The Glittery Jewels Of The Bee World
These dazzling tiny bees are major pollinators.
Zipping by in a flash of shimmering blues, greens, and even purples, is a member of Halictidae, or the sweat bee. Unlike the social hive behavior of honey and bumble bees, it lives a short, solitary life—collecting pollen and nectar into a sticky ball of “bee bread” for its offspring. And in the midst of tending to your garden or jogging in the afternoon, you may find this small, iridescent bee land on your arm for a quick snack of essential salts in your sweat.
“They almost look like jewels, they just sparkle,” says Shalene Jha, a biologist and bee researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, by phone. “I always imagine that they must feel like they’re the most gorgeous creatures on the planet.”
The sweat bee is just one of the many tiny bees—the size of a grain of rice or a lady bug—native to Texas that Jha and her lab studies. But these Hymenoptera gems live all around the world and are common in many environments, from temperate to tropical. In fact, there are more than 20,000 known species of wild bees on our planet, says Jha. While they may be small in size, these bees also play a crucial role in the pollination of native plants.
“Many people talk about honey bees and bumble bees,” says Jha. But tiny bees are also “very involved and very important in plant reproduction, both for our crops, our food items, as well as our native plant communities.”
For more than ten years in Panama, Jha and her research group studied a large community of small-bodied bees and their pollination of a tropical fruiting tree. In a recent Science Friday interview, the team reported that these tiny bees are flying for miles in the plant community.
“If you think about what that means, it’s almost more than a million times their body size,” says Jha. “It’s like a typical human traveling from Chicago to L.A., just based on distance relative to body size.”
This impressive range means the bees bring genes from further away, making the plants more genetically diverse. And the more genetic variation in a population, the greater the chances the species can survive extreme events, such as disease and climate change, explains Jha.
However, there are challenges to studying the lives of these small buzzing creatures, says Jha. Their size makes it difficult to monitor movement with the naked eye, and their bodies are too small to track with radio transmitters. Currently, scientists have documented colony collapse and global declines of larger bees and other pollinators due to loss of food and nesting areas, as well as threats from parasites, pathogens, and pesticides. It’s possible that smaller bees are also susceptible, but there isn’t enough data to know if species are declining.
“If we acknowledge that these tiny bees are so important for gene flow and for maintaining that diversity in the next generation of plants, then we can be more inclusive about including them in our plans to conserve the larger pollinator community,” says Jha.
View more colorful and diverse tiny bees below.