Although there are over 20,000 bee species on the planet, mellitologists have used gene mapping to classify seven families of bees. They are all insects that pollinate, produce honey, and are closely related to wasps and ants. In this guide, we’ll look at each bee family and what makes them different from the rest.
What are the families of bees?
Biologists classify all bee species into the Apidae, Halictidae, Megachilidae, Andrenidae, Colletidae, Melittidae, and Stenotritidae families. The largest family is Apidae which includes the bumblebee and honey bee.
The largest bee family is the Apidae which is made up of over 5,700 species. They live in colonies that include a queen and worker bees.
The family Apidae is believed to date back as far back as 115 million years ago. The oldest known fossilized bee is from this family.
Some of the members of the family Apidae include 300 varieties of bumblebee, along with honey bees, Dawson’s burrowing bees, carpenter bees, orchid bees, stingless bees, and cuckoo bees. Some species like the honey bee and bumblebee are docile, while others are extremely aggressive such as the Africanized honeybee, aka killer bee.
Apidae bees are extremely important for pollinating the world’s crops. They’re also unique for having a diverse range of social and solitary species.
Bees from the Halictidae are small ground nesters that have a fascinating metallic sheen. It may be up to 96 million years old and contains almost 4,500 species, making it the second largest family.
They’re collectively referred to as sweat bees which comes from their tendency to get salt by licking sweat off people.
The Halictidae family range from solitary to social creatures. They are also capable of switching from one type to the other based on the environment they’re in.
Found across the world, Halictidae members are non-aggressive and only come out at dusk. They are poor honey producers and don’t provide much help with pollinating either.
The Megachilidae family are solitary bees that can quickly be identified by their oversized head and mandible. There are about 4,000 species that make up 15-20% of the world’s bee population. In North America, around 630 species have been documented, including the Anthidium, Megachile, Osmia, and Chalicodoma.
The family Megachilidae members can be found in all continents except Antarctica. Living in such diverse ecosystems, they have diverse nests ranging from gravel, wood pulp, leaves, mud, and resin.
Mason bees and carder bees are part of the Megachilidae family. The Megachile pluto, or Wallace’s giant bee is also a member. It is known as the largest bee in the world and farmers revere this species for its cross-pollinating abilities.
Although most bees carry pollen on their hind legs, the Megachilidae family carry it under their abdomen.
The family Andrenidae are known as mining bees or digger bees and have around 3,000 species. They are solitary bees that are usually found in dry, temperate climates.
Andrenidae are small to average-sized ground-nesting insects that are most active early evening. They don’t enjoy hot weather and don’t have accurate night vision.
Andrenid bees mostly live in South America, Africa, Europe, and western North America. The Andrena crataegi is part of this family and is excellent at pollinating apples.
The Colletidae family has around 2,600 species that are solitary bees, living on their own or occasionally as part of a collective hive. Found mostly in Australia and South America, colletids are collectively known as plasterer bees or polyester bees. Their hives are smooth, thanks to a secretion that the bees produce from their mouth.
Unlike most modern bees, colletids have a forked tongue that is similar to ancient wasp varieties. It is used to coat the inside of their nests with a cellophane-style lining.
Melittidae has about 200 species and is only found in the northern temperate zone and Africa. They’re small to moderate in size and live a solitary life, nesting on the ground.
Melittid bees have evolved to live on a small group of plants that are closely related. The Macropis nuda is a part of this family that only collects oil from yellow loosestrife plants. The oil is used as a food source and for lining egg cells.
The smallest bee family is the ground-nesting Stenotritidae which has just 21 species. They are fast-flying bees with large bodies that are covered in dense hair. Stenotritidae are only found in Australia and are closely related to the Colletidae family.
Commonly asked questions
What is the largest family of bees?
The largest bee family is the Apidae which has a massive 5,700 species currently on the planet. It includes the bumble bee and honey bee.
How many types of bees make honey?
There are an estimated 800 species of bee that make honey, which represents only 4% of all bee species. There are over 19,000 species of bee that don’t produce honey.
What superfamily are the bees a part of?
Bees are a part of the Apoidea superfamily from the Animalia Kingdom.
- The history of early bee diversification based on five genes plus morphology”. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1586180
- The Bees In Your Backyard – A Guide To North America’s bees by Joseph S Wilson and Olivia Messenger Carril.