The Honey Bee

The Honey Bee

The scientific name of the honey bee is Apis Mellifera; it is a flying insect closely related to wasps and ants. They are present on every continent apart from Antarctica. Honey bees are vital for the pollination of some flowers and plants, in fact, it is estimated that over 30% of the human food supply is dependent on insect pollination.

Honey Bee Habitat

Honeybees populate every continent on the globe besides Antarctica, and they tend to be more densely populated in areas with meadows or sheltered forests. Honeybee colonies can exist almost anywhere as long as there is a sufficient supply of nectar. Honeybees can regulate the temperature of their hives to ensure the perfect conditions for producing food, by turning nectar into honey. It is a popular belief that honey bees build the outside structure to their hives, but this is simply not true. Honey bees make their homes in hollow spaces such as a hollow tree, fallen log, and traditional human-made honey bee hives. They do however build honeycomb cells within the chosen hollow space, and they use the honeycomb to produce honey and to incubate eggs and raise larvae safely.

Honey Bee Predators

Honey bees have numerous predators; their size makes them vulnerable to all sorts of predators in the wild. Honey bees are typically eaten by birds, small mammals, reptiles as well as other insects. Some animals that honey bees fall victim to are not interested in eating the honey bees themselves but instead raid and decimate their hives to steal the energy-rich honey stored within; bears are a great example as they renowned for this.

Some of the more noteworthy predators of the humble honey bee that apiarists tend to run into trouble with occasionally are:

Honey Bee Predator - Varroa Mites

Varroa Mites are dangerous parasites that infiltrate honey bee colonies; they are a scourge for honeybees and apiarists alike. The Varroa mites attach themselves to honeybees and eat their fat supplies, in the process, they pass on viruses that spread to other bees throughout the colony. Once Varroa mites are present within a hive, the female mites lay their eggs on honeybee larvae and will feed upon a larva within its honeycomb cell. By the time the larva has developed into an adult bee and emerged from its honeycomb cell, the mites have already reproduced and laid more eggs within the cell ready to infect the next generation of honeybee offspring. Varroa mites are visible to the naked eye; their bodies are around 2mm in diameter, the female mites are a red-brownish colour and males are white. They usually attach themselves to their host honeybee around the abdomen.

Varroa mites originate from Asia, where they initially preyed upon the Asian Honeybee, Apis Cerana. They have been inadvertently spread since the 1960s, and they are now rife across most of the globe. Varroa mites have been linked to some cases of colony collapse disorder. There is a wide range of treatments available for apiaries afflicted with Varroa Mites, various natural and synthetic pesticides can be used. However, the most effective safeguard against Varroa Mites is to keep and breed honeybees that have higher resilience against the mites.

Honey Bee Predator - Wasps


Wasps are formidable foes for honeybees, and they patrol the entrances of honeybee hives and prey upon any weak or injured bees, wasps are also capable of ransacking a colony and taking all of the honey stored within. An example of a perpetrator of this double threat behaviour is the Yellow Jacket. Whereas some species of wasp tend to just pick off weak bees near the hive such as Velvet Ants and Digger Wasps. It is worth noting the European hornet which is a type of large wasp which is capable of attacking both individual honey bees and entire honeybee colonies. Apiarists experiencing issues with wasps attacking their honeybee colonies have two solutions, either find and destroy nearby wasp nests with pesticide or relocate their beehives.

Honey Bee Predator - Skunks


Skunks are nocturnal predators with an enormous appetite if they find an accessible beehive they will disturb the entrance of the hive to lure out defending honey bees. Once the honeybees leave the hive to investigate the disturbance, they will be snatched by the attacking skunk for an easy meal. Skunks can eat an entire colony of honeybees overnight. In areas where skunks are prevalent beekeepers should raise their honeybee apiaries well out of reach of skunks.

Honey Bee Predator - Small Hive Beetles


Small hive beetles originate from Africa, for African Honeybees they are only a minor pest as African Honeybees have evolved to eradicate infestations in their colonies with certain housekeeping routines. However small hive beetles have spread across to Australia and America, it is also speculated that they may have recently spread into parts of Asia. So far Europe is safe from this pest, but any imports of honey bees need to be carefully inspected. For all honeybee colonies outside of Africa, small hive beetles are deadly if untreated by human intervention. They are one of the recognised causes of colony collapse disorder.

A female small hive beetle will infiltrate a honeybee hive and lay masses of eggs in any small cracks or crevices. After a few days larvae hatch from the eggs and seek out pollen and honey, the larvae can break through honeycomb causing significant damage to honeybee hives. After around two weeks the larvae are ready to pupate and will leave the hive and burrow in soil near the hive. Once they mature into adult beetles, they breed and the cycle begins again. It is worth mentioning that small hive beetles do not just pose a threat to beehives they can also infest stores of honey filled honeycomb kept by apiarists, as the larvae eat through honey they will excrete their food waste into the honey making it unsuitable for human consumption.

