What type of consumers are bees? (Are Bees Only Herbivores?)

Most bees are primary consumers because they mainly eat plant-based food, such as nectar, pollen and sap. However, some bee species, like the vulture bee, will also eat meat and are therefore secondary consumers.

Bees are flying insects that are closely related to wasps and ants. They are known for their role in pollination and, in the case of the best-known bee species, the western honey bee, for producing honey.

Bees are a monophyletic lineage within the superfamily Apoidea and are presently considered a clade, called Anthophila. There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees in seven to nine recognized families though many of these families contain only a single genus.

Where do Bees Live?

Bees can be found in various habitats, including forests, deserts, and mountains. They cannot live in Antarctica or the arctic because it is too cold.

Honey bees are social insects that build large hives where they live as a colony. In contrast, solitary bees make nests in burrows in the ground or in holes in wood, where they stash food and lay their eggs.1

What do Bees Eat?

Bees eat nectar and pollen from flowers. Nectar is a sweet liquid produced by flowers and is rich in sugars.

Miner Bee eating pollen and sucking nectar.

Pollen is the male reproductive cells of flowers and are rich in protein and other nutrients2. Bees are attracted to the sweet fragrances and bright colors of flowers.

What Type of Consumer is a Bee?

Bees can be primary, secondary and even tertiary consumers, depending on their diet. Primary consumers are organisms that feed on producers.

Secondary consumers are consumers that feed on primary consumers, tertiary consumers feed on secondary consumers, etc.

Most bees, like honey bees, are primary consumers because they only eat plants. However, bees can also be parasitic3 or carnivorous4.

Examples of Bees that are Primary Consumers?

As mentioned before, most bees are primary consumers that feed on nectar and pollen from plants.

Apart for the well-known honey bee, there are many species of solitary bees including carpenter bees, mason bees, mining bees and the hairy-footed flower bee3 that are all examples of primary consumers.

Examples of Bees that are Secondary Consumers?

A small number of bees are secondary consumers that feed on insects or other animals.

Nomad, and sharp-tailed bee larvae are secondary consumers since they feed on the eggs and larvae of other bees.

The female lays her eggs inside the nests of other bees. When they hatch, the larvae eat the host’s eggs, larvae, and food stores.3

The adults of these bees are, however, vegetarian like other bees.

The vulture bee, found in North and South America is the only bee carnivore. While they will eat nectar and pollen, they prefer carrion.

Vulture bees are social insects, like honey bees, and produce a honey-like substance from the carrion they carry back to the hive.4

What are Examples of Bees that are Tertiary Consumers?

Vulture bees may be considered tertiary or quaternary consumers if they feed on the carrion of omnivorous or carnivorous animals.

The vulture bee is the only known bee to eat meat as an adult.

Although they mostly eat dead animals, they may also attack inactive or diseased animals. Vulture bees will mostly be secondary consumers, but may also eat dead or alive secondary consumers, which makes them tertiary or even quaternary consumers.

Where are Bees in the Food Chain?

Bees are on the second trophic level in the energy pyramid, just above the plants that they feed on. They are also eaten by many other organisms, making them an important part of the food chain.

Bees are important in the food chain because they help pollinate plants. Pollination is necessary for plant reproduction, and wild bees are one of the most important pollinators in the world.

Showing the placement of bees in the energy pyramid or food chain.
Most bees are placed at the second trophic level in the food chain, but few bees like the vulture bee do eat meat and are therefore on the third trophic level.

Bees collect nectar from flowers and spread pollen as they move from flower to flower. This process helps fertilize plants and allows them to produce fruits, vegetables, and nuts that in turn spreads the plants around so that other, primary consumers, have something to eat!

The decline in bee populations has been a cause for concern in recent years, as it could have a negative impact on food chains around the world.

Are any Bees Decomposers?

Bees are not decomposers.

However, the vulture bee may be considered a scavenger, since they feed on the meat of dead animals.

True decomposers, however, not only feed on dead organic matter but also break them down into chemical nutrients. 

Are Bees Autotrophs or Heterotrophs?

Bees are heterotrophs because they eat other living organisms. Practically no animals are autotrophic because animals do not get their energy directly from the sun like plants do. That is, animals like bees cannot make their own energy!

Why are Bees not Producers?

Bees are not producers because they cannot produce their own chemical energy. Bees need to eat other organisms to gain energy.

Producers, like plants and algae, and some bacteria, generate their own chemical energy from sunlight, through photosynthesis or through chemosynthesis using other inorganic compounds.

What Animals Prey on Bees?

Bees are food for a variety of animals including birds, mammals, wasps, flies, spiders and even other bees. Flower crab spiders are masters of camouflage that sit and wait inside flowers for bees to visit5.

The Flower crab spider is a sneaky and effective predator of bees!

As soon as an unsuspecting bee gets close enough, the spider grabs them and eats them.

Additionally, many animals feed on the honey or wax produced by honey bees. Humans and honey badgers are examples of animals that enjoy honey.

Honey guides, on the other hand, are birds that prefer the wax found inside the beehive.6

However, today sadly more and more bees die not due to predation but due to pesticides and habitat destruction.

Conclusion

In this blog post, I have looked into the diet of the bee as an animal that is rarely thought about on a day to day basis.

Bees are important pollinators of both crops and wild plants. They transfer pollen from the male organ or stamen of a flower to the female organ or pistil. Fertilization can then take place, resulting in the production of seeds.

About one third of the food that we eat depends on pollination by animals, with bees being responsible for up to 80% of this pollination in some areas.

The estimated value of global crop production that is attributable to bee pollination is $153 billion per year! That’s a lot of honey!

Bees are under threat from habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. We need to do our part to protect these important creatures!

The importance of bees cannot be underestimated, and I hope you enjoy reading this blog post!

References

  1. Tutus loco. 2022. About solitary bees. https://www.beehotels.co.za/pages/solitary-bees
  2. United Stated Geological Survey. Do bees feed on both nectar and pollen? https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/do-bees-feed-both-nectar-and-pollen
  3. Wildcare Nationwide Ecology Supplies. Solitary Bees: 8 facts to know plus an identification resource. https://www.wildcare.co.uk/blog/solitary-bees-8-facts-to-know-plus-an-identification-resource/
  4. Gamillo E. 2021. Why Vulture Bees Prefer Rotting Flesh Over Pollen. The Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/vulture-bees-have-specialized-microbiomes-that-aid-their-taste-in-meat-180979131/
  5. Larsen N. Thomisus (flower crab spiders). Iziko Museums of South Africa. http://www.biodiversityexplorer.info/arachnids/spiders/thomisidae/thomisus.htm
  6. African Honeyguides. https://africanhoneyguides.com/