Honey Bees

Honey bees are eusocial insects that live in colonies

Honey bees are eusocial insects belonging to the Apidae family and the genus Apis. They are known most prominently for their ability to create honey, as well as their superior pollinating capabilities.

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    What Are the Origins of the Honey Bee?

    Honey bees are thought to have originated from southern and southeastern Asia. However, the earliest fossil of a Bumblebee is from the Eocene-Oligocene Transition period, which was approximately 34 million years ago. This is significant because it shows that honey bees were in what is now modern-day Europe during that time period. 

    Today the honey bee can be found in the wild and domestically on every continent on Earth, with Antarctica being the only exception.

    Are Honey Bees Native to the Americas?

    It was thought that prior to European expansion, there is no evidence that honey bees existed in the Americas. However, a 14 million-year-old fossil containing an Apis species was discovered in Nevada, changing the history books.

    This is of historical importance mainly because it shows that Honey Bees existed in the Americas, they just did not survive. The discovery of this Apis fossil could provide valuable insight to scientists studying the current disappearance of honey bees.

    How Many Species of Honey Bees Are There?

    There are seven species of honey bees, and these species are divided by melittologists into more than forty subspecies. Although this may seem like a large number of species, it is small compared to the more than 20,000 species of bees worldwide.

    What Are the Physical Characteristics of a Honey Bee?

    While honey bees share similar physical characteristics with other species of bees and even wasps, honey bees have specific identifying characteristics that differentiate them from other bees.

    Body Shape Honey bees have a cylindrical shaped body that lacks the smaller, thin section that most wasps and some other bee species have located between their thorax and abdomen.
    Hairlike Structures Up close, honey bees appear fuzzy, which is a feature that assists in carrying pollen between flowers and back to their hives.
    Flight Patterns A honey bee’s flight path is distinct from that of other insects. Although, like other bees, honey bees fly from flower to flower, their flight path differs from that of other insects.
    Distinctive Eyes Honey bees are easily recognizable by both the shape and size of their eyes. Honey bees have two large eyes on each side of their head, with a smaller set of three eyes in the center of their foreheads.
    Honey bees are fuzzy, with cylindrical body shapes and distinctive eyes

    Are There Male and Female Honey Bees?

    Every species of honey bees has both male and female bees. Male honey bees are drones who mate with the queen, while female honey bees are worker bees or the queen of the hive. 

    • Male Bees – Drone Bees – Male bees in the hive only have a single role, and that is to mate and help the queen reproduce. Drones typically only have one set of chromosomes. These types of drones are called haploid drones. Haploid drones grow from unfertilized eggs, either when the queen doesn’t fertilize an egg or when an egg is laid by a worker bee. 

    • Female Bees – Worker Bees – Worker bees are exclusively female and contain two sets of chromosomes. Worker bees are the result of a fertilized egg. Worker bees develop from an egg to an adult bee in roughly three weeks time. In a thriving colony, there can be upwards of 60,000 worker bees existing at a time. 

    • Female Bees – Queen Bees – Queen bees are exclusively female honey bees. To produce another queen, a reigning queen must fertilize an egg, which upon hatching into a larva, eats a diet of only royal jelly. Queen bees are produced in larger cells within the brood honeycomb and develop from an egg into an adult queen in roughly 16 days.

    How Do Queen Bees Differ From Worker Bees?

    Queen bees differ from worker bees in size and physiology as well as behaviour. For example, worker bees are smaller than queen bees, and queen bees are the only bees that lay eggs in one colony. 

    Types of Honey Bees

    There are nearly four dozen subspecies of honey bees, under the seven main species of bees. Within each hive of every species, there are also different types of honey bees, including male drones, female queens and worker bees. 

    But besides identification by species, honey bees can also be characterized by region, temperament, productivity, disease resistance, and other traits. Honey bees are often grouped into categories called “bee stock.”

