honey bee

Honey Bees - A Complete Guide

When someone says “bee,” I’m willing to bet the western honeybee instantly pops into mind. They’ve become the face of bees—almost as though they’re the standard for all Hymenoptera.

Stinger? Check. Black and yellow? Check. Honey? Check…

The western honeybee is, however, quite unique. They might be seen as the most common bees around, but they are a minority in a number of ways. Their characteristics, bee-havior (I couldn’t resist) and role in the ecosystem are truly fascinating. Let’s get to know them a little better.

What Do Honey Bees Look Like?

Identifying bees might seem like it’s as simple as the above checklist, but there are actually around 25 000 species of bee—and no two are the same. Bees vary in shape, size, and markings, and assuming that they all look like the honeybee is a bit of a stereotype.

There are, of course, common traits that all bees (and other insects in the order of Hymenoptera) share. Before we look at how to identify a honeybee, let’s discuss how to identify bees in general.

How to Identify a Bee

Like other insects, bees have an exoskeleton and three main body parts: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. They also have antennae and three pairs of legs. Hymenoptera (which means membrane wing) are classified by their two pairs of thin, almost transparent wings. In bees, the forewings are larger than the hindwings.

Most bees also have pollen baskets on their hind legs. It’s a myth that all bees can sting. Of the 25,000 species, there are at least 500 that are stingless. Bees are generally small insects, though their size varies, as I will discuss later in this article.

How to Identify a Honeybee

Now that you know what makes a bee, we can get into the specifics. Honeybees are easy to spot because they look like a typical bee. They’re furry, have yellow and black bands, and have slender, almost oval bodies. They can sting (except for the drones), but are the only bees who will die if they do. 

how long do honey bees live
Honey Bee

Bumblebees are very similar in appearance—so how do you tell them apart?

First of all, bumblebees are chubbier (and bigger) than honeybees. Another difference is that the wings of honeybees are far more translucent. Honeybees also have a pointed abdomen, while bumblebees’ are rounded.

top of bombus affinis bumblebee
Bumble Bee

If you need to identify them from afar, it’s worth noting that honeybees are known to swarm. They also communicate by waggling, or dancing in a figure eight formation.

How Big Are Honeybees?

Worker bees are the smallest, averaging between 0.5 and 0.65 inches in length. Drones (males) average between 0.6 and 0.7 inches long. Queens are the largest, at an average of 0.8 inches.

Honeybees are also lightweight, with their average weight estimated at one-tenth of a gram.

honeybee anatomy

It’s not only genetic differences that decide on a honey bee’s size. How big they are is also decided by their role in the colony. When bees are larvae, what they are fed makes a significant difference to what they become.

Potential queen bees are fed a lot more than average workers, for example, so they can grow to the necessary regal size. Drones do almost nothing all day and spend their lives eating until they are fit to mate.

bee and honeycomb

Workers not only do the most for the hive but they also get the least reward. They’re fed less as larvae, and most of the food they collect is given to more important citizens of their nests.

Speaking of which…

Where Do Honey Bees Live?

I can’t give you a straight answer to this one because honeybee habitats—although there are obvious and certain common traits between them—differ enormously.

It’s been said that honeybees originated in Africa, then spread to Europe and have since branched out globally.

Due to their feeding habits and behavior, honey bees prefer climates that allow flowering plants to thrive. They’re found all over though—from forests to gardens, to the nooks and crannies in your roof.

No matter the location, one thing will remain the same: their nests.

Honeybee Nests

Did you know that a beehive is actually a man-made structure that beekeepers build? The natural home for bees is called a nest. Beehives differ in size and design. They’re made from wood, clay, baskets, and even mud. They’re built to enclose and replicate nests, in order to maximize honey production.

beehive

Since they’re man-made, beehives can be found almost anywhere, so long as the environment is suitable for bees.

Honeybee nests are most typically found in dry hollows; for example inside trees. Although it’s often misrepresented as a hanging cocoon-shaped nest, honeybees are unlikely to leave their hives out in the open. If you see an abundance of bees hanging about in one spot, there is a good chance they are about to settle there.

natural bee hive

Honeybee nests are built from wax and are designed in honeycombs—hexagonal cells, built together tightly. Cells are used to store food (pollen and honey), and also to hatch and raise young bees.

