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All About Honey Bees

What insect smells like bananas when afraid, communicates by dancing, and is essential to food production? If you said a honey bee, you’re right! Honey bees are one of the most important and interesting insects out there. Without honey bees, orchards wouldn’t exist. As a former home beekeeper, I’m excited to share all about this incredible insect. 

Why Are Honey Bees Important? 

Honey bees produce delicious honey.
A beekeeper admiring honey harvests.

You’ve probably heard that honey bees are pollinators, but why are they so important? Basically, bees help fertilize plants so they can produce fruit. Almost a hundred agricultural crops in the United States need honey bees for pollination. 

Crops That Rely On Honey Bees

About 35% of the food we eat is pollinated by honey bees.  Small fruits like cherries, raspberries, and blueberries are almost completely reliant on honey bees for pollination. Food crops like apples, pumpkins, almonds, plums, and even broccoli need honey bees but can be fertilized by other insects in part. 

Bees Make Useful Products

Beehives are often kept for their useful products: honey and beeswax. Honey is a delicious addition to all sorts of recipes and good for you, too.  Beeswax is used for everything from candles to polishes and salves. Honey production is a large industry because we actually can’t make honey without bees!  

How Do Bees Make Honey? 

A honey bee collecting nectar from an apple blossom.
A honey bee collecting nectar from an apple blossom.

Contrary to popular belief, bees don’t poop honey – and they don’t actually vomit it either! Bees make honey from nectar. Worker bees suck nectar from flowers. Nectar is stored in special sac called the honey stomach and mixed with enzymes.

Once nectar is brought back to the hive, it is passed from mouth to mouth of the bees and water evaporates off of it. It is then stored in the beeswax comb and once it is evaporated to about 20% water, it is capped as mature honey. There is no way we can make honey without bees! 

 When I started keeping bees, I was surprised to learn that bees actually store and eat pollen too. Pollen is a protein source while honey provides nutrients and carbohydrates. 

What Bees Do With Honey

Honey bees eat honey as their main food source over winter. Honey and pollen are fed to bee larvae so that they mature. If you want to feed honeybees, don’t feed them store-bought honey. They can eat it, but nectar from a variety flowers has more of the broad scope of nutrients they need. I’d suggest planting local wildflowers or fruit trees instead. 

Why Can We Take Honey From Bees? 

Most bees make more than enough honey for the hive. As long as beekeepers only take extra honey, bees will have enough left to survive over the winter. If you want to be sure to support sustainable beekeeping practices, try to buy honey from local beekeepers. Local honey will also generally have less exposure to pesticides. 

Where To Get Honey Bees

Honey bee hives in an orchard.
Honey bee hives in an orchard.

If you’re interested in beekeeping, you can get honey bees as a bee nuc or a 3lb package of loose bees with a queen. Either way, you will need the proper equipment such as a beehive, bee suit, smoker, bee tool, and honey extractor.

Look for a local beekeeper that sells bees. Often, local beekeepers are a great source of information as well. I got my bees from a local bee farm, so I knew they could survive in my area.

Here’s a few good spots to buy bees in the United States.

How Many Honey Bee Species Are There?

There are eight known honey bee species recognized today. Within these eight distinct species, there are many subspecies or breeds of honey bees. Only a few of these subspecies are domesticated. 

Apis Mellifera: The Western Honey Bee or European Honey Bee

A. mellifera is the most common bee species in the world, also called the Western honey bee or the European honey bee. A. mellifera is the best honey bee species for beekeepers. 

Western honey bees produce the most honey of all the bee species. A. mellifera is a very climate-hardy bee species and can be found all over the world. Furthermore, they live in large honey bee hives rather than living in small colonies or moving often. All of these factors make A. mellifera subspecies the preferred bee for both home beekeepers and commercial farms. 

I have kept a Western honey bee variety called Carniolan bees. I found that they are one of the mildest bee species. You could go so far as to call them a friendly bee! If you’re a new beekeeper, definitely consider Carniolan bees. 

