Geography of Bees

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Bees are small flying insects that range in size from the 2 mm (0.79 in) Perdita minima, to the Megachile pluto, also known as Wallace’s giant bee. Female Wallace Bee’s can reach a length of 38 mm (1.5 in) and males a length of 23 mm (0.9 in).

Bee bodies have a head, thorax, and abdomen, much like all other insects. They also have two sets of wings and six legs.

Bees are Critical Pollinators

Bees require both pollen and nectar. Pollen offers protein and other nutrients, while nectar gives energy. Bees use the majority of pollen as nourishment for their larvae, but they also transmit it from plant to plant, offering pollination services to plants and nature as a whole.

Bees are critical pollinators that many plants require for survival. Many agricultural plants require bees for pollination. Squash, tomatoes, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries are just some of the crops that rely on bees. About 75% of all plants require pollination by an animal, mostly insects.


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Arizona poppy pollen on Protoxaea gloriosa. Photo: USGS, public domain.
Arizona poppy pollen on Protoxaea gloriosa. Photo: USGS, public domain.

The population of bees has been in decline in part due to a loss of biodiversity. Approximately 30–50% of all native bees are highly specialized, relying on one or a few species of plants as their food source.

Bees that collect pollen from a variety of plants are polylectic while bees that specialize are oligoleges. 

How Many Bees Species are There?

Over 20,000 bee species have been identified worldwide.

A native bee pollinates a native flower near Logan, Colorado. Photo: Mark Vandever, USGS.
A native bee pollinates a native flower near Logan, Colorado. Photo: Mark Vandever, USGS.

Which Country Has the Most Bee Species?

With about 4,000 of the world’s 20,000 bee species, the United States has the most species of bees.

A bee looking for pollen inside the flower of a lavender plant.
A bee pollinating a lavender plant in Northern California. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

57% decline in the population of western bumble bees

A recent USGS study found that populations of the western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) have declined by 57% since 1998.

Scientists found that rising summer temperatures and drought contributed to the decline of the native western bumble bee in recent decades.

According to Will Janousek, USGS scientist and co-lead author of the study, “There has been an ongoing global decline in pollinators, including in North America. The decline in the once common western bumble bee shows that common, widespread species are not excluded from this trend and our study showed that climate change is an important reason for the decline of this native bee species.”    

At one point, the western bumble bee was one of the most populous bumble bee species in the United States. Populations of this bumble bee extend the West Coast of the United States up to the Tundra region of Alaska and over to the northwestern Great Plains and southern Saskatchewan in Canada.

Which Continents Have Bees?

Bees are found on every planet except Antarctica. Bees are found wherever there are insect-pollinated flowering plants.

In a recent study that created a global map of bee diversity, researchers found that the Northern Hemisphere has more bee diversity than the Southern Hemisphere. Hotspots of bee diversity can be found in southwestern USA, Mediterranean Basin into the Middle East, and Australia.

Map showing bee species diversity around the world.  Map: Orr et al, Current Biology, 2021.
Map showing bee species diversity around the world. Map: Orr et al, Current Biology, 2021.

Bees Live in a Wide Diversity of Habitats

Bees can be found in a wide range of habitats. Bees are found almost every where: deserts, urban areas, forests, prairies, and more.

Bombus polaris, known as the arctic bumblebee, is specially adapted to survive in a very cold climate despite being poikilothermic or “cold-blooded”. Bombus polaris is found in the very northern reaches of Alaska, Canada, Northern Scandinavia, and Russia.

Where is the Smallest Bee Found?

The world’s smallest bee is the Perdita minima which is native to the southwestern United States. Perdita minima are solitary bees that construct dwellings in sandy desert soils. The bees feed on the nectar and pollen of wildflowers in the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae.

A solitary pollen-covered bee in a Globe Mallow flower. Photo: Jaime Delano, USGS. Public domain.
A solitary pollen-covered bee in a Globe Mallow flower. Photo: Jaime Delano, USGS. Public domain.

Where is the World’s Largest Bee Found?

Originally believed to be extinct, the Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto) was rediscovered by a team of biologists exploring the islands in the North Moluccas, Indonesia in January of 2019.  Wallace’s giant bee is the world’s largest bee and is named after British explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

References

Janousek, William M., et al. “Recent and Future Declines of a Historically Widespread Pollinator Linked to Climate, Land Cover, and Pesticides.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 120, no. 5, Jan. 2023, p. e2211223120, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2211223120.

Moissett, B., & Buchanan, S. (2010). Bee basics: an introduction to our native bees. USDA, Forest Service. https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf

Orr, M. C., Hughes, A. C., Chesters, D., Pickering, J., Zhu, C. D., & Ascher, J. S. (2021). Global patterns and drivers of bee distribution. Current Biology31(3), 451-458. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.053

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.