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Beneficial Insects: How Tongue Length Matters

european honey bee beneficial insects

This European honey bee has found a solution to not having a long enough tongue to get the nectar—slicing the flower near its base.


Recently I noticed an amazing nectar-gathering behavior from several honeybees and bumblebees (these are beneficial insects you want in your garden). I'd read about this before, but I hadn’t witnessed it. I never cease to be amazed at the ingenious nature of insects!

A bee’s tongue is its nectar-gathering tool, but not every tongue is the same in shape and length. In fact, bees fall into two categories: long tongue and short tongue. Examples of short-tongue bees include andrenid and miner bees (family Andrenidae); plasterer and cellophane bees (Colletidae) and metallic and sweat bees (Halictidae). Long-tongue bees include carpenter, cuckoo and long-horned bees, honeybees and bumblebees (Apidae); leaf-cutting bees (Megachilidae) and oil-collecting
bees (Melittidae).

bumblebee tongue

The bumblebee, with its slicing tongue, is a beneficial insect.

Tongue length predicts the plants the bee will likely harvest and pollinate. Some flowers have shallow reservoirs where a short tongue is all that’s required; other flowers possess long, tubular shafts that demand a long tongue. On this outing I was photographing honeybees and bumblebees flying in and out of a group of plantain lilies (Hosta plantaginea), whose flowers are quite tubular and long. Initially, the bees had a problem; despite their long tongues, they couldn’t reach the nectar by going directly into the flower.

I found their solution—in three easy steps—quite sneaky and ingenious. First, they crawled to the base of the flower and sliced an incision through its outer layer with their long tongues. Second, they were able to then stick their tongues through the openings and draw out the nectar. Third, they met with success by finding—make that creating—another entryway into the flowers.

If your garden hosts plants with long, tubular flowers then you're likely to have the opportunity to watch these beneficial insects do their work. Spend some time watching the pollinators that come to your tubular blooms and you're sure to be able to watch this amazing behavior.

All photos courtesy of Bill Johnson. Bill Johnson is an award-winning nature
photographer with a background in entomology. See more of his work at