We know that bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers, which are also used to feed the larvae or baby bees, provide for the other members of their colony, and of course, make the sweet honey that humans consume. Another less known fact about these essential insects is that only female bees have stingers. This brings us to the main question, do the other bees have teeth?
Bees technically don’t have teeth that are similar to humans and other vertebrates. Instead, they have two movable mandibles moving outwards and inwards. Even though bees don’t have teeth, they can still bite using their mandibles. It is like pinching, similar to the ones that ants and wasps do.
But now let’s go more in-depth about whether and how bees bite.
Do bees have teeth?
Before we can fully identify whether bees really have teeth, we must first define what teeth are.
According to Britannica, teeth are hard structures that arise from the jaw, around the mouth or the pharynx of vertebrates. However, some invertebrates, like some types of worms, also have teeth-like structures in their mouth, but bees and other insects don’t fall into that category.
True teeth are unique to mammals, reptiles, fishes, and most vertebrates or animals with a backbone. And since bees are insects and invertebrates, they don’t have teeth but can have parts that work like teeth that help them perform their day-to-day tasks.
Looking at the structure of a bee’s head, you will see the eyes, antenna, proboscis (tube-like mouth), and mandibles. There are no teeth specified in the head-part of a bee. What performs a similar function of teeth for bees are their mandibles.
What are the mandibles?
You can think about human mouths as a comparison. We have the bone, called a mandible, that holds the lower teeth of our mouths, which also moves when we speak or chew. The main difference between our mandible and the bees is we only have one, while bees have two.
Bee’s mandibles (or jaws) are attached to their heads at the end of each labrum. A labrum is like the “upper lips” of common insects, like bees.
The mandibles are a part of the bee’s exoskeleton (or an external skeleton since they are invertebrates) instead of a separate component.
Also, instead of moving downward and upward like human jaws, their muscles move the bees’ mandibles sideways, either outwards or inwards. At the end of the mandibles are the jagged edges commonly confused as the bees’ teeth, which do more functions than you can expect – more of these later.
Can a bee bite you?
We already know that bees have stingers at the end of their abdomen, but it is also important to know that only female bees have stingers, and only honeybees are the only type of bees that die after stinging.
So to add to the danger and even terror to some people with the fear of bees, they not only can sting, but they can also bite, according to the findings published in the online journal Plos One.
Though the bees don’t have teeth and only the females have stingers, bees are still dangerous when provoked because they bite using their sharp dual-mandibles. To add more to the threat, it also releases venom, which can cause allergic reactions to people with bee allergies but are generally not potent enough to kill an adult human.
While it is uncommon for humans to die from bee stings or bites, many people still die from sting-related deaths, so it is still important to be careful.
Basically, bees can be dangerous from both ends of their body. A biting (or pinching) mandible from the front side and stinging from the rear. But you don’t have to be too worried since bees are not aggressive to humans as long as we leave them alone.
Do all bees have these toothed mandibles?
While stingers are only for female bees, the toothed, pincer-like mandibles are available for all types of bees.
Bees’ primary sources of nutrients are nectar and pollen, which they get from flowers, so they don’t need to bite through their meal. However, the toothed mandibles in front of their mouth offer other functions.
Generally, these mandibles are used by bees for various applications like chewing their way out of their cells once they’re capable, feeding and nursing the larvae, as weapons, and even carrying other objects, like mud and leaves.
Are the mandibles of all bee species the same?
Each bee species can have a unique type of mandibles. Even bee species within the same colony can have varying kinds of mandibles. For example, workers, drones, and a queen bee are in a honeybee colony.
The queen bee has the most important job of laying eggs and populating the hive. Her mandibles are the largest and strongest among the colony, which it commonly uses to cut its way through tough wax covers of cells to get out of its own cell and to enter the cells of other potential queen bees.
The drones, also known as the male honeybees, are responsible for impregnating the queen bee. They are the less active participants of the colony and are stingless. So, they use their weak mandibles to defend themselves and the colony if needed.
The underdeveloped female worker bees are generally infertile, so they can’t challenge the queen bee. However, they are the busiest in the colony. They use their mandibles to perform various tasks, starting from nursing the larvae, building and maintaining the comb, and defending the territory.
Here are other bee species performing other functions using their mandibles.
- Carpenter Bees – these bees have strong mandibles, powerful enough to drill holes in woods and bamboos to use as their nest. They are generally solitary.
- Mason Bees – use their innate skill of “masonry” to fill gaps and holes with mud to use as their nests.
