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Different bee species

There are about 25,000 known species of bee in the world and these can be divided into more than 4000 types of bee (genera), and then again into nine 'families' of bee. These are all located in the Apoidea 'super-family' – the bee group.

The Apoidea group is located within the Hymenoptera order of insects, which includes bees, wasps, sawflies, and ants.

Amongst other characteristics, insects in this order have their hind wings connected to their fore wings by a series of tiny hooks called hamuli. It is this trait which gives the order its name – from the Latin words hymen meaning 'membrane' and pteron meaning 'wing'.

The nine bee families

Also known as 'Sand', 'Mining'. 'Burrowing', 'Ground-nesting', or 'Solitary' bees, these short-tongued insects live in burrows underground, and do not live in a colony. There are more than 3000 species of bee included in this family, and they can be found all over the world. Each insect is usually 10-20 mm in length.

Bees included in this family include the 'Cuckoo', 'Carpenter', 'Digger', 'Bumble', and 'Honey' bee. These insects are social creatures and the Encyclopaedia Britannica states that they are "noted for their elaborate nest structures", probably the most recognisable of which belongs to the honeybee, famous for the hexagonal wax cells that make up its hive.

The honeybee is also well known in scientific and natural remedy circles for making propolis, a natural antimicrobial substance from plant resins, which it mixes with its saliva and wax (produced by special glands on the worker bees). These insects use propolis at the entrance to their hive, and where the queen lays her eggs, to protect the colony from harmful microbes.

This family of bees includes the 'Plasterer', 'Miner', and 'Masked' bee. There are thought to be 2,000 species of these insects and they can be found worldwide, although most are located in South America and Australia.

They have short bilobed (two-lobed) tongues, and were for a long time considered to be the most 'primitive' type of bee existing today. This is because of the shape of their mouthparts, which resemble those of Crabronidae, a family of wasp from which it was believed these bees descended from.

Molecular studies have since disproved this, and now the most primitive type of bee is considered to be the Melittidae family.

There are more than 100 species of this small, solitary bee, which are found in Africa and the Northern Temperate Zone (which stretches from the Tropic of Cancer to the Arctic Circle). Most of the species within this family are shorter than 10mm in length.

Also known as 'Sweet' bees, because of their small size (4-8mm) these insects comprise some groups which are metallic in appearance. They are normally dark in colour, but some have red, yellow, or green markings.

The behaviour they exhibit is diverse, ranging from being completely solitary, to living in a colony (Bees of the World Charles D. Michener 2007). These insects are found worldwide, but tend to inhabit temperate areas.

These are also known as 'Leaf cutting' or 'Mason' bees. They construct their nests in cavities, mainly in rotting wood, using leaves. These bees are usually about the size of a honeybee, and are common in North America, although they can be found globally.

Because they cut sections from leaves, people might spray insecticides onto the plants to prevent this activity, however, because the bees do not eat the leaves (just build with them), chemicals will do little to deter them.

Mainly located in Africa, with some found in Yemen and Madagascar, this family of bee comprises only 10 species. They are normally 10-22mm in length and live in areas where there is very little moisture, usually deserts or xeric shrublands (defined as having less than 250mm of annual precipitation).

This is a relatively small bee family comprised of 60 species. It is considered to be the most primitive type of bee in existence today. This title was previously held by the Colletidae, until further studies disproved the theory.

One of the more unusual types of bee within this family, has forelegs which are longer than the abdomen with which it sponges up oils from flowers. These oils are used to feed larvae, instead of pollen which is the food of choice for many other species.

With only 21 species in this family, this is one of the smallest bee families, as well as one of the most geographically restricted, living solely in Australia. These insects have a dense covering of hair, and are large (14-20.5mm).

Honeybees make more than just honey

Bees make a lot of very useful substances, such as beeswax, royal jelly, and honey, but arguably the most interesting of the materials created by these insects, is propolis.

Propolis, an antimicrobial matter made from plant resins, which the bees themselves collect and bring back to their hive, has been used by human beings for its medicinal properties since at least 300BC.

For more information about propolis, click here.