Reducing bees to the sole domestic honeybee, Apis mellifera, is like reducing a flowery meadow to a simple English lawn. Bees belong to the hymenoptera order (insects with two pairs of wings), which is characterized by their absolute dependence on plants for food. They exhibit great diversity, with 20,000 species recorded worldwide and 573 species in Lebanon. The vast majority of bees do not stock honey as honeybees do, since they do not stay active during the winter. Their diversity is a diversity of size, from the mosquito size of some andrenae to the massive bumble bees and megachiles.
It is also a diversity of way of life, most of them being solitary bees, although some bees are social and live in colonies (the bumble bees for instance). Some nest in sand (Andrenidae), others in wood (Xylocopinae) or using mud (Colectidae).
Sadly, due to urbanization, pesticide use, and climate change, many bee species are declining. However, all bees are essential pollinators and indispensable allies for maintaining the health of agriculture. Bees, therefore, require particular attention and protective measures. Claiming to save bees by installing beehives is akin to believing that one can save migratory birds by setting up a chicken coop on their roof. There is no other solution than protecting their natural habitat.
Drawing primarily on the works of Mira Boustani, this article aims to provide an overview of wild bees existing in Lebanon.
Due to the food implications of the collapse of bee populations, scientific attention towards these hymenoptera has experienced a recent resurgence. 289 out of the 573 recorded bee species in Lebanon have been identified after 2021. Dr Mira Boustani continues to survey the Lebanese diversity of wild bees as the true diversity of the Lebanese bee fauna is estimated to 900 species”. Worldwide, only six bee species produce honey and are therefore domesticated for this purpose. In Lebanon, only Apis mellifera is found, with its endemic subspecies, A. mellifera syriaca, perfectly adapted to the Mediterranean climate and local flora. The importation of less aggressive foreign breeds (such as the Italian A. mellifera lugustica) and their associated diseases weakens beekeeping. It also happens that a bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, is domesticated for pollinating orchards. Once again, there is a Lebanese subspecies present from sea level to the summit of Qornet al-Sawda that should be favored over imports.
All other bees are wild, they do not stock honey, and are often solitary. Then, the common characteristic of bees is that they exclusively feed on the sweet nectar of flowers. Whereas many wasps, for instance, feed on nectar, but nourish their larvae upon insects and other meat sources, all bees feed on nectar and nourish their larva upon protein-rich pollen from the same flowers. Hence, their diet depends exclusively on the plants they forage, making them excellent pollinators. Their clade is then called Antophila. Apart from this property, within the Antophila, there is a great diversity of shapes and colors, habitats, and lifestyles. Here is an overview of the groups present in Lebanon.
Colletidae. Plasterer bees
There are 29 species found in Lebanon. Solitary bees, they are nicknamed “plasterer bees” for their way of smoothing the walls of their nests, which are dug into the ground using a buccal secretion. Some are “meriligids” (from the Greek word “mêros,” meaning thigh) because they store pollen on their femurs. Here, we present Hylaeus sidensis, showcasing the general characteristics of insects and hymenoptera. This genus does not have a pollen basket; instead, it ingests the pollen into its crop before regurgitating it.
Andrenidae. Mining bees
There are 86 species of Andrenid bees found in Lebanon. They are also known as mining bees due to the burrows they dig in the sand as their nests. This is the second-largest group of bee genera. Andrena are among the most common everywhere. They are present in all types of habitats. The following one was recently discovered and called Andrena cedricola, meaning “living among cedars”.
Halictidae. Sweat bees
Ninety-six species of Halictus bees have been documented in Lebanon. They play an important role as pollinators, especially for crops like corn and sunflowers. Interestingly, some species in this genus of solitary bees often excavates their nests in close proximity to one another, living thus in aggregations. Each mother bee recognizes her own nest through olfactory recognition, indicating that each bee has a unique pheromone. They are also characterized by their ability to reproduce through parthenogenesis, which means they can reproduce without fertilization. While workers of Apis mellifera also practice parthenogenesis in desperate situations when the queen dies, they only produce males (resulting in a “drone-laying” hive). On the other hand, some species of Halictus bees structurally rely on parthenogenesis, as discovered by the eminent entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre: “Halictus bees have two generations per year: one in spring, derived from mothers that were fertilized in the autumn and overwintered, and the other in summer, resulting from parthenogenesis, which is reproduction through maternal potentials alone. Only females are born from the union of both sexes, while both females and males are born through parthenogenesis.”