- Leef-cutter Bees – are solitary bees with powerful mandibles to chew and bite off leaves and petals used when building their nests.
What is the function of the bee mandibles?
Bee mandibles are an all-purpose tool for these hard-working insects. Their mandibles are controlled by the abductor and adductor muscles for moving their ‘jaws’ outward and inward. Also, note that mandible strengths and size will differ in each bee species.
Here are some of the many functions of the bee mandibles, which are sometimes referred to as teeth.
1. Chew their way out of their cell.
Once a bee larva grows to be an adult bee, it immediately uses its teeth-like mandibles to chew its way out of its protective enclosure. A nurse bee will then set aside the cell cap for future use.
They also use their mandibles to clean their used cell in preparation for the next occupant. The younger worker bees often act as nurses for the larvae. Slightly older worker bees, on the other hand, use their mandibles to repair any damage in the comb or build newer cells.
Worker bees are encased with soft caps, so they have a smaller mandible. However, the queen bees have stronger mandibles that they use to cut through their thicker wax enclosure once they mature and are ready to go out of their cell.
2. Protect the proboscis.
The proboscis is the bee’s delicate and damage-prone long tongue, which they use for sucking liquid, like nectar. So, one of the purposes of their mandibles is to protect and stabilize them.
When bees are not using their proboscis, it folds inward to their head, and their mandibles cover them.
3. Feeding the young bees.
The baby bees or the larvae need constant nourishment to ensure that they will have a healthy and mature body. So, the newly emerged worker bees already know that it’s their job to perform as nurses’ for the larvae and feed them.
The nurse bees use their mandibles to secrete and collect beebread, which is the mixture of nectar and pollen, to feed the future worker bees in their care.
On the other hand, the larvae fed by nurse bees with royale jelly develop larger bodies and fertile bees that can become queen bees.
4. As weapons of war
Bees are not always defensive. They can also be aggressive and attack other hives to raid their food storage. This was based on the observed phenomenon of thousands of stingless bees in Australia.
Since this bee specie is stingless, their primary weapon of choice is none other than their mandibles. They use it to bite off their enemy bees until they remove their legs, rip their wings, and kill them. Then after the slaughter, they will also destroy the defeated colony’s young bees.
5. As a symbol of the power of the queen bee.
A honeybee colony can only have one queen, so there will be bloodshed if more than one larva develops to be a queen. Queen bees use their powerful mandibles to murder any potential queen bee in their colony.
After a queen bee gets out of its cell, it will roam the brood nest in search of other potential queen bees still enclosed inside its cell. When it finds one, it will use its queen-size mandibles to open the similarly-thick enclosure of the other queen bee larva and stings it to death. It will then repeat her murderous act until she’s sure to remain the only queen.
6. Building the combs.
Queen bees’ job is to lay eggs and ensure the colony’s population thrives. She lays fertile female eggs and unfertile male eggs. Then the worker bees will use their mandibles to chew the wax they’ll use in building the combs where they will lay the eggs.
7. Other tasks
Another misconception in the bee world is that most bees are always moving in large colonies, like honeybees. In reality, many bee species live solitary lives. These lonely bees are also great bee architects when building their nests using their mandibles.
There are bee families with incredibly larger mandibles that are strong enough to collect and lift materials, like petals, mud, sand, and more.
Other bee families, like mason bees, collect small pebbles, leaves, and mud to build a mud hut with divisions that attach to branches or houses. You may have even seen some of these mud huts designed and created by these bees’ powerful mandibles.
On the other hand, leafcutting bees have powerful mandibles capable of cutting through leaves, hence the name. They use the leaf part in creating their nests for their larvae.
How do bees defend themselves?
An article about honeybee colony defense stated that there are three colony defense responses depending on who is attacking. It can be a defense against invertebrate predators, vertebrate predators, and even other bee colonies trying to rob their honey reserves.
When one of the three aggressions happens, bees will have to fight. The bees’ primary weapon is their stings. However, only female honeybees have stingers that detach from their rear when used, and they die.
Since the male honeybees don’t have stingers, they will have no choice but to bite their way through the predators using their mandibles.
Bees can bite you without using teeth because they don’t have those. Instead, they have two-movable mandibles that move inwards and outwards, similar to ant pincers and some species of wasps.
This teeth-like structure of the bees is used in various applications, from birth and escaping from their enclosure to performing their duties as workers, drones, or queen, and even in fighting and protection.
Even though bees don’t have teeth, their mandibles are valuable enough to ensure their survival.
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