In Egyptian legend, bees were created when the tears of the sun god Ra landed on the desert sand. In the creation story of the San people of the Kalahari, the seed that a bee plants in a mantis grows into the very first human. These myths are pretty wild, but here are 5 bee truths that are truly terrific.
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Bees evolved from prehistoric, carnivorous wasps that laid their eggs in the bodies of their prey. As flowering plants evolved, bees became gentle herbivores and began using hives and nests as nurseries instead of the corpses of their insect enemies. But bees retained their stabby reproductive organs, and replaced the eggs with venom. For defensive purposes. These stingers evolved from female reproductive organs, which means that only female bees can sting.
Or, at least, female bees are by far the dominant sex. In nearly every species, a male bee’s only job is to mate with a female. Most male bees lack even the structures necessary to carry pollen or make wax. In some species, the mating process is deadly for the males: They leave their endophallus in the female’s body, fatally injuring themselves in the process. Yes, endophallus: Male bees don’t have external genitalia, instead hiding a secret penis inside their bodies.
Male bees are so extraneous to the hive life of social species like honeybees that female honeybees usually force the males out of the nest before winter, or whenever food becomes scarce. Speaking of food…
Delicious honey starts out as flower nectar: The sugary fluid that that gives flowers their scents and attracts pollinators. Foraging honeybees collect it in a specialized organ called the honey stomach, and carry it back to their hive in wee, 40-milligram loads. Once there, they regurgitate the nectar and pass it to worker bees. They transform the thin nectar into energy-dense honey by evaporating out the water content.
Bees reduce the moisture in nectar by up to 50% in order to create honey, and they do it by swallowing and regurgitating the nectar over and over. As a bonus, this also adds enzymes from the bees’ mouths, which give honey its antimicrobial properties. What’s your favorite application of delicious bee regurgitation?
That’s because structures in bees’ eyes allow them to see ultraviolet light, and to tell the difference between polarized and unpolarized light.
Bees detect a sun obscured by clouds by looking for the part of the sky with the least amount of ultraviolet light. (Speaking as someone who’s gotten a sunburn on a cloudy day, I can personally attest that UV light is not blocked by clouds.) And, OK, light is polarized if its wavelengths are traveling parallel to one another. Sunlight is unpolarized when it hits Earth’s atmosphere, but then it starts refracting through all the particles in the atmosphere at particular angles. So bees can confirm the position of a hidden sun by looking 90 degrees azimuth from the part of the sky with the strongest polarization.
Bees can also navigate by the arcs of Earth’s magnetic field. Science isn’t entirely sure how, but researchers are pretty sure it has to do with the iron granules containing superparamagnetic magnetite that can be found in the front of their abdomens.
Special cells in all kinds of organisms can build mineral structures — it’s how we get our bones, and how birds grow their beaks. While bees are alive, their bodies keep them with a fresh supply. Honeybees use their magnetoreception to orient themselves while building honeycomb and telling their fellow workers where food can be found.