Honeybees

  • Honeybees are social insects known for their ability to make and store honey.

  • Bee in a flower

    Apis mellifera, the European Honeybee. Apis is Latin for “bee”, and mellifera means “honey-bearing."

  • Bee in a flower

    Bees are characterized by their long tongues, which are often used to collect nectar.

Honey Makers: The European Honeybee

A colony of honeybees is its own kind of creature. A single hive can contain up to 60,000 bees, each performing small but critical functions, much like the cells in our bodies. They perform life’s basic physiological processes—processing food, circulating resources, regulating temperature, moisture, and airflow within the hive, triggering behaviors, and responding to stimuli. Together, they function as one mighty superorganism. But their collective function also surpasses the hive. Nearly all bees, including honeybees, are crucial pollinators who have evolved an alliance with nectar-rich plants over millions of years. Without them, many plants would not be able to produce the foods we eat. We, therefore, depend on bees perhaps as much as flowers do.

The Name

“The bee's life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water.”
—Karl von Frisch, Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language


A European Honeybee, Apis mellifera, visiting a flower that is dusting it with pollen. Credit: JJ Harrison. CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Naming the European Honeybee

Carl Linnaeus, the scientist who formalized the modern system of scientific naming, gave the European Honeybee its name, Apis mellifera. By some accounts, Linnaeus later became dissatisfied with the name he bestowed upon the bee, and argued to change the name from Apis mellifera, Latin for “honey-bearing bee," to Apis mellifica, or “honey-making bee." His mistake, he argued, was that bees make honey within the hive, they do not bear it from the flower. His argument was presumably unsuccessful as the bee still bears the erroneous name.

Did you know? Bees are the only insect in the world that make food that humans can eat.

Honeybees and Their Relatives

Though Apis mellifera and the seven other species of honeybees from the Apis genus, are perhaps the most well-known worldwide, the word Apis, which is Latin for “bee," might also be a bit of a misnomer.  Honeybees, in fact, are only one minority among roughly 20,000 total species of bees, the overwhelming majority of which do not make honey, have very different lifestyles, and nary anApisto their name.


Honeybees maintaining honeycomb in their hive. Public Domain.
Apis mellifera, the European Honeybee, is the species most commonly used to cultivate honey. Native to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, it was introduced to the Americas by early European colonists. Honeybees are highly social insects known for their ability to make and store honey, and the construction of large nests made of wax. They include several species that have been domesticated both for honey production and as pollinators of food crops. There are a total of seven species and 44 subspecies of honeybees, all part of the genus Apis, which the fossil record indicates emerged 150 million years ago.

All bee species are members of the Apoidea superfamily. That includes honeybees, stingless bees, carpenter bees, orchid bees, cuckoo bees, bumblebees, and other lesser-known bees. Bees are characterized by their long tongues, which are often used to collect nectar. Along with sawflies, wasps, and ants, bees are members of the third-largest group of insects, hymenopterans, named so for their characteristic membranous wings. "Hymen" means "membrane" in Ancient Greek. Unlike honeybees, most species of bees are not social, but mostly solitary.

How Do Honeybees Produce Honey?

“How doth does the little busy bee Improve each shining hour, And gather honey all the day from each and every flower.”
—Isaac Watts, poet and hymn writer

 


This depiction of a honey seeker was found in an 8,000-year-old cave painting at Araña Caves in Spain. Credit: Copyright © 2007 Free Software Foundation, Inc.

Humans have harvested the sweet honey of bees for thousands of years. The earliest record of beekeeping was found in a painting in an Egyptian temple Kintsugi, erected in 2400 BC. Since then, the use and cultivation of honey has been an important part of human culture, from Ancient Greece, where it was deemed “celestial nectar,” a drink fit for the Gods, to today where it is produced by the majority of cultures and countries around the world. The U.S. alone produces 178 million pounds of honey each year. Honeybees are amazing collaborators. Worker bees must gather nectar from two million flowers to produce just one pound of honey, yet a single healthy hive can produce two to five pounds of honey per day!

Beekeepers harvest honey when most of the hive’s cells are capped with wax. They access it using smoke obscure alarm pheromones that trigger aggressive behavior, thereby pacifying the bees. The beekeeper can then safely remove the honeycomb, which is then either crushed or centrifuged to remove the honey. The separated honey is then filtered to remove beeswax and other debris.