The Melittidae bees are primarily found in Africa and temperate regions of Europe. They have an oligolectic diet, meaning they only visit a limited range of flowers. As specialized pollinators, their survival is fragile and dependent on the survival of specific flowers. In Lebanon, only one species, Dasypoda spinigera, is still found. It is native to the Black Sea region and, like all species in its genus, has “hairy legs” (dysa-poda).
Megachilidae. Leafcutter bees
A total of 134 species of Megachile bees have been documented in Lebanon. They are solitary bees characterized by strong mandibles that enable them to cut leaf pieces. Using these leaf fragments, they construct tunnels in their nests, where they place a series of pollen balls topped with an egg. These bees are gastrilegids, they gather pollen on the ventral side of their abdomen.
Among the Megachile bees, there is the genus Osmia, which are mason bees known for their use of mud to seal the nests they create in stone cavities or hollow plants. Excellent pollinators, insect hotels are constructed to attract them. There are 40 species of Osmia bees in Lebanon.
The most diverse group is also the most well-known, since it encompasses the main eusocial bees, which form colonies, including the honeybee (Apis mellifera) and bumblebees (Bombini).
Xylocopinae. Carpenter bees
28 species of these carpenter bees are found in Lebanon. They dig their nest in dead wood.
Nomadinae. Cuckoo bees
In Lebanon, there are 16 species of these cleptoparasitic bees, also known as cuckoo bees, which lay their eggs in the nests of other bees. The larva, equipped with strong mandibles, kills the host larva and feeds on the pollen ball left by the host mother. The adult cuckoo bee, being nomadic and not needing to collect pollen, often lacks hair and has a wasp-like appearance.
Eucera. long-horned bees
In Lebanon, there are 34 species of these bees with long antennae, which are a characteristic feature of their males. The male of Eucera longicornis is famous for being the victim of a sexual deception game played by the flower of an orchid, Ophrys apifera, whose shape and scent imitate those of the female E. longicornis. Since males emerge before females, young males then attempt to mate with these substitutes, trying their luck from one flower to another, thereby facilitating pollination.
Bombini. Bumble bees
Bumblebees are eusocial bees, meaning they live in colonies. The queen, after hibernating, emerges from the ground in spring and establishes a new colony. Bumblebees are universal pollinators, visiting various types of flowers despite their robust physique (they are often seen on basilic or thyme). There are four species of bumblebees in Lebanon.
The study of the bee fauna of Lebanon is an ongoing effort and many species are still waiting to be recorded. Bees, like all other insect groups, suffer from a chronic lack of study in Lebanon.
Monitoring the local bee fauna is key to better understanding the distribution, food preferences, and the relationship of our local bee species with their habitats.
“The bees of Lebanon (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Anthophila)” (2021), by Mira Boustani, Pierre Rasmont, Holger H. Dathe, Guillaume Ghisbain, Max Kasparek, Denis Michez, Andreas Müller, Alain Pauly, Stefan Risch, Jakub Straka, Michael Terzo, Xavier Van Achter, Thomas J. Wood & Nabil Nemer, Zootaxa.
“Distribution and flower visitation records of bumblebees in Lebanon (Hymenoptera: Apidae)” (2020), by Mira Boustani , Wael Yammine , Nabil Nemer , Efat Abou Fakhr Hammad, Denis Michez & Pierre Rasmont , Annales de la Société entomologique de France.
“A revision of the Andrena (Hymenoptera: Andrenidae) of Lebanon with the description of six new species” (2020), by Thomas J. Wood , Mira Boustani & Pierre Rasmont, Annales de la Société entomologique de France.
Introductory Biogeography to Bees of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East (2010), by Andrew Grace, Bexhill Museum. Sussex.