|Common honeybee species: (Genus Apis) Apis mellifera mellifera
Taxonomically Honeybees are a member of the order Hymenoptera (membrane winged), a group of species that includes Ants, Bees, Wasps and Sawflies. To give you an idea of where they are in the great plan of things Hymenoptera belong to the Class Insecta, which belongs to the Phylum Arthropoda (external skeletons), which belong to Animal Kingdom. Confused? Don't worry you can swot up on taxonomy in the Bee School
In the UK the only species of this genus is known as the Honeybee or Hive Bee due to the fact that its populations are largely domesticated. Honeybees are the only other species, apart from man, which have the ability to give complex visual instructions to other members of their species. They occur in various shades of golden brown through dark brown to almost black, they have fine golden hair over their bodies, the workers measuring around 15mm, drones slightly bigger and queens to around 30mm. They have a strong purposeful flight, their legs are distinctively thicker to enable pollen collection, and they are members of the 'social bees' classification living in large permanent colonies. Honeybees are often mistaken for Wasps by the unsuspecting, but they are in fact quite different in many ways. Compare the two top pictures on the right, Honeybee topmost and the Wasp underneath, they are visually quite different.
They are not generally aggressive and go about their business of pollen and nectar collection quite peacefully, only becoming aggressive when they or their nest is under attack. Because the Honeybee dies quickly after stinging, they go through phases of aggression from loud buzzing, using threatening flight around the face and eyes, and head butting before delivering the final sting, a sort of progressive warning system. The workers have the ability to deliver a very potent sting which is detached from its body leaving the sting, venom sack, muscles and nerves embedded in the victim. The sting will then continue to pump venom in for up to 20 minutes! After delivering its sting the bee quickly dies, so for a Honeybee stinging is the last resort.
Download our Health & Safety document for more information on stings and things!
Honeybees form large permanent colonies of anywhere between 25000 - 60000 individuals. They spend the spring and summer months collecting nectar and pollen to maintain the nest, feed young brood and to store enough honey to last the colony throughout the cold winter months. The social structure within the colony is an important part of their success, acting together as one, allocating specific tasks to the workers in order to maintain nest security, structure, brood production, health and hygiene, food collection, swarming and queen replacement. The colony consists of three castes: workers (sterile females); drones (non stinging males); and a queen. The workers do all the house keeping and food collection while the males serve only to fertilise the queen and die or are killed by the workers after doing so. The queen, fertilised by the drones, lays eggs in prepared cells from the early spring to late summer and will continue doing so for around 3-4 years or until the colony decide that she is becoming weak and replace her. Swarming occurs when the nest becomes overcrowded and the old queen takes off to a new location with the mature flying bees after ensuring a new queen is on the way.
The wild nest is constructed from wax created by the bees and formed into very precisely sized and positioned combs of cells, generally in a hollow tree or other such cavity. Domestically kept colonies are housed in Hives where the bees construct the same nest. The Beekeeper places a divider between the brood area and the honey crop area to ensure no eggs and larvae occur in the honey crop.
The honey produced by the colony is the attraction to humans. For thousands of years it has been known to contain many ingredients beneficial to mans health as well as being a sweet delicacy. Colonies of A. mellifera are kept in man made hives and the honey crop harvested at the end of spring and summer. Some honey is left to sustain the bees and the 'keeper' keeps a watch on his hives over the winter ensuring there is enough for them to eat and survive.
Note - Honey and Infants. Honey can frequently contain dormant endospores of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum which can be dangerous to infants as the endospores can transform into toxin-producing bacteria in the infant's immature intestinal tract, leading to illness (Infant Botulism) and even death. Honey should not be fed to human infants under one year old.
Honeybees are an important pollinator species for our natural flora and for agricultural food crops not just in the UK but world wide. Recent estimates for agricultural / horticultural crops grown commercially in the UK that benefit from bee pollination are in the region of £200m p.a. (Carreck & Williams, 1998: Bee World 79:3 115-123) The Honey Bee, A. mellifera is not listed as an endangered species but, as any conscientious beekeeper will tell you, it is under considerable pressure from habitat loss, chemical poisoning, disease and parasites.
Bee colonies are very susceptible to a range of diseases, some endemic, others introduced, and they can have devastating consequences. The picture shows Varroa mites (Varroa destructor) sucking the life from a young honeybee grub. Varroa infestation can quickly cause a colony to collapse.
Conservation of this and many other pollinator species is important, much work and lobbying is currently underway to ensure their successful survival - a good reason to become a beekeeper!
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