Basic Honey Bee Facts

Honey bees receive more attention than any other insect, but they are one of the most important to our biological system. Find out what a honey bee is and why colony collapse disorder is threatening their population and our food supply.
By Eric Grissell
May 6, 2013
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Honey bees are great pollinators for a variety of plants in your garden.
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Bees are one of the most important insects to us. Not only are they great garden pollinators, they maintain biological balance and recycle soil nutrients. Learn all about honey bees — from basic honey bee facts to colony collapse disorder threatening honey bee population in Bees, Wasps, and Ants (Timber Press, 2010) by Eric Grissell. The following excerpt was taken from chapter 8, "The Garden’s Pollinators: Bees."

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Bees, Wasps, and Ants.

A Word or Three About the Honey Bee

If I had to single out an insect that has received more attention than any other known to humankind, I’d pick the honey bee. A simple search for “honey bee” on the internet pulls up more than 4.5 million hits. Honey bees are not just the subject of popular and scientific books for both adults and juveniles, papers in scientific journals, and endless newspaper articles about killer bees or disappearing bees, but references to honey bees are made in movies, epigrams, poetry, ballads, songs, and mythologies. Then there are all the familiar products such as honey, wax, food, medical remedies, cosmetics, and drinks made from honey. Because this book can’t possibly compete with that mountain of information and other bee species remain antithetically orphaned, I’m severely limiting my comments about the honey bee to three main areas: what a honey bee is, some basic honey bee facts that might prove useful at your next dinner party, and why they are disappearing.

We tend to think of “the honey bee” as a single species, without realizing that there are seven distinct species of honey bee, all of which originate in the Eastern Hemisphere. Within these species are 44 subspecies, that is, isolated geographical and often biological forms of the same species (Engel 1999). As gardeners we are most familiar with the European (or Western) honey bee (Apis mellifera), of which there are 28 subspecies.

In the Western Hemisphere, the honey bee we have known and loved for centuries is not native to our shores, but is an immigrant from Europe. Actually it’s a bit more complicated than that, because it’s at least two immigrants from Europe: the Italian subspecies (Apis mellifera ligustica) from southern Europe and the German (or Dark or Black) subspecies (Apis mellifera mellifera) from northern Europe. These forms were brought by the colonists in the early 1600s. Thomas Jefferson stated that Native Americans referred to the honey bee as “the white man’s fly” because it preceded the advance of colonists across the continent (cited from Engel 1999). Several centuries later the Carniolan honey bee (Apis mellifera carnica) was introduced from the Balkans and the Caucasian honey bee (Apis mellifera caucasica) from the Caucasus. In recent times, things took a decidedly more confusing and malevolent turn. Enter the dreaded killer bee.

Sometime in the 1960s, The Americas faces yet another immigrant honey bee subspecies, one that created fear and trembling. This was the African subspecies (Apis mellifera scutellata) introduced into Brazil in the mid 1950s. Almost immediately the bee escaped confinement and, with a bulldog-like, overly aggressive tendency for self-protection, earned itself sensational headlines as the notorious killer bee. Truthfully, these bees simply objected to strangers anywhere near their home, and, unlike the Italian forms, held no reluctance to punish the transgressors. As the terror moved northward from Brazil and began interbreeding with its Italian, German, and Balkan cousins, it was rechristened the Africanized bee, which indicated a certain degree of civility (compared to its purely African form). The Africanized bee officially reached the southern border of the United States in the early 1990s, and by 2008 it had spread throughout much of the southern states from California to Florida.

There is not much more to say about Africanized bees, except to give several serious words of warning. If you live in a part of the country where these bees have become established, stay as far away from their nest as is humanly possible. Although individual bees flying about the garden pose little threat, when it comes to their headquarters they are merciless defenders. If a swarm takes up residence in or near your house, have a professional remove them. Second, a word of warning to hikers when walking in Africanized bee territory. Even at a distance the nests of these bees are surrounded by a very distinct buzzing sound as the hundreds of workers fly to and from its opening. The nest may be a tree hole high up in the forest canopy, or it may be a fallen log on the ground (I’ve seen both), but the sound of buzzing is a sure sign you are nearer to a nest than you want to be. A dignified, hasty retreat is in order. Walk away from the sound, not toward it. That is my advice. To my credit I sometimes listen to myself and have walked away from half a dozen encounters that might otherwise have proven less than pleasant.

Now to some basic facts about honey bees. Honey bees live in colonies of tens of thousands of sterile female workers ruled by pheromones produced by a single queen. All workers are daughters of the queen. In the wild, colonies may be housed in hollow trees, rock crevices, unused outbuildings, attics, or even exterior openings into stud walls. Very rarely honey bees build exposed nests in trees. When managed by humans, their homes are called hives.

The interior of a nest is made up of layers of vertical, double-sided honeycomb with six-sided cells. These combs are made from wax excreted by females from glands on the underside of their abdomen. Pollen is stored in some cells and honey in others. Honey is simply floral nectar that foraging bees bring back to the nest and regurgitate to other worker bees, who then allow water to evaporate. Entomologists, being the wits they are, often refer to honey as bee vomit.