Here is a list of the main A. mellifera subspecies around the world: 

  •  Italian honey bees (A. melifera ligustica): Italian honey bees are the most common European honey bee subspecies. Italian bees are known for excellent honey production and hive growth. I kept Italian honey bees for one year and they ended up swarming. Backyard beekeepers, be prepared to add more hive space right away in spring! 
  • Carniolan honey bees (A. mellifera carnica): Carniolan honey bees are very gentle. Carniolan bee colonies are small in the winter and grow quickly in spring. However, since the colony is smaller during winter, they don’t need as much honey to survive long and cold winters in northern states. I recommend Carniolan honey bees for new beekeepers in cold states. 
  • Russian honey bees (A. mellifera artemisia): Russian honey bees are very resistant to common honey bee pests like varroa mites. They are gentle bees and produce bumper crops of honey. I have seen more and more beekeepers with hives of Russian honey bees, and even breeding Russian bees with Italian and Carniolan bees. 
  • North European dark honey bee (A. mellifera mellifera) also known as the German black bee: German black bees do well in cold, rainy climates and are not often kept for honey.
  • Caucasian honey bees (A. mellifera caucasia): Caucasian honey bees are from the Caucasus mountain range of Europe. They are not as adaptable to climates as other subspecies.
  • African honey bees (A. mellifera scutellata): Originally, African honey bees were just the varieties of A. mellifera adapted to warm Southern African climates. However, hybrid strains were developed that are known as “African killer bees” for being aggressive. Be wary of Africanized bees if you are a beekeeper; they can be very aggressive and take over other colonies.
A cluster of honey bees on an open air comb.

Apis laboriosa: The Rock Honey Bee or Himalayan honey bee

Rock honey bees are very rare and even larger than the giant honey bee. The worker honey bees have particularly large bodies. I think Rock honey bees are so interesting because they produce honey that is like a drug!

Rock bees often feed on the rhododendron flower, which contains psychoactive chemicals. Because of this, they make incredibly unique red honey that has hallucinogenic properties! Their honey is often called “mad honey” because it makes people hallucinate. Would you try rock bee honey? 

Apis andreniformis: The Black Dwarf Honey Bee

The Black Dwarf honey bee is very rare and is not generally kept by beekeepers. Black Dwarf honey bees are mostly in tropical areas of Asia. They are very small and do not live in large beehives, but usually live in free-air nests made of honeycomb and plant resin. While humans use a small amount of their products, they are rarely kept outside of their native regions except for research. 

Apis dorsata: The Giant Honey Bee

I think the giant honey bee is very overlooked. If you hadn’t guessed from the name, these are giant honey bees. It’s almost double the size of European honey bees! The giant honey bee isn’t kept by beekeepers, but is native to South Asia and are important for pollinating crops. 

Did you know that coffee crops rely on pollination by honey bees? Next time you’re drinking your morning coffee, keep the giant honey bee in mind. The giant honey bee is one of the main coffee pollinators! 

Giant honey bees live in a single honeycomb on trees and multiple colonies live in ‘neighborhoods.’ They switch between nesting sites quite often, which makes them unpopular for commercial beekeeping or home beehives. 

Apis florea: The Red Dwarf Honey Bee

Red Dwarf honey bees are very small and nest on a single comb. They are rarely kept commercially. However, in Thailand they are the main native source of honey.

Apis cerana: The Asian Honey Bee

Asian honey bees are known for nesting in cavities. A. cerana is incredibly resilient to temperature change. They have defense mechanisms against hornets that their European counterparts do not share. A. cerana can be kept domestically, but don’t produce as much honey as European honey bee varieties. I’ve always wanted to keep A. cerana because their defense mechanisms and hive behavior is fascinating. Unfortunately, my climate doesn’t allow for it! 

Honey Bee Colony Structure

Honey bees in a hive.
Worker bees surrounding a queen bee.

Queen bees are the key part of any honey bee colony. All eight distinct species have slightly different colony structure. However, all honey bee populations are made up of four main roles. A queen bee lays eggs in brood cells. Female larvae become workers, and male larvae become drones.

Honey Bee Roles

Adult worker bees collect nectar and pollen, take care of bee larvae, and defend the hive. Adult worker honey bees usually live for one or two months in the summer or up to six months over winter. Worker bees are the only honey bees that sting. Honey bees sting to protect their hive, but rarely – if ever – sting unprovoked. 

Drone bees are only useful when there is a new queen. A new queen goes on a mating flight and mates with several drones, ripping out their reproductive tract and storing it inside herself to fertilize her eggs for the rest of her life. Drones usually live for about three months. They are sometimes kicked out of the hive before winter by adult worker honey bees to preserve honey for the rest of the hive. 

Queen bees lay eggs to grow the hive. Queen bees usually live for about one or two years. Female larvae develop into queens by eating a special type of honey called royal jelly. When they hatch, they either kill the old queen and take over the hive or leave the hive in a swarm with part of the workers.

How Do Bees Communicate? 

