bee biology

Why do honey bees need fur?

Fur. I think of it as hair, but fair enough. The fur on a bee is vital to its survival. Virtually all bees have branched hairs somewhere on their bodies. In fact, the presence of those branched hairs is one of the major ways bees can be distinguished from other insects.

Bees are vegetarians. They collect nectar from flowers for their energy needs, but they also collect pollen which supplies them—and their young—with protein, lipids, and nutrients. As a bees goes from flower to flower, pollen grains get caught in the branched hairs, which facilitates their collection by the bees. Bees carry pollen in different ways, but a honey bee uses her hairy front and middle legs like brushes to comb the pollen off her body and pack it into hairy recesses on her rear legs. These hairy recesses are called pollen baskets or corbiculae.

Thanks to hairy . . . or furry . . . bodies, the bees inadvertently leave some of the pollen grains behind each time they visit another flower, which is the primary mechanism of insect pollination. Without those furry bodies flitting from flower to flower, life on earth would be very different indeed.

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  • Hi there,

    I just sent this message to your comments, but I read that you answer these posts firsts. I’m in a bit of a panic, so I’ve left this message both places. Thanks for your time and consideration.

    I am a beginner beekeeper going into my 3rd season in Quebec. About a year ago you answered a question from me about whether to feed bees honey or sugar water in the north country. I appreciated your response and it was very helpful. I read your e-mails daily and respect your knowledge and attitude greatly. I am currently at a loss.

    I have four hives that seemed to be wintering fine—a few dead bees outside the door from time to time. Suddenly, bees are pouring out of one of my hives and dying. We still have almost 3 feet of snow and the daytime highs barely break freezing. Today when I noticed what was happening it was only 32 degrees. I called my local mentor and he said he’d never seen anything like it. The only thing I can think to do is put a jar of sugar/honey water on their doorstep and hope they’re just hungry. Please let me know if you understand what’s happening and if there’s anything I can do.

    Sincerely, Suzy

    • Suzy,

      It’s the wrong time and wrong place for zombees, but I’d like you to do an experiment. Put some dead bees in a glass jar (no lid) and bring them inside. Wait a week or two and see if anything hatches out of them. See this, if you’re not familiar:

      It occurred to me that if they were infected with phorid flies, they might be attracted to the bright snow. I’m probably out in left field, but it would be interesting to test. It seems the wrong time for phorid flies, but the interior of the hive is relatively warm, and perhaps they could exist in there.

      Otherwise, I have to think about this. It certainly sounds like a predator or disease is making them fly out. It’s as if they are trying to get away from something.

  • Did not know this about honey bees. Glad to read your post. Many thanks for sharing it with us.

  • I don’t understand how your post really answers the question. You say the hair collects pollen — why do the bees want pollen then? Don’t they want instead the sugary substance secreted by the flowers? Doesn’t pollenization happen as a side effect of them looking for this sugary secretion?

    • Rod,

      Basically, pollen collection is what defines a bee. Lots of insects drink nectar, but bees (all 20,000 species) evolved to utilize pollen. Bees have many structures to aid in this endeavor, although the type of structure varies with the species, they have hair, scopae, corbiculae, pollen rakes, pollen presses, pollen-carrying crops, and specialized digestive systems. While nectar provides energy (carbohydrates), pollen provides a wide range of nutrients including protein, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, and minerals. Pollen is primarily fed to the developing larvae. Pollination is incidental to the pollen- and nectar-collecting activities of bees. For more, see “Pollen collection by honey bees.”

  • Thanks for your answer to Rod. It answered the question that I posted on google – it seems that we both had the same thought about how a factor that assists the plant could influence a bee’s evolution. We probably figured that nectar was all the bee was looking for. Thanks for showing that nature is more complex than we might first imagine.