Ecology and Social Organisation of Bees


Social behaviour of multiple females sharing a nest has been documented for two bee families, seven tribes and genera including over 2000 species – 8% of all nonparasitic bees. Early in social bee evolution, a single female produced a female that became her nest helper. Brood protection, larger reproductive output, or female longevity benefited the coexisting females. Many social bees live in tiny colonies and demonstrate elasticity in behaviour and reproductive options. Larger colonies ultimately evolved permanent castes – females unable to forage, build or defend a nest – and sterile helpers, and also evolved foraging coordination and honey storage. The colonies have stringent nesting requirements and advanced defensive behaviour, including stinging, biting and chemical defense, but also protected nest sites, timidity and crypsis. Advanced sociality was reached by Meliponini in Cretaceous times, and Eocene by Bombini and Apini. Other Apidae had some social behaviour since mid Cretaceous, as did Halictidae since Miocene, and both repeatedly lost it. Scarce resources and short flowering seasons force many kinds of social bees to enter diapause or disperse. In tropical forests, where highly social bees predominate, colonies of Apis are migratory and meliponines display aggressive foraging, regulated nesting or infrequent reproduction.

Key Concepts:

  • Social bees must share a nest, but usually the totipotency of one or more females is, at least temporarily, compromised. Efficiency and fitness are realised in terms of individuals among solitary bees and among colonies for social species.

  • Bee social behaviour evolved by the force of haplodiploid sex determination and kin selection in small groups and culminated with the presence of sterile females or those totally dependant on others for food and nesting.

  • Colonies of bees are a bold experiment and many fail, but when some enjoy higher fitness than individual nesting females, they persist and at different levels of sociality. If colonies are too costly to maintain natural selection maintains solitary nesting females alone.

  • Large colonies and uniform sociality are almost exclusively tropical, whereas most social bees within temperate climates have a colony, initiated by a single female or small group, which lasts for a relatively short time and then disbands.

  • At the pinnacle of bee social evolution, there is honey, the most efficient energy storage medium among bees. Coordinated foraging by worker communication and prodigious food collection ability allow colonies to produce and store honey and to survive during poor foraging conditions.

  • Advanced social bees are not close relatives. Although the oldest advanced social bee group is 100 million years (My) old, others range between 50 and 20 My in age – they are the meliponines, the honey bees, the bumble bees, the allodapines, the halictines and some neotropical euglossines or orchid bees.

  • Social parasites are a by‐product or tradeoff of social bee evolution and such bees exist in all major groups.

  • To defend their honey and brood, in perennial nests, advanced social bees have developed potent sting venom and alarm recruitment, or alternative chemical deterrents such as formic acid and intense biting behaviour; they also nest in well protected and highly limited nesting sites and reproduce infrequently.

  • Permanence of sociality may result from relative absence of severe annual climate fluctuation.

  • Social bees utilise many floral and other resources and are active for extended periods; they may serve to indicate environmental health.

Keywords: colonies; haplodiploid; honey; castes; meliponines; euglossines; halictines; bombines; allodapines; honey bees

Figure 1.

(a) Colony of Exoneura (Allodapini), in Borneo (courtesy of M.P. Schwarz). (b) Colony, one live and one dead female, brood cells, of Euglossa hemichlora (Euglossini), in Panama.

Figure 2.

(a) Dispersing colony (absconding swarm) of Africanised Apis mellifera, in Panama. (b) A. mellifera and Hypotrigona (Meliponini) recruiting colonies to sugar water bait, in Gabon.

Figure 3.

(a) The nest entrance of Paratrigona ornaticeps (Meliponini), in Panama. (b) The nest entrance of Homotrigona fimbriata (Meliponini) fallen from a forest tree trunk, in Brunei.

Figure 4.

(a) Queen and workers of Melipona triplaridis (Meliponini) on brood comb, in Panama. (b) Workers of Melipona panamica (Meliponini) ripening nectar in nest, honey storage pots, in Panama. (c) Hive of Melipona, in Colombia.



Batra SWT (1966) Nest and social behavior of halictine bees of India. Indian Journal of Entomology 28: 375–393.

Benton T (2006) Bumblebees. London: Harper Collins Publishers.