    Italian Bee (Apis mellifera ligustica)

    • Originated in Italy, and introduced to the U.S. in 1859
    • Light in colour
    • Longer brood-rearing periods
    • High honey production rate
    • Gentle temperament
    • Known to rob honey stores of weaker hives


    German Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera)

    • Originally from Germany, the UK, and Scandinavia
    • Stockier and darker than many other honey bees
    • Well-adapted to cold climates
    • Are not very popular among beekeepers because of their defensive nature and susceptibility to disease.
    • One of the rarer subspecies of honey bees


    Caucasian Bee (Apis mellifera caucasica)

    • Longer tongues than other honey bees, which make them able to pollinate flowers inaccessible by other bees
    • Large bodies, very hairy, dark or grey in colour
    • Take longer to build hives than other species
    • Have a lower honey production because they create a lot of propolis, which is sticky and makes it more difficult to work in the hive


    Carniolan Bee (Apis mellifera carnica)

    • Productive species because they build their hives early
    • They have a lot of hair so appear darker than other bees
    • Originated in middle and eastern Europe
    • Can survive in colder climates
    • Docile
    • Prone to swarming, which can affect honey production when the colony splits in half


    Hybrids (bred for desirable traits)

    • Buckfast Bee – from the UK. Do well in cold, wet climates, which is why they’re popular throughout the British Isles. Moderate temperament and not very disease-prone due to their skill at keeping their hives clean and well-maintained.
    • Russian Bee – introduced to the U.S. in 1997. Natural tolerance to varroa and tracheal mites. Always have queen cells in their hives, compared to other species that make queen cells only when needed.
    • Africanized Bee – actually from Brazil, not Africa. Known as “killer bees.” Originally bred to increase parasite resistance. Very productive, but a lot of beekeepers don’t like to work with them because of their aggressive nature.
    • Minnesota Hygienic Bee – bred from Italian Bees. Good housekeeping skills make them disease-resistant. Popular among beekeepers due to their high productivity.

    Do Honey Bees Pollinate or Produce Honey?

    Honey bees pollinate plants and flowers in the process of collecting nectar and pollen for honey production. 

    The nectar that honey bees collect will be converted into honey back at the hive. The bees need this honey to feed their offspring and provide a source of nutrition they can store in the comb for when the seasons change and foraging is no longer possible. But as a managed species, a good deal of the honey A. mellifera produced is taken by beekeepers and sold to a consumer market.

    But it’s their pollination prowess that makes honey bees so valuable to the commercial agriculture industry. Honey bees pollinate a wide range of crops, and the food industries are highly dependent on them. They pollinate nearly 100 crops, which equates to nearly $15 billion worth of pollination services in the U.S.

    Are Bees The World’s Only Pollinators?

    While it is true that human life depends on the existence of bees in order to pollinate plants and maintain the global food supply, there are several other methods of pollination. For example, butterflies, birds, passerby mammals, and even wind are responsible for some of the world’s pollination. 

    Honey bees are considered the biggest contributors to the world's pollination

    What Are Honey Bees Used for Domestically?

    Honey bees are most popular for two things domestically: the production of products for human consumption and the pollination of crops. Honey bees are known for their production of honey, beeswax, and bee products which are used by humans in a variety of ways.

    What Is Honey Used For?

    Throughout recorded history, honey has been used as a food source, primarily used as a natural sweetener and alternative to processed sugars. It is additionally used in naturopathic medicine for the treatment of bacterial infections, stomach aches, and even hiccups.

    Honey can be additionally used to catch flies and other household pests that are attracted to its sweet scent and taste. 

    What Is Beeswax Used For?

    Beeswax is utilized in a variety of industries in a multitude of applications. Though there are thousands of uses for beeswax, its use is perhaps most popular in cosmetic applications such as lip balms, lipsticks, and moisturizers and in the candle industry as an alternative to candles produced with harsh chemicals.

    Additionally, beeswax is commonly used as a waterproofing agent for wood and leather products as well as in polishes used to treat wooden furniture.

    How Do Honey Bee Stings Compare to the Stings of Other Species?

    In a Honey Bee colony, it is the role of the worker bee to protect the hive. To do this, they use their stingers to ward off anything perceived as a threat. If a worker bee identifies a potential intruder and stings, a pheromone is released by the bee, alerting other bees in the colony to the threat.

