Scientific classification
Binomial name
Apis Mellifera

The honeybee is a colonial insect that is often maintained, fed, and transported by farmers. Honeybees are a subset of bees which fall into the order Hymenoptera and suborder Apocrita. Honeybees have been domesticated at least since the time of the building of the Egyptian pyramids.

Honeybees store honey which provides energy for flight muscles and for winter heat, and pollen which supplies protein for bee brood to grow. Through centuries of selective breeding, honeybees can produce far more honey than the colony needs. Beekeepers, also known as "apiarists", harvest the surplus honey.

Table of contents
1 Origin and distribution
2 Beekeeping
3 Lifecycle
4 Products of the Honeybee
5 Bee problems
6 Other Species
7 See also
8 External links

Origin and distribution

Honeybees probably originated in Tropical Africa and spread from South Africa to Northern Europe and East into India and China. The first bees appear in the fossil record in deposits dating about 40 million years ago during the Eocene period. At about 30 million years before present they appear to have developed social behavior and structurally are virtually identical with modern bees.

Apis mellifera, the most commonly domesticated species, is native to Europe, Asia and Africa. They were bought to the Americas with the first colonists and are now distributed world-wide.

Apis mellifera was brought to Virginia in 1622, and numerous other occasions later. Many of the crops that depend on honeybees for pollination have also been imported since colonial times. Escaped swarms (known as wild bees, but actually feral) spread rapidly as far as the Great Plains, usually preceeding the colonists. The Native Americans called the honeybee "the white man's fly." Honeybees did not naturally cross the Rockies; they were carried by ship to California in the early 1850s.


Beekeepers often provide a place for the colony to live and to store honey in. There are three basic types of beehive: skeps, Langstroth hives and Top-bar hives. The type of beehive used has a significant impact on the ability to keep the colony healthy and on the amount of wax and honey that the colony can produce.

Modern hives also enable beekeepers to transport bees, moving from field to field as the crop needs pollinating and allowing the beekeper to charge for the pollination services they provide.

In cold climates, some beekeepers have kept colonies alive (with varying success) by moving them indoors for winter. While this can protect the colonies from extremes of temperature and make winter care and feeding more convenient for the beekeeper, it can increase the risk of dysentery (see the Nosema section of Diseases of the honeybee) and can create an excessive buildup of carbon dioxide from the respiration of the bees. Recently inside wintering has been refined by Canadian beekeepers who build large barns just for wintering bees. Automated ventilation systems assist in the control of CO2 build-up.

Queen (The yellow dot on the thorax is added by a beekeeper to aid in finding the queen. It is not a natural feature.)


Like other eusocial bees, a colony generally contains one breeding female, or "queen"; a few thousand males, or "drones"; and a large population of sterile female workers. The population of a healthy hive in mid-summer can average between 40,000 and 80,000 bees. The workers cooperate to find food and are widely believed to use a pattern of "dancing" (known as the Waggledance) to communicate with each other.

Honeybees will sting when they perceive the hive to be threatened. A honeybee that is away from the hive foraging for nectar or pollen will rarely sting. A honeybee can sting only once. The stinger is a modified ovipositor. It has barbs which lodge in the skin. As the bee pulls away, the stinger rips loose from the bee's abdomen. The bee dies soon after. The larger drone bees have no stingers at all. Note: The queen bee has a smooth stinger and could sting multiple times but the queen does not leave the hive under normal conditions.

Products of the Honeybee

With nectar and pollen in the cells


The honeybee's primary value is as a pollinator of crops and flowers.


Honeybees are also valued for honey which is used as a sweetener in many foods. Honey is actually sweeter than table sugar and has attractive chemical properties for baking. Honey has a distinctive flavor which leads some people to prefer it over sugar and other sweeteners.

While it is rare for any honey to be produced exclusively from one floral source, honey will take on the flavor of the dominant flower in the region. Orange blossom, tupelo, and sourwood are favored types in the US. Greece is famous for wild thyme honey and France for lavender and acacia honey.

Most commercially available honey is blended. Monofloral honeys are especially valuable on the market.

In addition to its use as a sweetener, all honey has antibacterial properties and can be used as burn and wound dressing. Manuka, a strong tasting monofloral honey from New Zealand, has been shown to have greatly increased antibacterial activity and has become widely marketed for this property.

In Europe and Turkey, honeydew is highly prized. Honeydew is unusual in that the honey is not made from the nectar of flowers but from the secretions of aphids in pine forests. Honeydew in these regions has a strong piney taste and it thought to be of medicinal value.


Worker bees of a certain age will secrete beeswax from a series of glands on their abdomen. They use the wax to form the walls and caps of the comb. When honey is harvested, the wax can be gathered to be used in various wax products like candles and seals.


Bees collect pollen as a protein source necessary during brood-rearing. In certain environments, excess pollen can be collected from the hive. It is often eaten as a health supplement.


Propolis (or bee glue) is created from resins and tree saps. Honeybees use propolis to seal cracks in the hive. Propolis is also sold for its reported health benefits.

Comb honey

This is a popular honey product. Instead of processing, the honey is harvested still in the wax comb.

Bee problems

  • North American honeybee populations were severely depleted by mite infestations in the late 1990s.
  • Crop dusting insecticides also deplete bees.
  • The spread of Africanized bees across the southern United States where they pose a small danger to humans.

Other Species

There are eleven species within the genus Apis, all of which produce and store honey to some degree. These are the three that have historically been cultured for or robbed of honey by humans:

  • Apis cerana, and Apis florea are small honeybees of southern and southeastern Asia which are cultured for honey in a similar fashion to A. mellifera. Their stings are often not capable of penetrating human skin, so the hive and swarms can be handled.
    • Thermal defense: When their hive is discovered by Japanese giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica), about 500 Japanese honeybees (A. cerana japonica) surround the hornet and vibrate until the temperature is raised to 47C (117F), heating the hornet to death, but still under their own lethal limit (48-50C).
  • Apis dorsata, the giant honeybee, is native to south and southeastern Asia, and usually makes its colonies on high tree limbs, or on cliffs, and sometimes on buildings. It is wild and can be very fierce. It is robbed of its honey periodically by human honey gatherers, a practice known as honey hunting. Colonies are easily capable of stinging a human being to death when provoked.

In addition these non-Apis species of honeybees have been cultured or robbed for honey:
  • Melipona beecheii, known as the stingless bee, is native to Central America and was cultivated by the Mayans. The bee and its culture are dying out due to deforestation, pesticides, and the labor intensivity of its honey production. This bee is in some danger of becoming extinct.
  • Ten species of genera Trigona and Austroplebeia in Australia produce and store honey. Australian Aborigines have used this as a source of food. More recently, these bees (called "native bees") in Australia have been cultivated on a small, "cottage industry" scale. The most important species for this industry are Trigona carbonaria and Trigona hockingsi.

See also

External links