Breed MD and Buchwald R (2009) Cue diversity and social recognition. In: Gadau G and Fewell J (eds) Organization of Insect Societies: From Genome to Sociocomplexity, pp. 173–194. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brittain C and Potts SG (2011) The potential impacts of insecticides on the life‐history traits of bees and the consequences for pollination. Basic and Applied Ecology 12: 321–331.

Camargo JMF and Pedro SRM (2007) Meliponini Lepeletier, 1836. In: Moure JS, Urban D and Melo GAR (eds) Catalogue of Bees (Hymenoptera: Apoidea) in the Neotropical Region. Curitiba, Brazil: Sociedade Brasileira de Entomologia. 1958 pp.

Cameron SA, Lozier JD, Strange JB et al. (2011) Patterns of widespread decline in North American bumble bees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108: 2662–2667. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1014743108.

Cane JH (2011) Meeting wild bees’ needs on Western US rangelands. Rangelands 33: 27–32.

Cardinal S and Danforth BN (2011) The antiquity and evolutionary history of social behavior in bees. PLoS ONE 6(6): e21086. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021086.

Cardinal S, Straka J and Danforth BN (2010) Comprehensive phylogeny of apid bees reveals the evolutionary origins and antiquity of cleptoparasitism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 107: 16207–16211.

Cortopassi‐Laurino M, Imperatriz‐Fonseca VL, Roubik DW et al. (2006) Global meliponiculture: challenges and opportunities. Apidologie 37: 275–292.

Crozier RH and Pamilo P (1996) Evolution of Social Insect Colonies. Sex Allocation and Kin Selection. Oxford Series in Ecology and Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Darwin C (1859) On the Origin of Species, by Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray.

Davis W (2009) The Wayfinders. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, Inc.

Dew RM, Rehan SM, Tierney SM, Chenoweth LB and Schwarz MP (2011) A single origin of large colony size in allodapine bees suggests a threshold event among 50 million years of evolutionary tinkering. Insectes Sociaux 59: 207–214. doi: 10.1007/s00040‐011‐0206‐6.

Engel ME (2001) Monophyly and extensive extinction of advanced eusocial bees: insights from an unexpected Eocene diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA 98: 1161–1664.

Gadau J and Fewell J (eds) (2009) Organization of Insect Societies: From Genome To Sociocomplexity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Goulson D (2010) Bumblebees: Behaviour And Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hagen M, Wikelski M and Kissling WD (2011) Space use of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) revealed by radio‐tracking. PLoS One 6(5): e19997 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019997.

Hamilton WD (1964a) The genetical evolution of social behavior, I. Journal of Theoretical Biology 7: 1–16.

Hamilton WD (1964b) The genetical evolution of social behavior, II. Journal of Theoretical Biology 7: 17–32.

Hines HM (2008) Historical biogeography, divergence times, and diversification patterns of bumble bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombus). Systematic Biology 57: 58–75.

Hughes WOH, Oldroyd BP, Beekman M and Ratnieks FLW (2008) Ancestral monogamy shows kin selection is key to the evolution of eusociality. Science 320: 1213–1216.

Huth‐Schwarz A, Leon A, Vandame R, Moritz RFA and Kraus B (2011) Workers dominate male production in the neotropical bumblebee Bombus wilmattae (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Frontiers in Zoology 8: 13.

Kajobe R and Roubik DW (2006) Honey‐making bee colony abundance and predation by apes and humans in a Uganda forest reserve. Biotropica 38: 210–218.

Kawakita A, Ascher JS, Sota T, Kato M and Roubik DW (2008) Phylogenetic analysis of the corbiculate bee tribes based on 12 nuclear protein‐coding genes (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Apidae). Apidologie 39: 163–175.

Lo N, Gloag RS, Anderson DL and Oldroyd BP (2010) A molecular phylogeny of the genus Apis suggests that the giant honey bee of the Philippines, A. breviligula Maa, and the plains honey bee of southern India, A. indica Fabricius, are valid species. Systematic Entomology 35: 226–233.

Michener CD (1974) The Social Behavior of the Bees: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Michener CD (2007) The Bees of the World, 2nd edn. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nogueira‐Neto P (1996) A Criacão de Abelhas Sem Ferrão. Sao Paulo: Tecnapis.

Oldroyd BP and Wongsiri S (2006) Asian Honey Bees: Biology, Conservation and Human Interactions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peters JM, Queller DC, Imperatriz‐Fonseca VL, Roubik DW and Strassmann JE (1999) Mate number, kin selection and social conflicts in stingless bees and honeybees. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 266: 379–384.