The best pest control measure for small hive beetles is to maintain healthy colonies and keep empty frames of comb to a minimum. Failing that beetle traps can be used, and this means that no toxic chemicals have to be used, for heavy infestations the soil around the hives can be treated with pesticides to kill small hive beetle larvae before it pupates, hence breaking the cycle.

Honey Bee Life Cycle


The honey bee life cycle begins with the hatching of eggs. Once a honeybee egg hatches it will either be a male or female, fertilised eggs become females and unfertilised males. The male larva will develop into drones in around 24 days, and their only purpose is to breed. The female larva will become worker bees or a new queen bee. To create a new queen bee the larva will only be fed royal jelly, as beebread (a mixture of honey and pollen) which is supplied to all other bees is thought to make the bees infertile, hence stop destined worker bees becoming queen bees. Worker bees take 21 days to develop into adults and have a lifespan of around six weeks; queen honey bees take 16 days to mature with a life expectancy of 5 years.

Each honey bee colony has one queen that is in charge of all her workers and drones. When the queen dies or can no longer lay eggs a new queen is raised, once born the new queen leaves the hive to mate with numerous different drones before returning to spend the rest of her days laying her eggs.

Types of Honey Bee in the Colony

A honey bee hive consists of one queen bee, hundreds of drone bees and thousands of worker bees.

Types of Honey Bee in the Colony - Worker Bee


Worker bees make up 99% of the hive population, and they are likely to be the only type of bee you have witnessed. They are all female and do almost all of the work for the hive. Worker bees live for around 45 days and what tasks they do depends on how old the worker bee is.

The worker honeybee is responsible for; feeding larvae, tending to the queen, cleaning the hive, controlling the temperature of the hive, collecting and making food, guarding the hive and making honeycomb.

The worker honey bee has a barbed stinger to protect herself and the hive. When the worker honey bee is forced to use her stinger it will become lodged in the skin of the victim, when she tries to pull herself away from the victim, the sting is left behind, attached still to the venom sack which continues to pump venom until empty. As a consequence, the worker honey bee dies.

The worker honey bees legs have special brushes on them each designed to do various tasks such as brushing pollen from the eyes, cleaning antennae, wiping dust from the wings ad packing pollen onto the hind legs. Another adaptation of the worker honey bee is two spoon-shaped jaws that move horizontally for collecting pollen and chewing wax. Under the abdomen, there are wax glands used for building honeycomb and capping honeycomb cells.

Types of Honey Bee in the Colony - Drone Bee


Drone honey bees are the only males in a bee colony. They have only one purpose, and that is to mate with queens from other hives. They live around twice as long as worker honey bees, so live for approximately 90 days.

Drone honey bees have large round bodies and large eyes, and they do not have stingers. They do not feed themselves when they are hungry, they hold out their tongues and wait for a worker honey bee to feed them.

Male honey bees only live in the hives during the spring and summer months, when the hive goes into survival mode throughout the winter they leave the hive. Drones leave the hive the same time as new queens and head to mating areas; this is where the fastest drones catch the queens. Once a drone has mated it will die, already dead before it hits the ground. The remaining drones die when food runs out for the winter.

Types of Honey Bee in the Colony - Queen Bee


Every hive has one queen honey bee, and she is the mother of the entire hive. She is the only female that can mate, and during the spring and summer months, she can lay 1,500 eggs a day. Before laying any eggs, the queen honey bee will inspect each cell of the honeycomb to ensure it is adequately cleaned by the worker honey bees.

Queen honey bees have long abdomens and small wings, and they are significantly larger than the rest of the bees in the colony. The queen produces special chemicals that give instruction and influence the behaviour of her colony.

To create queen honey bees healthy larva are hatched, and instead of being fed nectar and pollen they are solely fed royal jelly. Royal jelly is a unique food packed with nutrients; it is produced in the heads of the worker honey bees responsible for caring for larvae. Queen bees live for around five years which is remarkably longer than other bees in the colony, and is thought to be because of its diet consisting of only royal jelly, which leads to the human belief that royal jelly can extend your lifespan.

Bit off track here but because I have mentioned it. Royal jelly improving human lifespans is scientifically unsupported, but studies do show some minor beneficial effects from supplementing royal jelly such as lowering triglyceride and lipoprotein levels hence protecting the heart, royal jelly can also provide a slight boost to testosterone levels. Scientific studies are ongoing with the effects of royal jelly and the effects of the chemical compounds within it. Personally, with what I have read, I would not endorse supplementing royal jelly until there is more conclusive evidence especially since it is costly. If anyone reading does have a credible source for evidence of such effects that I may have overlooked feel free to post in the comment section below or email me at it would be great inspiration for an interesting article.

Apologies back on track now.

