The Bee People: Chapter 3

In the process of sharing this third installment of Bee People, I FINALLY found my answer to why all I see on my lavender plants is fuzzy bumble bees and nary a honey bee. Balfour et al just published convincing evidence (points from abstract below) in Ecological Entomology. Maybe I shouldn’t have pulled my borage up…..

  1. Lavender (Lavandula spp.) flowers attract more bumble bees (Bombus spp.) than honey bees (Apis mellifera). Counts of bees foraging on Lavender ‘Grosso’ at the University of Sussex, showed that bumble bees (92%) greatly outnumbered honey bees (8%). This was not due to a scarcity of honey bees, as the reverse ratio (94% honey bees vs. 6% bumble bees) occurred on borage (Borago officinalis) at the same location.
  2. Bumble bees handled lavender flowers three times faster than honey bees. Honey bee tongue length (6.6 mm) was approximately 2 mm shorter than those of bumble bees (7.8–8.9 mm) and 1 mm shorter than the lavender corolla tube (7 mm).
  3. Results suggest that honey bees are deterred from foraging on lavender because they are being outcompeted by bumble bees, which forage more efficiently.

Chapter III – Her Tongue

Meantime, while we have been gossiping about Miss Apis’s Eyes, she has gone off. There she is just landing in another morning-glory blossom. She strikes the nectar guide as a shot strikes the bulls eye […] She wants this nectar to carry home and make into honey, but how is she going to get her head into the tiny opening that leads to the nectar? You need not worry about that. She knows what to do and all at once produces a long shining brown tongue and thrusts it deep down into the nectar. […] This tongue is almost as queer as her eyes. Not that she has twelve thousand six hundred tongues.

One tongue like hers is quite enough, as you probably will agree when you know more about it. It is a long tongue and a strong tongue and curls about, lapping up the sweetness […] But now she has licked that morning-glory dry and – but what has she done with her tongue? It was almost as long as her body a moment ago and now it is gone.

Where is your tongue, Miss Apis? Miss Apis, Miss Apis! Your tongue, Miss Apis?

But she only looks at us out of her 12,600 large eyes and her 3 small eyes and says not a word. Her tongue is alright and she knows how to hold it.

There, she is going to speak! Buzz – b-u-z-zz. No, that is her wing music, her tongue is silent. […] Now she has deposited herself into another flower – and sure enough – yes- there is that l-o-n-g b-r-o-w-n tongue wriggling around in the nectar cup. I will catch hold of it and pull it, Miss Apis, if you do not tell me what you did with it.

Will you? She seems to say, solemnly looking at us out of her 12,603 eyes. No, we will not, because it is gone again. I think in spite of her solemn and owl-like looks, she is laughing at us.

Saucy Miss Apis, what do you do with your tongue? “I know what you do with yours” she seems to say and flies off.

But now I know. […] She pulled it in, just as you do yours when you have put it out of your mouth. […] The best she could do was pull it up as short as possible, and then fold it back into a nice little groove under her head. […] Miss Apis has her tongue-sheath separated into many parts […] The very tip of her tongue is like a little round plate and helps her lick up the honey. You see by now that Miss Apis’s tongue is a very sweet tongue, in fact, a honeyed tongue, as we might say. We speak of poets and orators as having a honeyed tongue, but I leave it to you if any of them can equal Miss Apis in this. […]

Getting honey is very easy where it is in open cups, but sometimes the flower sweets are in the bottoms of tubes too long for the bee’s tongue […] What is she to do in such a case? When she smells a delicious meal which she cannot reach, shall she pass by with a sigh because she cannot get it?

Sometimes […] she is helped by the bumble-bees. These are much larger than honey-bees and you will know them because they are covered all over with hair, as if they had on furry coats. […] Their horny tongue sheaths are larger and stronger […] Indeed, they make quite a strong little dagger with Madam Bombus, the bumble-bee, can cut a hole in a flower.

When Madam Bombus finds a flower with sweets which see cannot reach without taking too much trouble, she goes to the spot beneath which the sweet she wants is concealed and a with a downward blow of her convenient dagger, rips open the intervening membrane. Then she unfurls her flag in triumph. In this case her flag is her tongue […] After she is gone, comes the turn of Miss Apis, who puts her tongue through the hole that her larger and stronger friend has made and takes her share also. It is the flowers with spurs that Madam Bombus most often cuts […] with no hesitation […] thrust her sharp little dagger into […] and take out the nectar. It is difficult to believe this of a very respectable-looking being with several thousand of solemn eyes that make her look many times as wise as an owl, but it only proves how little one can rely upon appearances in this world.

Key points

  • A bee tongue is more properly referred to as a proboscis, and like the internet, involves a series of tubes
  • Remembering to hold your tongue is important, but challenging
  • Dr. Volker Dürr of Bielefeld University, trains honey bees to stick out their tongues when their antennae touch an object [I don’t know why]
  • Trophallaxis is the direct transfer of food or other fluids from one insect to another
  • Their tongues are on average about 5 +/- mm, but the length, unlike Pinocchio, has nothing to do with how truthful they are
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover
  • I had to heavily edit this chapter as it started to feel a wee bit “suggestive” on the far side of PG-13 things
  • Bee thankful that unlike bees, we don’t have to use our tongues to clean the floor
  • Photos are all of Madam Bombuses (Bombi?) foraging on my English lavender, zero honey bees sited

I share with you words and illustrations from the public domain M. Morely book – The Bee People. Published 1899; designed for third to fifth grade readers with goal to learn “how to observe” but plenty for adults to learn as well. Life lesson, bee truths and a gauge to see if we have made progress over the last century. If you find something interesting take 5 minutes and do some extra research. Bees are amazing creatures!

Excerpts –

Excerpts –


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