Potts SG, Beismeijer JC, Kremen C et al. (2011) Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25: 345–353.

Ramírez SR, Nieh JC, Quental TB et al. (2010a) A molecular phylogeny of the stingless bee genus Melipona (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 56: 519–525.

Ramírez SR, Roubik DW, Skov C and Pierce NE (2010b) Phylogeny, biogeography and diversification of the orchid bees (Hymenoptera: Euglossini). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 100: 552–572.

Rasmussen C and Cameron SA (2010) Global stingless bee phylogeny supports ancient divergence, vicariance, and long distance dispersal. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 99: 206–232.

Rehan SM, Leys R and Schwarz MP (2012) A mid‐Cretaceous origin of sociality in xylocopine bees with only two origins of true worker castes indicates severe barriers to eusociality. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34690. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034690.

Roubik DW (1989) Ecology and Natural History of Tropical Bees. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roubik DW (2006) Stingless bee nesting biology. Apidologie 37: 124–143.

Roubik DW and Hanson PE (2004) Orchid Bees of Tropical America: Biology and Field Guide. Heredia, Costa Rica: InBio Press.

Roubik DW, Sakai S and Hamid Karam A (2005) Pollination Ecology and the Rain Forest: Sarawak Studies. New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

Roubik DW and Villanueva GR (2009) Invasive Africanized honey bee impact on native solitary bees: a pollen resource and trap nest analysis. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 98: 152–160.

Roubik DW, Weigt LA and Bonilla MA (1996) Population genetics, diploid males, and limits to social evolution of euglossine bees. Evolution 50: 931–935.

Ruttner F (1988) Biogeography and Taxonomy of Honeybees. Berlin: Springer‐Verlag.

Schwarz MP, Richards MH and Danforth BN (2007) Changing paradigms in insect social evolution: insights from halictine and allodapine bees. Annual Review of Entomology 52: 127–150.

Seeley TD (1995) The Wisdom of the Hive: The Social Physiology of Honey Bees. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Tautz J (2008) The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism. New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

Tierney SMN, Smith JA, Chenoweth L and Schwarz MP (2008) Phylogenetics of allodapine bees: a review of social evolution, parasitism and biogeography. Apidologie 39: 3–15.

Trivers R and Hare H (1976) Haplodiploidy and the evolution of insect societies. Science 191: 249–263.

Vit P, Pedro S and Roubik DW (eds) (in press) Pot‐honey: A Legacy of Stingless Bees. New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

Wcislo WT and Tierney SM (2009) The evolution of communal behavior in bees and wasps: an alternative to eusociality. In: Gadau F and Fewell J (eds) Organization of Insect Societies: From Genome to Sociocomplexity pp. 148–170. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams PH, Cameron SA, Hines HM, Cederberg B and Rasmont P (2008) A simplified subgeneric classification of the bumblebees (genus Bombus). Apidologie 39: 46–74.

Yanega D (1988) Social plasticity and early diapausing females in a primitively social bee. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA 85: 4374–4377.

Zimmermann I, Roubik DW, Quezada‐Euan JJG, Paxton RJ and Eltz T (2009) Single mating in orchid bees (Euglossa, Apinae): implications for mate choice and social evolution. Insectes Sociaux 56: 241–249.

Further Reading

Grimaldi D and Engel MS (2005) Evolution of the Insects. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hepburn HR and Radloff SA (2011) Honeybees of Asia. Berlin: Springer Science+Business Media.

Holldobler B and Wilson EO (1990) The Ants. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Sakagami SH, Ohgushi R and Roubik DW (1991) Social Insects in Equatorial Sumatra. Sapporo: Hokkaido University Press.

Scott‐Dupree CD Conroy L and Harris CR (2009) Impact of currently used or potentially useful insecticides for canola agroecosystems on Bombus impatiens (Hymenoptera: Apidae), Megachile rotundata (Hymentoptera: Megachilidae), and Osmia lignaria (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae). Journal of Economic Entomology 102: 177–182.

Seeley TD (2010) Honeybee Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

West‐Eberhard MJ (1975) The evolution of social behavior by kin selection. Quarterly Review of Biology 50: 1–33.

Wilson EO (1971) The Insect Societies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Roubik, David W(Jun 2012) Ecology and Social Organisation of Bees. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023596]