    This can cause an attack response, causing hundreds or more honey bees to attack the potential intruder.

    Do Honey Bees Die After They Sting?

    Most honey bees die after they sting. Worker bees have barbed stingers that attach to fleshy surfaces, which kills the bee. The queen bee also has a stinger, but her stinger is not barbed and she does not die if she stings. 

    Besides Stinging, How Else Do Bees Defend Themselves From Threats? 

    Honey bees participate in a method of defence referred to as “balling.” Balling is accomplished when a mass of worker bees surround the perceived threat and vibrate their muscles at a rapid rate. The result is a rise in temperature at the centre of the ball, effectively overheating the threat until death. Honey bees have also been known to use the balling technique to overthrow a queen that the colony deems an intruder or ineffective queen. 

    How Do Honey Bees Nest?

    Honey bees are well known for their highly organized nesting patterns. Every species of honey bee nest is organized into a complex social system. These systems are referred to as eusocial, meaning that every member of the hive has a specific role to play in the survival of the colony. 

    All honey bee nests are composed of honeycombs which are made from beeswax that is produced by female worker bees. 

    Where Do Honey Bees Nest?

    There is a variation of nesting patterns across different species of honey bees. A. Florea and A. Andreniformis, members of the Micrapis subgenus, prefer to create exposed nests in trees and bushes. In southern Asia, honey bees create nests in tall trees, up high on buildings, and even on cliffs. 

    In modern beekeeping, honey bees nest in special boxes created by beekeepers so that they can safely harvest the excess honey that bees make during the warmer months. 

    What Do Honey Bees Make Their Nests Out Of?

    In the wild, honey bees create hives from beeswax. Honey bees can produce beeswax from a gland, located in their abdomens, starting from when they are just ten days old.

    Honeycomb is created when the bees process the wax flakes by chewing on them, allowing them to mix with enzymes, and building them into interlocking hexagons. Honey bees use the honeycomb to store honey as well as their eggs and larvae. 

    Inside the hives, bees work together to keep the temperature stable. They do this by crowding together in a tight ball to stay warm, using their wings together to act as a giant fan when it gets too hot. Scout bees are the honey bees that explore nearby areas, finding suitable locations for new hives.

    Wild honey bees like to build their hives in crevices, and particularly love hollow trees, which is a common theme in children’s picture books.

    Wild honey bee nests in India

    Honey Bee Reproduction

    Virgin queen honey bees are unique in that they go on a mating flight away from their home colony in order to mate with drones of a neighbouring colony. These mating rituals take place in the air. Once a queen bee has successfully mated, she returns to her home colony to lay and fertilize eggs. 

    The Lifespan of a Honey Bee

    The lifespan of a honey bee depends largely on the role of the bee within the colony as well as the time of year in which they were born. Queen honey bees have been known to live for up to five years, while their worker bee counterparts have significantly shorter lives. Worker bees that are born in the summer tend to have shorter lives than those born in the winter months. 

    The shorter lifespan of a summer-born bee is due to the amount of work that is necessary for the worker bees to put in to prepare for the winter. The lifespan of a summer-born bee is approximately six weeks while a winter-born bee might live up to six months. 

    The lifespan of a drone bee is an average of eight weeks but largely depends on if and when he mates. After a drone bee mate, he immediately falls to the ground and dies. If the drone bee does not mate, he is oftentimes killed off by worker bees during the winter to conserve resources. 

    The Life Cycle of Honey Bees

    The comb inside a honey bee hive isn’t only meant to store honey. Those hexagonal cells are also used by the queen to lay her eggs and begin the development of new life.

    The queen will have mated with several male drones (around 10-20 mating sessions) at the tender age of 6 to 16 days old, and she’ll store all of the sperm she’s collected in a receptacle on her body called the spermatheca. When she returns to the hive, she’s ready to deposit the eggs in cells that worker bees have created.

