians, Russians, Buckfast and others! These are some of the options you have when you purchase your bees and they are called “races” of honeybees.

The choice of race is important because they each one exhibits significant differences in temperament, resistance to mites, honey production and more. An awareness of the different races available is important for the beekeeper.

Additional Resources

If you like a good lecture and have an hour to spare, this fascinating presentation has some tremendous information. This focuses on native bees in the US alone, which means around 4,000 species in all and includes some stunning images of our bees.