Honey bee (Apis mellifera)

Also known as: the western honey bee
GenusApis (1)
SizeAverage length: 12 mm (2)

The honey bee is a widespread, usually domesticated species.

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is probably one of the best-known of all insects in the world (3), as it performs a vital role in the pollination of flowering plants, including our crop species (4) . There are three 'castes' within a bee hive, a 'queen' (the reproductive female), the 'drones' (reproductive males) and 'workers' (non-reproductive females) (3). All three castes are broadly similar in appearance; the body is covered in short hairs, and is divided into a head, a thorax and an abdomen, the head features two large eyes and a pair of antennae. The thorax bears two pairs of wings above, and three pairs of legs below and there is a slender 'waist' between the thorax and abdomen (5). The queen has a much longer and slender abdomen than the workers, and the drones can be identified by their broader abdomens and much larger eyes (5).

The honey bee is widespread in Britain, and is often a domesticated species. This bee is native to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and has been introduced to most parts of the world including America, Australia, and Asia. Despite its wide range, however, it is in urgent need of conservation (6).

The honey bee lives in hives, which need to be close to good sources of pollen and nectar (4). Evidence of beekeeping using artificial hives can be traced to 5,000 years ago in Egypt; however, natural hives do occasionally occur. Before they were domesticated, honey bees made their nests in hollow trees in woodlands. Occasionally, colonies may still become established in dead trees when they escape from a domesticated hive. The internal structure of the hive is built by the bees with wax (5).

The hive structure inhabited by the honey bee consists of wax 'honeycombs'. Each honeycomb is made of small cells, which are used to store food or to rear the brood. The honey bee feeds on nectar and pollen taken from flowers, and stores of honey (regurgitated nectar) and pollen (gathered on the legs in special 'pollen baskets') see them through the winter (5). The honey bee has a complex system of communication; when a good supply of flowers has been discovered, a returning forager can convey the location of the food to other workers by means of special dances. The discovery of a good foraging location is announced by the 'round dance' in which the forager circles around rapidly, while the 'waggle dance', involving a rapid movement of the tail, contains information on the distance and direction of the flowers in relation to the hive, using the sun as a compass (5).

The queen is the only bee within the colony to lay eggs, while the workers care for the brood, and carry out many other duties for the hive, including foraging and cleaning (5). The queen mates just once, on a 'nuptial flight' during spring, and stores enough sperm inside her body to allow her to fertilise her eggs for the rest of her life. Eggs are laid from March to October. Each egg is deposited into a cell and a small, white larva emerges after around three days. Workers provide the larva with food. After six days the pupal stage will develop, and the workers cap the cells containing fully developed larvae with wax. The adult bee will climb out of the cell 12 days later. Drones (males) are produced from unfertilised eggs, and appear in the colony during spring and early summer. They take three days longer to develop into adults than workers, and are ejected from the colony later in the year by the workers (5). Both worker and queen bee larvae are fed on a rich liquid known as 'royal jelly' in the first days of life. Workers are then fed on pollen and nectar, but larvae that continue to be given royal jelly develop into queens. The first new queen to emerge may sting the other developing queens to death. After mating she may either take the place of her mother (who may have departed the hive in a swarm, taking half of the workers with her), or establish a new colony (5).

Natural populations of honey bees have been severely affected by the activities of humans (6). Non-native subspecies have been widely introduced to many areas of Europe, and managed colonies have often interbred with native bees, causing a loss of unique genetic diversity in local populations (6). In Germany the native race Apis mellifera mellifera is now thought to be extinct, as it has been completely replaced by the introduced Apis mellifera carnica (6).

A more recent threat to the species in Britain is the mite Varroa jacobsoni, which is devastating honey bee populations around the world (4) and was first found in Britain in 1992. These mites attack larvae, pupae and adults (3) and are very expensive to control; in the last 15 years the expense involved has caused a worrying 40 to 45 percent of beekeepers to abandon the craft. To make matters worse, strains of the mite with resistance to the chemicals used in their control have recently been found (4).

The European Commission has set up the 'Beekeeping and Apis Biodiversity in Europe' (BABE) project, which aims to conserve local subspecies of Apis mellifera, and to maintain the genetic uniqueness of local populations (6).

Learn more about the honey bee and its conservation:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (March, 2003)
  2. Sterry, P. (1997) Collins Complete British Wildlife Photoguide. Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., London.
  3. Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn, London.
  4. O'Toole, C. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Insects and their Allies. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Von Frisch, K. (1966) The Dancing Bees: an Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee. Methuen & Co Ltd., London.
  6. Beekeeping and Apis Biodiversity in Europe (BABE) (March, 2003)