The honey bee, Apis mellifera, is one of several species of bees that produce honey. Honey bees live in colonies, or hives, of 50,000 bees on average. A honey bee colony consists of a queen, drones, and workers. All play roles in the survival of the community.
As many as 29 subspecies of Apis mellifera exist. The Italian honey bee, Apis mellifera ligustica, is most often kept by beekeepers in the western hemisphere.
Italian honey bees are described as light or golden in color. Their abdomens are striped yellow and brown. Hairy heads make their large compound eyes appear ringed with hair.
Honey bees feed on nectar and pollen from flowers. Worker bees feed the larvae royal jelly first, and later offer them pollen.
Honey bees undergo complete metamorphosis:
Egg – The queen bee lays the eggs. She is mother to all or nearly all members of the colony.
Larva – The worker bees care for the larvae, feeding and cleaning them.
Pupa – After molting several times, the larvae will cocoon inside the cells of the hive.
Adult – Male adults are always drones; females may be workers or queens. For the first 3 to 10 days of their adult lives, all females are nurses that care for the young.
Special Behaviors and Defenses:
Worker bees sting with a modified ovipositor on the end of the abdomen.
The barbed stinger and attached venom sac pull free from the bee’s body when the bee stings a human or other target. The venom sac has muscles that continue to contract and deliver venom after it is detached from the bee. If the hive is threatened, the bees will swarm and attack to protect it. Male drones do not have a stinger.
Honey bee workers forage for nectar and pollen to feed the colony. They collect pollen in special baskets on their hind legs, called corbicula. The hair on their bodies is charged with static electricity, which attracts pollen grains. The nectar is refined into honey, which is stored for times when nectar may be in short supply.
Honey bees have a sophisticated method of communication. Pheromones signal when the hive in under attack, help the queen find mates, and orient the foraging bees so they can return to their hive. The waggle dance, an elaborate series of movements by a worker bee, informs other bees where the best sources of food are located.
Honey bees require an ample supply of flowers in their habitat, since this is their food source. They also need suitable places to build hives. In cooler temperate climates, the hive site must be large enough for the bees and for storage of honey to feed on during the winter.
Though native to Europe and Africa, Apis mellifea is now distributed worldwide, largely due to the practice of beekeeping.
Other Common Names:
European honey bee, Western honey bee
- Beekeeping Basics, published by Penn State College of Agricultural Services Cooperative Extension