The Weird World Of Bee Tongues
Excerpted from: Our Native Bees, By Paige Embry
To talk of bee tongues is to vastly oversimply the complex apparatus that makes up bee mouthparts.
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.
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.
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
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.
Andrena nivalis with a short tongue.
Anthophora affabilis with a long tongue.
Wisconsin Bee Identification Guide
Spring Wild Bees of Wisconsin
Bumble Bees of Wisconsin
Wild Native Bee Nest Boxes
The bee's basic nutritional requirements are similar to those of humans; they need proteins, carbohydrates,
minerals, fats/lipids, vitamins, and water. Learn More!
Take this quick quiz and see how much you know about bees—our favorite essential pollinators
working around the world. This quiz is intended for fun, in a random-facts-can-be-cool kind of way.
Spring begins andhungry pollinators are on the wing, looking for food. From
the moment emerge in spring to the time that they hibernate or migrate in the fall, pollinators
need to eat.