The queen is an egg-laying machine, depositing one egg into each cell. She may lay as many as 2000 eggs per day and has a life span of five years if she’s lucky. Each worker lives about six weeks and systematically rotates through specialized jobs: colony cleaner, larval nurse, wax maker and comb builder, unloader of pollen and nectar from incoming workers and honey maker, nest guard, and finally foraging bee.

Upon returning to the hive, foraging bees can impart information to other bees by dancing. Information includes the direction to fly, the distance, and abundance of the food source. This is communicated in the dance based on the pattern, speed, and degree of repetition. If you need more details—and they are well worth knowing—almost any book or internet source on honey bees will go into splendid detail. Or, read The Dancing Bee by Karl von Frisch, which I read as a high school student and can still recommend highly.

When the colony becomes crowded, new queens and males (drones) are produced and the old queen leaves with a swarm of work­ers to begin a new colony. During swarming the workers are quite docile; even though there may be tons of bees flying about, they are not particularly aggressive.           

The new queen temporarily leaves the colony, flies into the air, and mates sequentially with a number of males, whose genitalia are ripped out and die as a result. The new queen, once multiple-mated, returns to the old nest and lays eggs, never to mate again. She may eventually leave to swarm, but her mating days are limited to one per lifetime.         

Honey bees have a double whammy when it comes to sex and self-defense. If a male successfully mates his organs are ripped out, and if a female successfully defends herself, her stinger is ripped out. In either case, death is the result. Consider these choices the next time you feel sorry for yourself.          

As an interesting aside, in Japan there is a predatory wasp that is 2 inches (50 mm) in length called the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarina, Vespidae) that can kill an entire nest of introduced Italian honey bees. A single adult hornet leaves a chemical signal (pheromone) at a hive to attract several dozen of its own kin to attack the colony, kill off its adult population, and consume the larvae, pupae, and honey, which it feeds to its own larvae. As few as 30 adult hornets can kill a colony 1000 times bigger. But when the same hornet attempts to leave its chemical signal in a nest of the native Japanese honey bee (Apis cerana japonica), the bees instantly surround the hornet, overheat it, and kill it thermally before the single founding wasp can signal its kin. If this isn’t an indication that “native is better,” I don’t know what is.

Sometime around 2004 U.S. beekeepers noticed a sudden decline in their overwintering honey bee colonies. One-third or more of the nation’s honey bees simply abandoned their hives, leaving their queen and immature siblings behind, never to return. The loss to beekeepers ran from 50 to 90 percent of their hives. In early 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture named the vanishing honey bee problem colony collapse disorder. According to various sources, however, colony disappearances have occurred for at least a century and have been called by different names including spring dwindling, fall collapse, autumn collapse, and disappearing disease. My favorite current appellation was coined by the British: Mary Celeste syndrome, named for an actual ghost ship mysteriously found deserted and under sail heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar in 1872. Leave it to the Brits to create a romantic sounding name for a perfectly mundane occurrence.

Although the mystery of colony collapse disorder has not yet been solved, it is not for want of endless attempts at possible explanations, such as: viruses, including Kashmir bee virus, acute bee paralysis virus, deformed wing virus, black queen cell virus, Israel acute paralysis virus, and several dozen more viruses, both known and unknown; fungi causing foulbrood; true parasites such as varroa mites (accidentally introduced to the United States in 1989 from Asia) and tracheal mites (introduced in the 1980s from Europe); insecticides (one study of 108 pollen samples revealed 46 pesticides, with as many as 17 different pesticides in a single sample); hive movement causing stress (yes, bees can be stressed); malnutrition due to drought, rain, and/or high temperatures that result in lack of bloom and thus lower nectar and pollen availability; air pollution because pollutants may block flower scent from spreading and thus bees can’t find them; overwork due to high rates of pollination at certain times of the year; and all or some combination of the above.

Colony collapse disorder is not just some lame excuse to subsidize beekeepers, it is a serious problem for consumers as well. Recall that honey bee pollination is worth somewhere between roughly $7 billion and $16 billion to American agriculture. A loss of pollination by honey bees will affect much of our food supply. Even an ice cream company has become involved with the disappearing bee. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (Lochhead 2008) the folks at Häagen-Dazs have started a campaign Help the Honey Bees to halt honey bee decline. The reason is that more than 40 percent of its product’s flavors are derived from fruits and nuts dependant on honey bees for pollination.

Without doubt the honey bee, whatever its form, is one of the most interesting of all insects in terms of social development and behavior. The discovery of its dance language and remarkable communicative abilities earned the German naturalist Karl von Frisch a Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine (1973) for his work with chemical communication among members of a honey bee colony. Von Frisch wrote a most enjoyable book called The Dancing Bee. Should anyone be interested in exploring the culture of bees from the historical aspect of human culture itself, then by all means read Bee by Claire Preston (2006), which only treats the honey bee, though it is not apparent from the title! A more nationalistic approach is provided in a book by Tammy Horn (2006), entitled Bees in America, which explores its subtitle of How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. All three book titles highlight the misappropriated umbrella term bee as a standard bearer for the honey bee. Such is the dominance of this single bee in our lives.

What's the Buzz? Learn more about bee families in All About Bees: The Great Garden Pollinators.


Reprinted with permission from Bees, Wasps, and Ants by Eric Grissell and published by Timber Press, Inc, 2010. Buy this book from our store: Bees, Wasps, and Ants.


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