Did you know? Honey comes in different colors and flavors. The flower from which the nectar is gathered determines the flavor and color of the honey.

Honeybee Lifestyle

“We will see that the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of bees in a honeybee swarm, just like the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of neurons in a human brain, achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes a first-rate collective.”
—Thomas D. Seeley, Honeybee Democracy

Honeybees are said to be eusocial because they live in complex societies where thousands cooperate to find food, defend the group, and reproduce. Eusocial insects, like honeybees, are organized into castes, each of which has a different function.


Credit: John Severns. Public Domain

Workers

The vast majority of bees in a colony are members of the worker caste. Workers are sterile females that carry out all of tasks involved in finding food, caring for the young, and maintaining the hive.


Credit: Waugsberg. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Queen

The queen is the hive’s only sexually productive female and the mother of all other members of the hive, including any future queens.


Credit: Sue Boo. CC BY 2.0

Drones

Drones are male honeybees produced from unfertilized eggs. They do not feed themselves or contribute to the hive. Their only function is to mate with new queens. 

Did you know? Bees have two pairs of wings. The wings have tiny teeth so they can lock together when the bee is flying.

Why Are Bees Important Pollinators?

"...For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,
And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,..."

—Kahlil Gibran, poet

Nearly every ecosystem on Earth with flowering plants is equipped with its own set of bee pollinators. Most wild plants rely on animals such as bees to pollinate them. But wild bee species are facing dire threats from pesticide use, mite infestations, and viruses that are potentially spread by the introduction of non-native honeybees. The loss of wild bees will likely mean the loss of the many native plants that rely on them. Unlike honeybees, which collect pollen from multiple flowers for short periods, most other bee pollinators use a more efficient technique called “buzz pollination,” in which they visit a single flower for longer periods, “buzzing” their wings, which stimulates the release of an abundance of pollen. Plants pollinated in this way tend to produce more viable seeds. In New England, apple orchards produce more apples when there are more buzz pollinators available to pollinate the trees.


Credit: Copyright Sam Droege, USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab
This striking sweat bee, Augochlora pura, is a member of the Halictid family of bees. Many species are iridescent and are some of the most widespread and varied on Earth. Comprising nearly a quarter of all bee species, sweat bees of the Halictid family play an important role as pollinators in every ecosystem they occupy. Unlike other families of bees, halictids display a range of social behaviors, from solitary to super social. Harvard scientists found that some Halictid species can adjust their social behavior to suit their environment, a unique behavior among bees.

Credit: Copyright Santiago Ramirez
This extinct stingless bee, which lived between 15–20 million years ago, is covered in ancient pollen. Preserved in amber, this specimen, which is housed in the Museum of Comparative Zoology collections at Harvard, is the first direct fossil observation of the relationship between plant and pollinator. Molecular analyses of the pollen by Harvard scientists found it to be that of an orchid, the first of its kind in the fossil record

Did you know? Solitary bees dig holes deep in the ground and in trees, where they deposit a large ball of pollen and a single egg. Once the egg is laid, the bee seals the hole, leaving the larva to feed on the pollen ball until it emerges as an adult.

Losing Bees

Since 2007, colonies of honeybees have died off at an unprecedented rate. Dubbed “colony collapse disorder,” it is unclear what might be causing it. Some suspect it is a result of changing conditions due to global warming, pesticide use in agriculture, or a combination of the two. Harvard scientists have identified one commonly used variety of pesticide, neonicotinoids, as a possible culprit. Exposed colonies not only pollinate flowers less frequently, they also become less social within the nest, and less productive.

Learn More

Browse

Enyclopedia of Life Apis mellifera web page

Enyclopedia of Life Bee Observer Cards

Scientific Illustrations of Bees from the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Read

Bees at Harvard

Listen

Venture into a cloud of honeybees to learn about the unique way a bee scientist in Boston, Massachusetts is managing to help bees and to fund bee research at the same time.

Podcasts from the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), produced by Atlantic Public Media and funded by the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

Slideshow Image Credits
Apis mellifera by Peter, Flickr: EOL Images. CC BY-NC-SA; Apis mellifera by Molanic, iNaturalist.org. CC BY-NC;  Apis mellifera by Kent McFarland, iNaturalist.org. CC BY-NC