Short-Tongued Bees

Bees are a critical part of the world’s ecology, although very few people appreciate how important bees are. Bees are classified based on their taxa but can also be distinguished by their tongue size, which is proportional to a bee’s body size. For “short-tongued” bees (see here for our report on long-tongued bees), they are well adapted for extracting nectar from shallow or shorter flowers but can collect nectar from deeper flowers although in this case, pollen will remain undisturbed. In this way, short-tongued bees can be considered as “generalist” bees, being able to extract nectar from a variety of flowers.  

Within the short-tongued bee class, there are 4 main varieties being Andrenidae (mining bees), Halictidae (sweat bees – so called as they are attracted to sweat on the skin), Colletidae (plasterer bees) and Stenotritidae. The Stenotritidae are very important as they are exclusively found in Australia, with their common name being the “large Australian bee”. Originally, the Stenotritidae were considered as sub-species of the Colletidae family and this makes sense, as the Colletidae family is Australia’s second largest bee family. The Colletidae are also the most primitive bees, in that they are the most closely related to the common bee ancestor. At the global level, the Halictidae bees are the second-largest variety and are the only social short-tongued bee family. The Andrenidae can also be found globally.  

One common misconception regarding bees in general is that all bees produce honey. However, in the case of short-tongued bees, their primary function is to pollinate and not to produce honey.  

As mentioned above, short-tongued bees are considered as “generalists” whereas long-tongued bees are “specialists” or simply, picky eaters. A report published in the world-renowned scientific journal, Science, found that changes in weather conditions towards warmer, dryer air has negatively impacted upon flower populations, making it increasingly more challenging for the specialist bees to find a food source (see our article on long-tongued bees for further information). Indeed, over the past few decades scientists have observed shifts towards shorter tongues in the bee population in the affected areas of North America. Therefore, bees appear to have an inherent trait of adaption and that may be good news for Australian farmers, given that approximately one-third of Australian food sources are dependent on bee pollination. Nevertheless, relying on the bees to adapt to a changing environment is not a solution. Preservation of the biodiversity of the bee population should be an urgent priority.  

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