Bees aren’t often praised as intelligent insects, but this comes under question when you consider the design of their nests. They are not only built to precision—a process we don’t fully understand—they are also constructed in a specific order.

Cells at the top of the nest hold honey, middle cells store pollen and lower cells are for brood.

How much time honey bees spend at home is also dependent on their rank. Larvae remain in the hive until they reach adulthood and can manage flight. Workers have various jobs to attend to outside of the nest, and spend most of their days foraging and collecting food.

Drones leave the nest to mate with the queen, and they die soon after. The queen leaves only once, to mate, and will likely never leave again after she has returned.

Beehives, if left to their own devices, could last for years, but there are factors that could cause bees to abandon their homes. Mostly it’s because the nest, or its surroundings, become uninhabitable and the bees leave in search of greener or safer pastures. Varroa mites can also cause havoc in a honey bee nest if left untreated.

However, they don’t often have the resources to survive once they flee. If a new nest is not built with urgency, the entire colony could die off.

Honeybee Colony Structure

The success of a nest is solely reliant on the efficiency of the bees who live inside it. Outside of their homes, their collective name is a swarm. Inside, they’re called a colony. Colonies have a definite hierarchy that decides how much resource and responsibility each bee is designated.

What are often seen as the bottom-rung bees just so happen to be the most important—the workers. Worker bees are responsible for the survival of the entire colony because they are the ones that build and maintain the nest and keep the colony well fed and healthy.

Their jobs include taking care of the queen bee, feeding the brood, foraging for and packing food, keeping the nest clean, and guarding it. They also produce honey and wax.

honey on hive board

Drones, it’s been said, are quite useless in a hive. Their only purpose (and goal) is to mate with the queen. They do not have stingers, wax glands, or pollen baskets, so they cannot defend or feed the colony. In fact, they do so little in a colony that when resources are low, workers will drive drones out of it.

You probably already know that the queen is the most favored in the colony and this is because she gives birth to it. She has no other jobs outside of establishing a nest and then producing its numbers.

Queens are favored even before they assume their rank. In the hive, special cells (called queen cups) are built to produce queens. The larvae that hatch in them are fed royal jelly so that they will grow bigger and fatter.

If a queen becomes too old to reproduce, younger potentials with overthrow her and it will become a fight to the death. Although honeybees prepare queens well in advance, there can only be one at a time.

What Do Honeybees Eat?

Honey bees have a diet that is extremely similar to ours if you want to break it down scientifically. Bees need to get their fill of minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients, just the same as we do.

They need carbohydrates for energy, and protein and amino acids to keep their muscles and wing capacity in working order. Bees also take in an array of vitamins, and all the goodness that water gives to us too.

You may be thinking, “They’re bees, how could they possibly take in that much?” To be honest, I was surprised the first time I found out about their adorable little diets. The answer to that, though, is so simple. They get all of their nutrients from only two things—nectar and pollen.

This is why bees are drawn to flowers, because these are a source of both. Pollen is produced by plant reproduction. Nectar’s sweet scent and the taste is used to attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to plants, so that they will assist in pollination.

bee and pollen

Nectar is also what bees use to produce honey, which they eat too. Larvae are fed on honey (unless they’re potential queens), and honey also lasts throughout the winter, when workers can’t forage.

You may have noticed that bees are also drawn to human food, more often than not our sugary sweet treats. This is because they sense our sugars as a temporary food source, and are investigating to see if it will suffice. It can be credited to laziness. If a food source is easily accessible, honeybees won’t hesitate to try it.

Are Honeybees Dangerous?

Speaking of bees approaching, when they get too close, it’s our instinct to panic. Anyone who’s ever been stung by a bee will know how unpleasant it is. How much of our fear is proven though? Are they really as savage as they’re made out to be?