    If the queen fertilizes an egg with sperm, it becomes a female worker, and unfertilized eggs will develop into male drones. But worker bees decide how many cells will be prepared for females and males. Male cells are made larger than female cells to accommodate the eventual size of the full-grown bee. 

    The workers also have the power to decide if a new queen must be made and will first make that happen by re-shaping the cell of a fertilized female, as a queen requires the largest cells of all the castes. Then, three days after being deposited into cells, the eggs hatch and require food.

    Workers known as nurse bees will feed the larvae royal jelly for the first few days, and then they’ll be fed a combination of honey and pollen – known as bee bread. If one of the females is designated to be the new queen, she won’t transition to bee bread and will feed only on royal jelly.

    Within just five days, the larvae have dramatically increased in size but must spend the remaining days of their development in their cells. Before they spin cocoons, they’ll need to be safely enclosed in their cells, so workers cap them off with beeswax.

    Once in their capped cells, the pupae (as they’re now called) begin to develop into adult bees. They’ll start to form eyes, wings, and little hairs that will cover their growing bodies. In about 12 days, the adults are ready to emerge and begin to chew their way out of the wax-capped cells.

    The females will get to work right away and start cleaning cells and the hive. After that, they’ll take on other jobs as they age, in a kind of natural progression.

    Those jobs include everything that’s required to maintain the hive, take care of the queen, and help new broods to develop. After about ten days, they’ll be ready to work outside the hive as foragers. Even foragers have distinct jobs, with some collecting nectar, some pollen, and others carrying water back to the hive.

    Adult male drones, however, are assigned only one job: mate with queens from other colonies. Once they have mated, the drones die immediately, as they have fulfilled their roles.

    The average lifespan of worker bees can last from 6-7 weeks to 4-6 months depending on which part of the year they were born

    Honey Bee Temperament

    Honey bees are not considered an aggressive species, although they will respond aggressively in order to protect their hive. Worker bees are known to dive-bomb and sting anything they perceive to be a threat, whether it be insects, mammals, or even a defective queen. 

    However, unless provoked or near the hive, it is unlikely that a honey bee will sting a human,  as when a honey bee delivers a sting into a fleshy substance, the barbed stinger stays within the flesh, and the bee detaches and dies.

    How to Care for Honey Bees?

    Humans can care for honey bees by taking steps to care for honey bees in their natural habitat or by the practice of keeping bees. 

    How To Care For Wild Bees

    To care for wild bees, humans must first consider their individual contributions to the decline of honey bees. Activities like spraying pesticides, mowing down wildflowers or otherwise destroying natural habitats play a significant role in the world’s declining bee population.

    To ensure the continuation of the existence of honey bees, humans can take a number of steps

    • Plant pollinator-friendly flowers – planting flower mixes that are attractive to honey bees provide a  food source for bees and their young. 
    • Provide sugar water – placing out a dish of sugar water can provide a tired bee with the sustenance needed to continue on their mating or foraging journey.
    • Do not disturb beehives –  do not remove beehives from your property and allow bees to reproduce. If a beehive is dangerously close to your home and could potentially harm kids or pets, enlist the help of a professional who can remove the beehive without harming the bees. 


    How to Care For Domestic Bees?

    Caring for domesticated honey bees is a difficult job that requires patience and dedication, similar to farming. Problems in recent years have afflicted honey bee colonies, particularly European honey bees. In addition to common issues like mites or temperature regulation, there has been a spike in occurrences of colony collapse, where entire hives are wiped out due to the increased use of certain pesticides. 

    Beekeepers should avoid the use of pesticides whenever possible. They should also plant a variety of flowers that appeal to bees and other pollinating insects. If they don’t have water on their property near where they are planning on keeping the hive, they should add an area where bees can stop and get a drink. This can be utilitarian, or something more decorative, like a fountain. 

    Beekeeping is an art form, and every beekeeper has a different style of caring for their bees. Beekeepers should make sure that they don’t overharvest the honey their bees produce, so that they can survive the winter, and that they have enough pollen and nectar nearby so that they can create enough honey for them to harvest the excess. 

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