As soon as new queen honey bees are born they will kill any other developing queens in the hive, and then when developed enough they leave the hive to mate and start colonies of their own, this usually takes around 5-12 days. They will mate with over a dozen drones over the course of 3 days before heading back to the hive to lay their eggs. Queens do not leave the hive ever again unless they need to find a new home, which they tend to do after raising a new queen honey bee.

Different Honey Bees Species

Honey Bee Species - The Italian Bee


Italian honey bees are part of the Apis mellifera ligustica subspecies. Italian honey bees are popular amongst American apiarists, and they are characterised by their light colour and their extended brood rearing periods. Italian bees tend to grow their colonies during the spring and maintain them all summer, ensuring that they boast strong colonies.

Italian honey bees tend to be less protective of their honey than other honey bee species. This is a benefit for Italian honey beekeepers as they can access honey stores is ease. Other benefits of keeping Italian honey bees are that they are more resistant to diseases and they produce vast amounts of honey. This last advantage of the Italian honey bee may seem superficial, but many beekeepers love the Italian bee just because of they are good looking, as far as insects go anyway.

Disadvantages of Italian honey bees are that they will eat excessive amounts of honey if it is not removed after honey flow ends. Another disadvantage of keeping Italian honey bees is that they are well known for stealing honey stores from neighbouring colonies, especially if they are weak, this can be an issue when nectar supplies run low in an area and speed up the collapse of struggling colonies.

Honey Bee Species - The German Bee


The German honey bee is a subspecies of the Apis mellifera mellifera; some also know it as the black bee. The German bee can be characterised by its distinct dark colour they used to be a favorite stock for beekeepers over a hundred years ago, but these days they are not so common.

Advantages of the German bee is that they are quite robust, colonies tend to survive for a long time and can deal with any cold snaps making them more suited for Northern Climates with harsh winters.

Drawbacks of the German bee is that they tend to be extremely defensive, this makes them challenging for beekeepers to manage. Though the German bee copes well with bad weather, they are susceptible to disease, some of the more mentionable diseases include American foulbrood and European foulbrood. These drawbacks are what caused the diminished popularity of the bee stock a century ago.

Honey Bee Species -The Carniolan Bee


The Carniolan Bee is a subspecies of the Apis mellifera carnica and is a favoured bee stock in America. It is the second most popular species for apiarists falling short to the Italian bee. They originate from Europe, specifically Slovenia, parts of Austria, Croatia, Romania, Bosnia, Serbia, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

Carniolan honey bees are so popular for many reasons, to begin with, their populations blow up during springtime. This allows for beekeepers to grow colonies more rapidly than when using alternative bee stocks. Carniolan bees are very docile, they not to be defensive of their of hives and beekeepers can maintain their hives without using a great deal of smoke or protective clothing. This breed of bee tends to not steal honey from neighbouring colonies, ideal for reducing the risk of diseases transmitting to and from other colonies and keeping weaker neighbouring colonies that little bit more resilient against colony collapse disorder. Carniolan bees are a great stock to keep for beekeepers that utilise wax combs which can be used in wide ranges of products as they are very effective comb builders.

So with a massive list of advantages, it is a no-brainer, right? Beekeepers should stock Carniolan bees, however, there is a significant risk when stocking Carniolan bees. The rapid colony grows in spring months can cause overcrowding which causes bees to swarm in an effort to relieve this. If bees swarm it will leave the beekeeper with a poor honey crop, the risks of swarming can be reduced with careful monitoring and management of colonies.

Honey Bee Species - The Caucasian bee


The Caucasian bee or the Apis Mellifera Caucasica is a species of honeybee that originates from Eastern Europe. It was once a popular bee stock but recently has been in decline. Caucasian honey bees were popular due to their docile nature, and they also had the added advantage of a long tongue which allows them to gather nectar from certain planets and flowers inaccessible to other types of bee.

The issues with Caucasian honey bees are that they gradually build their colony populations, which restricts their honey production when compared to other varieties of bees. They also overproduce propolis, (bee glue) which is used to seal cracks and secure structures made by the bees; this can cause accessing the hive challenging and wastes time and resources bees could be using to produce more honey.

Honey Bee Species - The Buckfast bee


The Buckfast bee is a humanmade bee species which came about in the 1920s, they were bred from many different strains of bees across Europe by a monk at Buckfast Abby in Devon in the United Kingdom, and they are still bred there today.

Strengths of the Buckfast honey bee are that they produce reasonable amounts of honey, queens lay lots of eggs, they easily survive winter, first generations tend to be docile and have high resilience against parasites and disease.

Weaknesses of the Buckfast bee are that second and third generations of the bee can be extremely defensive, in fact, they are said by some to be the most aggressive of all honey bee strains. This can be avoided if the colonies are requeened after each generation, it is thought that this aggressive nature is a trait of the Africanised honey bee which is one of the bee species used to create the Buckfast bee. Also during winter, the Buckfast bee gives birth to a small amount of offspring, not giving them the best start for spring.



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