The aggression of bees is a double-edged sword. They are not vicious by nature. In fact, honey bees are quite passive. They are herbivores and are not predatory at all. They mind their own business and will not maliciously hunt, attack or harm other creatures, including humans.

They do have their limits, though. When honeybees are threatened, they go into defense mode, and it becomes a matter of kill or be killed. Honeybees only sting as a last resort, when they feel threatened or cornered and have no other choice.

Honeybees are the only bees that are likely to die when they sting, because they cannot retract their stinger due to it being barbed.

While honeybees can sting smaller animals/insects and live to tell the tale, when they go up against larger animals with thicker skins, their barbed stinger gets stuck and they’re forced to leave it behind. This ruptures their abdomen, and the damage to their bodies is fatal.

bee stinging person
A honey bee mid-sting

Honeybees know the damage caused by stinging, and will actually try to free their barbs from an animal or person by twizzling around to see if the stinger becomes unstuck. Sometimes this trick works and the bee survives, but most of the time it doesn’t.

This, of course, means that a honeybee can only sting once but that does not mean they are any less of a threat than other bees (or wasps) that can sting over and over again. When honeybees sting, they release alarm pheromones that alert others to the threat. Once that happens, other bees get ready to attack, and the swarm is what you should worry about.

A single bee sting is quite painful but relatively harmless. They are only potentially lethal to those who have allergies. Regardless, interfering with bees is never a good idea. They may be docile, but if ever given a reason to attack, they will without question.

Honeybee Conservation Status

You’ve probably been told over and over again that bees are dying out. This has led to a global panic, because if the bees die out, so do we. We’re reliant on bees for most of our food, so if they become instinct we’ll starve. It’s the apocalypse, I say! The bee-ginning of the end!

Except, that’s not quite true.

Yes, it is true that if the bees go down they’ll take us with them. It’s also true that various species of bees have made it to the endangered lists. Honey bees, though, are not included in this group just yet.

There was a frenzy when honey bee numbers appeared to drop dramatically, but that was mostly due to mismanagement by beekeepers. Population numbers also declined more than usual in the winters of the early 2000s (but has since increased) and that contributed to the idea that the honeybees were disappearing.

The truth is that although humans have destroyed half of the planet, the bee numbers are just fine.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of our influence over them. Just because they’re not endangered, it doesn’t mean they’re safe. There are a number of problems that honey bee populations have to face.

I might have sung this song a million times before, but you better believe I will sing it a million times more—climate change is harming the bees. It may not be wiping the bees out directly, but it is destroying the crops that they feed on. Bees are at risk of starvation now, because soon there won’t be enough food for all of them to live off.

Changing weather also negatively impacts them. Honeybees are not built to withstand extremes. Droughts, fires, unusually heavy snow and rains, and extreme heat and cold could damage their nests (or just blatantly kill them) too. Such weather conditions also ruin crops, adding to the hunger problem for the honey bees.

Insufficient food could contribute to colony collapse disorder. If a colony can’t function (for various reasons: disease, pollution, starvation, uninhabitable conditions etc.) workers abandon it. The bees left behind often can’t take care of themselves, and this leads to what appears to be rapid death rates in the bee population.

Our civilization is also capable of bringing bee populations to its knees. Urbanization and deforestation have a strong hand in the destruction of bee habitats (and again, their food sources). People are also far too hasty in destroying encroaching beehives instead of getting them professionally and humanely removed.

Honeybees have a secret weapon though—beekeepers. While other bees and (other pollinators) are at risk of endangerment and extinction, honeybees are, by default, protected by us. The hives we build, and the conditions we provide for them (mostly to harvest their honey) has kept them safe in a world that is otherwise not very kind to them.

Summary

Honeybees, as common and stereotyped as they may be, are in reality the underdogs of the bee world. Their defining traits (their one-time stings, their intricate nests, and their honey) are unusual in the larger scale. It’s what singles them out, but it’s also what protects them.

These little guys (and girls) are an invaluable and wonderful part of our ecosystem. It does no harm to learn more about them so that the next time you see one you’ll be fascinated, rather than afraid. Be kind to them. We need them just as much as they need us.

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