European Honey Bee

The European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is a frequent visitor to gardens in the summer. Its binominal name actually translates as 'honey-bearing bee' which is incorrect as it makes honey it does not bear it. Attempts were made to change it to Apis mellifica ('honey-making bee'), but it was rejected due to the rules of nomenclature. Arguably the largest group of pollinators in the world, the decline of the honey bee is a tragedy that affects us all, our flowers, our crops and our food plants.



The European honey bee, also known as the Western Honey Bee, is found throughout the UK and Europe, Asia and Africa. It has also established itself in North, Central and South America after it was introduced there in the 1600s. Suitable habitats include meadows, fields, gardens and open woodland but in warmer climes it will also nest in rainforests and semi-arid regions.



There are 3 castes within the honey bee order; the queen (18 - 20mm), the male drone (15 - 17mm) and the female worker (10 - 15mm). Workers are brown-orange in colour with a hairy thorax. Their abdomen has a series of dark and light bands, that vary depending on subspecies. The eyes are large and the face looks heart shaped in profile. The legs are long and dark, and the hind pair have corbiculae (pollen baskets). The queen is similar to the workers, but with an elongated abdomen and less banding. The wings are also shorter. The drones face is rounded in profile and has a huge pair of eyes. The hair on the thorax is less 'fuzzy' and the body bands are thicker, although they do not wrap around the abdomen as much. The male lacks a stinger and the corbiculae.




Honey bees have an exclusive diet of pollen and nectar. Colonies are made up of a central fertile female known as the queen. The food gatherers, known as workers, are all unfertile females. The males of the hive are known as drones and serve to mate with the queen. Queens have a life expectancy of 3 - 4 years, but there are reports of some subspecies living as long as 8 years. The workers and drones generally live for only a few months. Worker bees carry out tasks depending on their age, this is known as age-related polytheism. Younger workers work within the hive, and older workers do the foraging.


The queen will leave her nest to seek groups of drones. Here she will mate many times in mid air, until her she has filled her spermatheca (an organ used to store sperm). The queen will lay fertilized and unfertilized eggs (these will become drones). Worker bees within the nest, known as nurses, maintain the waxy cells in which the queen lays her eggs. The worker and drone larvae are fed on royal jelly for the first few days, and then a diet of pollen and nectar whereas the queen larvae is fed exclusively on royal jelly. When they are ready to pupate, the nurses seal them into their cell, a week later the adult bee emerges. Worker females are infertile but on occasion can produce fertile eggs (haploid - with only the mothers genetic input), which will always hatch as males. If this happens other workers may patrol the hive (known as worker policing) and remove said eggs.


Colonies, which can number many tens of thousands of individuals, communicate through smell (pheromones) and a form of bee 'dance', known as the round dance and the waggle dance. The round dance describes food close to the hive, and the waggle dance describes the details including direction. Pheromones are also a large part of communication. The queen emits a mandibular pheromone to signal here presence, and workers release a Nasanov pheromone when a nest is disturbed to signal displaced workers. There are also other pheromones for larvae care and alarms.




Royal jelly is secreted from special glands on the worker bees (located in the hypopharynx), and is used to create a queen when the current one is either dying or weak. This feeding causes the larvae to morph and become queen larvae, thus developing the ovaries necessary to reproduce. The royal jelly itself is a mixture of proteins, amino acids, water, simple sugars and fatty acids. Sometimes if a hive gets to big and crowded, the queen will leave to create a new hive taking a swarm of her workers with her. If a queen becomes weakened by illness or old age a procedure known as supersedure is implemented. The workers chose suitable larvae and begin feeding them royal jelly to create a new queen, the old queen is usually killed at the end of the supersedure.


Honey bees have a barbed stinger, which in most cases detaches when it stings, pulling the venom sac out and inevitably killing the bee. In some cases though the stinger may not take hold, and the bee may sting and pull free with no injury to itself. The stinger itself is a modified ovipositor (egg-laying tube).


Drones live a tough life. They do not possess stingers for defense, and will die straight after mating due to the physical toll it takes on them. Any still in the hive near winter are expelled to live in the elements, many drones die as they cannot forage like the workers and thus cannot feed themselves. Generally honey bees need a temperature of 35 °C (95 °F) to fly.



Other than being a top pollinator, honey bees also contribute in other ways. For starters they make honey, a food source that we as humans eat plenty of. Not only a sweet treat to eat, but it is also an anti-bacterial used medicinally to help coat sore throats and fight Staphylococcus infections. Honey bees also produce beeswax which is harvested for candles, propolis used as a finish for certain wooden items and royal jelly for the consumers market. Even the honey bees sting is helpful, intentionally being stung is a therapy used to help ailments such as MS, rheumatism and arthritis (a type of apitherapy).



Honey bees face many threats. Parasites such as the varroa-mite feed on bee larvae, producing adults with deformed wings (deformed wing virus), it is thought this particular parasite may be a cause for colony collapse disorder. Other threats include predators such as the Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia) which is capable of killing 40 honey bees per minute, devastating a hive when it attacks. Wax moths attack beeswax constructions within the hive, devastating weaker populations. Colonies are also susceptible to the European and American Foulbrood bacteria.



There are 28 subspecies, split across 4 genera. these are:


Northern Europe: A. m. mellifera (European Dark Bee)


Southern Europe: A. m. artemisia (Russian Steppe Honey Bee), A. m. carnica (Carniolan Honey Bee), A. m. cecropia (Greek Bee), A. m. iberiensis (Spanish Bee), A. m. ligustica (Italian Bee), A. m. macedonica (Macedonian Bee), A. m. madarosA. m. ruttneri (Maltese Honey Bee), A. m. siciliana (Sicilian Black Bee), A. m. sossimai (Ukrainian Honey Bee)


Middle East: A. m. adami (Cretan Honey Bee), A. m. anatoliaca (Anatolian Honey Bee), A. m. caucasia (Caucasian Honey Bee), A. m. cypria (Cyprus Honey Bee), A. m. meda Iranian Honey Bee), A. m. remipes (Georgia Bee), A. m. syriaca (Syrian Honey Bee)


AfricaA. m. adansonii (African Bee), A. m. capensis (Cape Honey Bee), A. m. intermissa, A. m. jemenitica, A. m. lamarckii (Lamarck's Honey Bee), A. m. litorea, A. m. monticola, A. m. sahariensis (Saharan Honey Bee), A. m. scutellata (African Honey Bee), A. m. unicolor (Madagascar Bee)