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.

| May 6, 2013

  • Honey Bee
    Honey bees are great pollinators for a variety of plants in your garden.
    Photo By Fotolia/Microstockfish
  • Bees, Wasps, and Ants
    “Bees, Wasps, and Ants,” by Eric Grissell gives an in-depth look at bees and the important role insects have in gardens.
    Cover Courtesy Timber Press, Inc.

  • Honey Bee
  • Bees, Wasps, and Ants

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.

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