The pollen basket or corbicula (plural corbiculae) is part of the tibia on the hind legs of certain species of bees. They use the structure in harvesting pollen and returning it to the nest or hive. Other species of bee have scopae instead.
There was little formal description of the corbicula before Carl Linnaeus explained the biological function of pollen in the mid-18th century. In English the first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica described the structure in 1771 without giving it any special name. The second edition, 1777, refers to the corbicula simply as the "basket". By 1802 William Kirby had introduced the Latin term corbicula into English. He had borrowed it, with acknowledgement, from Réaumur. This New Latin term, like many other Latin anatomical terms, had the advantages of specificity, international acceptability, and culture neutrality. By 1820 the term pollen-basket seems to have gained acceptance in beekeeping vernacular, though a century later a compendium of entomological terminology recognised pollen-plate and corbicula without including "pollen-basket". Yet another century, and authorities as eminent as the current authors of "Imms" included only the terms scopa and corbicula in the index, though they did include "pollen basket" in the text.
The New Latin term corbicula is a diminutive of corbis, a basket or pannier. Corbula (not a term used in entomology) is given as the Late Latin diminutive, but at least one dictionary simply lists corbicula as a very small basket.
Corbicula is the singular; its plural is corbiculae, reflecting the fact that in Latin the gender is feminine, but a troublesome confusion has arisen ever since at least one author c. 1866 assumed corbicula to be the plural of (an actually non-existent neuter form) corbiculum. The error has propagated through successive textbooks and reference works and troublesomely, it still is to be found as a minority misconception in modern publications.
Structure and function
Bees in four tribes of the family Apidae, subfamily Apinae: the honey bees, bumblebees, stingless bees, and orchid bees have corbiculae. The corbicula is a polished cavity surrounded by a fringe of hairs, into which the bee collects the pollen; most other bees possess a structure called the scopa, which is similar in function, but is a dense mass of branched hairs into which pollen is pressed, with pollen grains held in place in the narrow spaces between the hairs. A honey bee moistens the forelegs with its protruding tongue and brushes the pollen that has collected on its head, body and forward appendages to the hind legs. The pollen is transferred to the pollen comb on the hind legs and then combed, pressed, compacted, and transferred to the corbicula on the outside surface of the tibia of the hind legs.
In Apis species, a single hair functions as a pin that secures the middle of the pollen load. Either Honey or nectar is used to moisten the dry pollen, producing the product known as bee pollen or bee bread. The mixing of the pollen with nectar or honey changes the color of the pollen. The color of the pollen can help identify the pollen source.
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