Other Common Names
European Honey Bee applies to domestic and feral populations found across most of the Bugguide region. These are hybrids between subspecies that even within their native ranges cannot readily be separated visually.
African Honey Bees (aka killer bees and Africanized Honey Bees) occur regularly in the warmer parts of the states bordering Mexico and can extend beyond those in warmer areas, e.g. along the Gulf of Mexico.
As not all honey bees found in the Bugguide region are European Honey Bees the name Western Honey Bee is preferable for application to the entire species (including populations of African origin)
Explanation of Names
Apis mellifera Linnaeus, 1758
mellifera (L). for "honey-bearing" or "honey-carrying"
There are about 2 dozen recognized subspecies with maybe half a dozen present in the gene pool of our area. Wild (feral) bees are mostly hybrids, though usually one of their parent subspecies predominates.
It should be mentioned that the subspecies referred to here are more geographical races than true subspecies, but it's hard to find a solid consensus as to what the correct replacement terminology should be.
Worker: 12 to 16 mm (½ to 5/8 in). Queen and drone are larger
Traits cited in identifications on this site (not all unique to this species):
pollen carried in a ball on the legs
a long radial cell near the front wingtip
The vast majority of individuals seen will be females (workers), while sightings of males (drones) are relatively infrequent. (For additional information, please see the Life Cycle section below.) The males are significantly bigger and have notably larger eyes which touch at the top of the head.
Some color variations:
Anywhere there are flowers to feed on and suitable hive-building sites
Honeybees workers heat the hive with body heat and cool the hive with their wings, so any hive has adults present year-round- but in cold weather they stay in the hives and live off their honey reserves.
Nectar and pollen from flowers. Pollen is most important in feeding the larvae.
Eggs are laid by the queen in honeycomb cells and the wormlike larvae are fed by workers. Males grow up to be drones, but females can become either workers or queens, depending on what they're fed and what pheromones are present.Queens are normally the only reproductive females, though under some circumstances some workers can lay (usually infertile) eggs.
Queens mate with the drones in flight, but only once: the queen will lay eggs continuously for the rest of her life without mating again. She releases pheromones that affect the bees in her hive in a variety of ways. The interactions between the queen and her hive are a complex story well worth investigating further.
Honeybees aren't native to the western hemisphere, but their value for producing honey and wax led to their introduction by early European colonists. These were mostly Apis mellifera mellifera, with Apis mellifera iberica introduced by the Spanish in the southern parts of our area.
Although some beekepers experimented with a few other subspecies, Apis mellifera ligustica has been the overwhelming favorite among beekepers in the last century and a half, along with Apis mellifera carnica, the Carniolan honeybee, and Apis mellifera caucasica, the Caucasian honeybee.
In recent years, two introductions have had profound effects on honeybee populations:
The first was the accidental release in Brazil of hybrids descended from the African "Killer" bee, Apis mellifera scutellata. These are well-known for their aggressive behavior when they believe their hive is in danger, and their nomadic tendencies. When they encounter other types of honeybees, the African traits seem to prevail- even after generations of crossbreeding. There are no true Apis mellifera scutellata in the Americas, but the African traits carried by descendents have spread thoughout the warmer parts of both North and South America. The Africanized bees are generally impossible to distinguish from many types of non-Africanized bees without either genetic testing or use of calculations based on precise measurements.
The threat of killer bees has been wildly exaggerated, but it's still a good idea to stay well away from hives, especially if any loud machinery is operating nearby. If bees establish a hive too close to places people are, get professional help to remove them. Attacks are still rare, and most involve people operating loud machinery too close to hives or trying to remove or destroy hives.
The adaptations that give them such an advantage in warm climates are fatal in colder ones- only by staying in one place and building up massive honey reserves can honeybees survive cold winters. That means the Africanized honeybee migration is likely to slow or stop outside the warmer southern and Pacific regions.
The other big event was the introduction of parasitic mites, especially those in the genus Varroa
, which were originally found on related species in Asia. Apis mellifera
bees, for the most part, have no natural defenses, so when these crab-like arachnids are introduced into a hive, they quickly build up to such levels that there aren't enough bees left to keep the hive going.
Wild bee populations have been wiped out in many areas, and commercial beekepers have often been forced to resort to pesticides. The Africanized bees seem to fare better than most.
An even more recent phenomenon is Colony Collapse Disorder. This is a pattern of most of the bees in a hive simply disappearing, leaving the queen and a few workers to care for the brood of larvae. The surviving bees tend to have a lot of different diseases, which suggests weakened immune systems. This makes finding the cause more difficult, since it's hard to tell if a pathogen is causing the disorder or merely a result of it.
The most plausible causes suggested are some new pathogenic organism, pesticides, or some combination of stresses and environmental challenges (stress on a beehive is know to reduce immunity to diseases). A 2007 study
found some evidence that the key pathogen is a virus introduced into US populations from Australia in 2004 called Israeli acute paralysis virus.
Lately, the reports of CCD have become less frequent (2015)
Winston, M.L. 1992. Killer Bees: The Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas. Harvard Univ. Press.
- Texas A&M Honey Bee Information Site
Honey Bee Swarm
- Texas Entomology
- A very extensive and informative Wikipedia article.
The Different Types of Honey Bees
- North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service (pdf format)
News article on virus association with colony collapse disorder. 2007