The Weird World Of Bee Tongues

Excerpted from: Our Native Bees, By Paige Embry

Bee Mouth Parts Graphic

To talk of bee tongues is to vastly oversimply the complex apparatus that makes up bee mouthparts.

  Bee Mouthparts: Mandibles

The mandibles and tongues of bees look industrial, like things that should move with cogs and cables instead of muscle. They vary considerably in size and shape, depending on the need. A Leafcutter Bee, for example, has mandibles with fine, sharp teeth for snipping through greenery. A Carpenter Bee boasts massive grinders for chewing wood. The Honey Bee mandibles look like spatulas, with broad, flat tips hand for spreading and shaping wax.

  Bee Mouthparts: Tongue

Below the mandibles, the bee's tongue is cantilevered out like a thin, coppery pipe, enameled black at the base and half again as long as her head. Although bee tongues look solid, they really consist of a central grooved and tufted shaft protected by overlapping sheaths.

When the bee is feeding, muscles at the base flex a hollow bulb that works like a pump, quickly transferring nectar from the flower to the bee's stomach.

The whole apparatus is jointed, made to fold up inside the mouth cavity like the pleats of an accordion.

Since the length of the tongue determines how far a bee can reach inside a blossom, some bee specialists have developed true colossi.

  What Is The Proboscis?

The proboscis is a straw-like tongue used for sucking liquids and also for tasting. The proboscis is also used for food exchange between honey bees, a process called trophallaxis. Food is transferred from bee to bee during the honey-making process, but trophallaxis is also a method of information exchange.

Bees taste using their sensilla, which are hair-like structures containing nerve cells sensitive to particular substances. Bees have sensilla located on their mouth parts, antenna and the end of their legs;

The cool thing about bee mouthparts is that the bees with long tongues fold them away under their body when they aren’t in use. When needed, they can unfold the pieces and join them together to make a straw for sucking up nectar. Short-tongue bees don’t make the same kind of straw and may lap rather than suck up nectar.

Short Tongue Bee

Andrena nivalis with a short tongue.

Long Tongue Bee

Anthophora affabilis with a long tongue.

Further Information:

 Wisconsin Bee Identification Guide
 Spring Wild Bees of Wisconsin
 Bumble Bees of Wisconsin
 Wild Native Bee Nest Boxes

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