bee biology

The long and short of honey bee tongues

Some sources say honey bees are “long-tongued” and some say they are “not long-tongued.” So, which is it? After spending a couple of hours with Google and a stack of books, I’ve come to a conclusion, but it’s not crystal clear.

According to a paper by R. P. Hawkins called “Length of tongue in a honey bee in relation to the pollination of red clover” (1969), a honey bee can extend its proboscis about 7 mm (0.27 inches) into the corolla of a red clover flower. A different source said a honey bee tongue “can extend 1/4-inch.” Those are pretty consistent, so let’s say a honey bee tongue is 7 mm—a length, by the way, that is insufficient for red clover.

My “go to” reference for all things bee, Bees of the World by O’Toole and Raw claims that the tongues of short-tongued bees, which include Hylaeus, Colletes, and Andrena species, are 0.5–3 mm long. Medium-tongued bees, which include Melitta, Dasypoda, Halictus, and Lasioglossum species, are about 3.5–5.5 mm. That part is pretty easy.

But they don’t follow up with a range for long-tongued bees. Instead, they begin writing about certain species of long-tongued bees, including bumble bees with tongues that range from 9–18 mm and Anthophora with tongues that range from 9–20 mm.

Reading between the lines, then, I’m going to assume that anything with a tongue longer than 5.5 mm is a “long-tongued bee.” But honey bees are on the short end of long, if you will, because their tongues are certainly nowhere near as long as some Bombus and Anthophora species, and they are not even long enough to nectar on red clover. Honey bees are more or less intermediate between medium-tongued and long-tongued bees.

Like many shorter-tongued bees, honey bees are known for robbing when they can’t reach down into a corolla to reach a nectar source. They will either drill holes through a petal or prize the petals apart in order to reach the nectar, a maneuver that results in no pollination for the flower since the pollen is left undisturbed.

So there you have it: a honey bee is a long-tongued bee with a mediumish tongue. No wonder I couldn’t figure it out.


Nectar robbing

Carpenter bee robbing nectar from the base of flower. Wikimedia photo by Alvesgaspar.

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  • Actually, the terms “long tongued” and “short tongued” bees are for an evolutionary grouping rather than the actual length of the tongue (annoying, I know). The bee families Apidae and Megachilidae are a monophyletic group of “long tongued bees”. All the other bees fall into a loose, less well determined group of “short tongued bees”. That includes Halictidae, Melittidae, Andrenidae, and Stenotritidae. There’s a good paper by Hedtke et al 2013 on this but I don’t know if it’s open access:

    • Yes, I agree. But my readers are not evolutionary biologists not do they want to be. The take home message for them is that various tongue lengths exist in the bee world and that tongue length influences foraging choice. How they got that way is not as important, especially in the incipient stages of learning about bees. My mission here it to encourage people to explore the world of bees—to become aware of them—not to be the definitive authority. I couldn’t do that in any case.

      For those who want to read the Hedtke paper, it’s freely available for download.

  • Thanks for the insight, researching this for master beekeeper. In Clarence Collison’s “What do you know” book there are several references to the ‘race with the longest tongue’ in the questions. The answer from the book indicates Apis mellifera caucasica (Caucasians) and goes on to say that they are excellent pollinators of red clover which I suppose one could take to mean that a long tongue is preferred. Not sure of his source but Clarence is a source all in his own way if one cares to think of it in that way.

  • Bumble bees are coming under the family apidae and the general feature of the apidae are the long-tongues. But long-tongued and short tongued bumble bees are present. So, why the bumble bees are put in the family apidae?

    • Sangeetha,

      Bumble bee tongues range in length depending on the species, but that is not the only factor used to determine their classification.

  • Rusty, I have read Caucasian bee tongue length is 7.1mm. How long is carnolan, russian and italian bees?

  • I’m a guide at TiriTiri Matangi, a conservation island north of Auckland, New Zealand. As part of the tour I speak of the bees, native and introduced. Our native bees are pollinators but do not produce honey. In 1839, Mary Bumby, the sister of a Methodist minister brought the first honey bees to New Zealand. Reason was for their long tongues to pollinate the then introduced European crops. That I can ascertain, there was only one native bee to Britain at that time, a black one I think. Would you know what bee this could have been?

    • Robert,

      That would be the European dark bee, Apis mellifera mellifera. I think they still have some, though not as many as before.

  • Hi,

    Georgian Mountain Grey Honey bee has the longest proboscis or tongue among the honey bees in the world. The length is 7,5mm. This is the longest tongue at least among the natural breeds.


  • Rusty,

    Do honey bees share the queen’s mandibular pheromone using their tongues? I would like to build a double screen board that is supposed to prevent the bees from sharing the pheromone. If they use their tongues, I assume the thickness of the board would have to be more than twice the length of a bee’s tongue. Thank you.


    • Carl,

      Double screen boards have double screens so the bees cannot reach through. Usually, just putting a screen on either side of the central board is enough space to keep the bees separate.