Bees communicate by chemical signals called pheromones and physical signals often referred to as dancing. Honey bees have an incredible sense of smell and can mark food sources for other bees from the hive, signal danger, and tell apart bees from different colonies just by scent!

What Is A Bee Swarm? 

Swarming is a bee behavior that occurs when a hive gets overcrowded. Some of the bees leave, often with a new queen, to make a hive in another spot. Swarming is a natural bee behavior but can be annoying for beekeepers. Beekeepers can prevent swarming by ensuring adequate hive space

Are Honey Bees Going Extinct? 

A bee pollinating a plum tree.

 Honey bee populations are rapidly declining.  Bees are in danger, mostly from the effects of pesticides and invasive species. Almost every species of honey bee is categorized as at risk for extinction. However, don’t lose hope! There are steps everyone can take to protect bees. 

How Do Pesticides Harm Bees? 

Many agricultural pesticides don’t kill bees outright but have sublethal effects. They can harm bee larvae, become incorporated into beeswax, or even end up in honey. These sub-lethal effects can have negative effects on the overall hive health. Over time, pesticide loads can lead to the death of an entire hive. 

Western honey bees are at the most risk from exposure to pesticides. They are often rented by commercial farms to pollinate fields, so they experience the effects of pesticides. One way to remedy the buildup of pesticide loads in hives is to aim for pesticide diversity. Agricultural pesticide diversity will help prevent the buildup of sub-lethal effects in hives. 

Home gardeners, be sure to check the pesticides you are using for toxicity to honey bees.  Look for bee-friendly pesticides that will protect your target crop AND pollinators.

What is Colony Collapse Disorder? 

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is when bees leave the hive for no clear reason. Researchers aren’t quite sure what causes colony collapse disorder, but believe it may be due to the effects of pesticides and invasive species. More field studies are required to understand exactly what causes colony collapse disorder. 

Home beekeepers can try to prevent colony collapse by keeping invasive pests under control and watching for signs of bacterial species that harm bees. 

Honey Bee Pests

The main honey bee pests are varroa mites, nosema ceranae, and bacterial species.

Varroa mites are parasites that feed on honey bees, which can weaken colonies. Varroa mites can be treated with various chemicals such as oxalic acid. My first bee colony was infested with varroa mites, but treating with Apivar helped reduce mite load. 

Nosema ceranae is an internal bee parasite that causes nosemosis. Nosema ceranae is associated with colony collapse disorder, and can weaken colonies greatly. The only current treatment for nosema is the antibiotic fumadil. Beekeepers, watch for warning signs of nosemosis such as excretions outside the hive and dead bees in front of the hive. 

American foulbrood and European foulbrood are serious bee diseases caused by bacterial species Paenibacillus. Bacterial cells infect the bee larvae, so infected larvae die. American foulbrood and European foulbrood are not currently treatable. Since this disease spreads between bees, some states required that you burn the affected hive and all equipment to prevent a pandemic. Treatments for foulbrood are a still developing experimental field. 

How To Attract Honey Bees

Beekeepers inspecting honey bee hives.

If you have a home orchard, you probably want to attract honey bees to your trees. Having bees around while the trees are blossoming ensures the best shot at lots of fruit. Bees need nectar from flowers, so it’s a win-win for both honey bees and gardeners! 

What is the best way to attract honey bees? In my experience, filling your backyard with plants that provide nectar for bees is how to keep them around. Be sure to plant a variety of flowering plants that can feed bees all year round.

Try to create a bee yard with local wildflowers to attract native bee species. Always avoid pesticides that will kill the bees. Honey bees need to drink water, so adding a bee-friendly fountain is also a great idea. Read all about how to attract honey bees here. 

Fun Facts About Honey Bees

  • Honey from rock bees is called “mad honey” because it makes people hallucinate. 
  • Bee research is one of the most important agricultural fields for research – it is crucial to develop agricultural pesticides with fewer negative effects on bees. 
  • Honey is mentioned in many major religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. 
  • Bees can make up to 100 pounds of honey a year. 
  • It takes over 500 bees to make one pound of honey. 
  • Honey tastes different depending on what flowers it is collected from. Some beekeepers even collect small amounts of honey throughout the year so they can tell what it is made from!  For example, dandelion honey is made from nectar bees collect from dandelion flowers. 
  • A queen bee mates with drones (male bees) once in her lifetime and stores their reproductive organs to fertilize her eggs. 
  • The giant honey bee is the size of a child’s thumb. 
  • Honey bees actually can smell when other bees are diseased and social distance.

Want to learn more about everything orchards and bees? Check out these posts!