Honey bees stand out for their industrious habits and honey production. But, have you ever wondered – are bees insects? I mean they are bugs right-or are they? While bees are often grouped together with other insects, there are some important differences. In the scientific world, all living things are grouped according to certain characteristics. While it certainly does not matter to the bees, proper classification is important for conservation and research.
The scientific classification of living things is based on various similarities and differences. A quick study of basic honey bee anatomy gives us some clues to where our bees belong in the classification.
The Science of Insects
A classification system is in place- but researchers sometimes disagree. It is not unusual for something to be classified in one category and then moved to another in a few years.
However, all insects are members of the Animal Kingdom. They are classified in a hierarchical system:
- Kingdom – Phylum – Class – Order – Family – Genus – Species
What is an Insect?
As we group living things by certain shared characteristics, the categories begin as a broad group and narrow as we move down the list.
All members of the class “Insecta” must have the following characteristics.
- 3 pair of legs
- 3 distinct body parts or segments
Classification of Honey Bees
In this system, the second level is Phylum. We find bees in the Phylum “Arthropod”. Arthropods have segmented bodies, exoskeletons (instead of skin) and at least 3 pair of legs.
The next level of classification is “Class”. The Class Insecta includes all the insects in the world. And, there are a lot of members in this group.
Insects are divided into at least 29 orders. And there in the “order” Hymenoptera we find our bees.
- Coleoptera – beetles
- Diptera – flies
- Hymenoptera – ants, wasps, bees
- Lepidoptera – moths and butterflies
Insect Characteristics of Bees
- Segmented body
- Six legs
- Wings – two pairs of transparent, membranous wings attached to their thorax. The presence of four wings is a distinguishing feature of insects.
- Antennae- a pair of long, segmented antennae on their head. These sensory organs allow bees to detect and perceive their surroundings, including bee pheromones
- Exoskeleton: Like all insects, honey bees have an exoskeleton—a hard, protective outer covering. It provides support and protection.
- Metamorphosis: Honey bees undergo complete metamorphosis, transitioning through 4 life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
This description sure sounds like our honey bee – doesn’t it? Yes, identification is confirmed. Our honey bees are indeed insects and belong in the class Insecta.
While bees are closely related to wasps and ants, they have some attributes that make them different.
Some entomologists (scientists who study insects) assert that an insect should also have external mouth parts and a pair of antenna (bees have 2). No problem, our bees fit that description too!
Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Classification
As we move down the family tree, classification continues dividing members into different families and subfamilies based on their similarities and differences.
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Arthropoda
- Class: Insecta
- Order: Hymenoptera
- Family: Apidae
- Genus: Apis
- Species: A. mellifera
It is important to remember that the scientific community sometimes changes things around so this information is not set in stone for eternity. I imagine the insects do not care one bit what we think they are. They know what to do.
Another common visitor to our gardens is the Bumble bee. As the name directs, Bumble bees and honey bees share some common characteristics and both are important pollinators.
Is a Bee a Bug?
Now that we have confirmed that bees are insects. It is time to consider another common term used to describe them.
We must consider is a bee a bug? Insects that are true bugs belong to the Order “Hemiptera” – while honey bees are in the order “Hymenoptera”. So no – bees are not true bugs.
Why are Bees Not True Bugs?
One of the major differences between bugs and bees is the structure of their mouth parts. Bees have mouth parts that are designed to suck up and drink liquid food. Bees make honey from collected plant nectar.
Bugs have mouth parts that are designed to tear and puncture. Aphids are bugs that feed on plant juices. But, they must puncture the plant wall to get to the fluid.
Bees are classified as insects because they fit the criteria required for that scientific classification. But, specific characteristics of bees make them quite different from other members of the class.
Defining Honey Bees
Sometimes it is hard to put the correct name on anything. But, the classification of bees as insects is important in the efforts of conservation and research. But, the task can be daunting.
The common names for some creatures adds more mystery to this topic. Take the butterfly for instance.
A butterfly is not a fly. It is a member of the Order – “Lepidoptera”. This classification (Lepidoptera) includes butterflies and moths-but not true flies.
Confused yet? It can be especially confusing when classifying insects that come from so many different species. This is the beauty of life – diversity.
Bees are insects but they are not in this grouping alone. There are many different types of insects and some are very different from the bees we are familiar with.
Yes, in the scientific classification system a bee is classified in the animal kingdom.
Bees are Arthropods that belong in the class Insecta.
Bugs have mouthparts designed for puncturing, the mouth parts of bees are designed to suck up food.
If you want to learn more about insects in your area, I suggest The Bees in Your Backyard – my copy has come in handy many times.
There you have it. A bee is an insect but a bee is not a bug. With over 900,000 different types of insects in the world, we only have 899,999 more to learn about. Every bug is an insect but not every insect is a bug.