Everyone is familiar with honey bees, but did you know there are actually several different species?
The Western honey bee is easily the most common and is likely responsible for the jar of honey in your kitchen right now.
Keep reading to learn all about this incredible insect and what makes it so special.
Characteristics of the Western Honey Bee
The Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, is the most common honey bee variety. They are sometimes also referred to as the European honey bee.
Insects aren’t typically thought of as livestock, but this bee is actually among the first domesticated insects.
There are dozens of subspecies of the Western honey bee. Some examples of these subspecies are Carniolan honey bees, Italian honey bees, Russian honey bees, Caucasian honey bees, West African honey bees, and many more. Each of these subspecies can crossbreed with one another, and colonies will usually end up with genetics from other nearby subspecies.
These bees have the classic honey bee look. They are small, winged insects with golden yellow and black stripes, black eyes, and a fuzzy thorax.
The females of this species have stingers with an attached venom sack. Their stingers are barbed so they can’t be easily removed.
Unfortunately, this means each individual can only sting once, and using their stinger is fatal. The stinger will continue to pump venom into the victim until the entire stinger is pulled out.
Colonies of Western honey bees can range from 20,000 to 80,000 individuals depending on the time of year and the health of the hive.
This specie likely originated in Asia or Africa and dispersed through Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
Western honey bees can now be found on every continent except Antarctica. Their wider distribution is due to humans since they can adapt to a variety of climates, although they have a harder time in colder weather.
Today, almost all Western honey bees are kept by humans. If found in the wild they are likely feral colonies from beekeepers and not truly wild.
Bee Life Cycle
Eggs into Larvae
Each bee begins life as a single egg in a cell.
The egg will hatch after 3 days and grow into a larva, which will be cared for and fed by workers in the colony.
After about 9 days, the cell will be capped for the pupa to finish developing.
The amount of time it takes for the bees to mature depends on if they’re a queen, female worker, or drone, but the vast majority of bees in the colony will be workers.
Queens will emerge after 16 days, workers after 21 days, and drones after 24 days. When a bee is finished growing, it will chew through the cap and join the colony.
Getting Right to Work
Drones and queens perform the same tasks throughout their lives. A drone’s sole reason for existing is to mate with a queen from another colony. Queens are responsible for laying fertilized eggs to populate the colony with workers.
The worker bees will progress through different jobs as they get older to take care of the hive inside and out.
Their first job is to clean out the cell they just emerged from. Next, they are responsible for the care of the other larvae and are known as “nurse bees”.
After tending to larvae they will move on to building and repairing comb. This is done by secreting flakes of beeswax and carefully arranging them. They will also receive and store the nectar and pollen brought in by older bees.
Other important jobs carried out by the workers at this time include:
- Feeding and grooming the queen
- Removing dead bees and larvae from the hive
- Regulating the temperature of the hive
- Defending the hive from intruders
The final task of a worker bee is to forage. Every day, the foragers will leave the hive in search of nectar and pollen to feed the colony and make honey. Foragers will continue to fly, sometimes as far as 5 miles away, until they die of old age.
The total lifespan of worker bees is a few weeks in the summer and a few months in the winter.
Queens usually live for 3 to 4 years, depending on how productive they are. Drones live until they mate with a queen or are removed from the hive due to lack of resources. Their total lifespan is usually a few weeks.
Western honey bees are generally a docile, non-aggressive species. This is what makes them so popular among beekeepers.
These honey bees live in colonies with a single queen who produces the entire population of the hive.
Colonies are considered “superorganisms” that are organized and function almost as one animal. They act in the interest of the entire colony, rather than the individual. Every bee has a job to do.
If the colony gets too big or the hive is no longer hospitable, Western honey bees will swarm to find a new place to live. For large colonies, the existing queen will leave with half of the workers. The bees who remain will make a new queen and continue on in the same hive.
Western honey bees are most active in spring and summer as they gather resources, expand their colony, and produce honey.
In winter they cluster together to stay warm and rely on their honey stores until the weather gets warm enough for them to forage and flowers are blooming.
Some beekeepers have experienced their hives becoming “Africanized”. This refers to genetics from African honey bees being bred into the colony. While these bees can be highly productive, they are also known for their extreme aggression.
Threats to the Western Honey Bee
Western honey bees are designated as extinct on the IUCN Red List due to the lack of wild populations. However, it isn’t exactly known what the true status of wild populations is.
What is known for sure is that they are threatened by several different factors.
Overall, climate change has contributed to a decline in countless plant species, many of which are important for the Western honey bee.
As plant life continues to suffer, so do honey bee populations. Without abundant flowers to provide pollen and nectar, bees can’t survive. Building and maintaining a busy hive takes a lot of time and energy, and the scales can tip out of favor with very slight environmental changes.
Pesticides are commonly used to help keep various insects from destroying crops. They’re used both commercially on a large scale and in countless home gardens.
The main issue with pesticides is that they aren’t able to target specific harmful insects while leaving the beneficial ones alone. As a result, Western honey bees are prone to poisoning wherever pesticides are sprayed.
Honey bees can fly a significant distance from their hive in search of resources. This means that they can come in contact with pesticides miles away from the colony.
Pests, Parasites, and Diseases
One unfortunate side effect of beekeeping becoming more and more popular is that it can lead to the spread of pests and diseases.
Since bees have such a wide flight range, it’s common for bees from many different colonies to mingle with each other. This is frequently the cause of devastating issues like American Foul Brood, or AFB.
One of the biggest and most widespread threats to the Western honey bee is the varroa mite. These are small mites that latch onto bees or make their way into brood cells before they’re capped.
There are only a few isolated parts of the world that don’t have varroa mites present. Today, testing and treating hives for mites is a basic and crucial part of keeping bees. The presence of these mites is an increasingly common cause of lost hives, particularly through the winter.
Other pests that can weaken or kill a hive include small hive beetles and wax moths. While these pests alone are unlikely to take out an entire colony, they often contribute. They either infest a hive and allow to something else to come in, or they attack an already compromised hive.
Since this particular species is so widespread, it’s crucial that there are conservation efforts in place to support them.
In fact, a large part of being a beekeeper involves raising bees responsibly to reduce the chances of issues from one hive spreading to another.
Hive inspections are one of the most important defenses against many different issues. Catching problems as early as possible can either save your own hive or help prevent them from spreading to other apiaries.
The Amazing Western Honey Bee
Western honey bees are so common because they’re good at what they do.
They can thrive in many different climates and produce delicious golden honey. Beekeepers love how industrious they are, and hive inspections with these friendly bees are much more enjoyable than with aggressive species.
They also need our help to keep their populations thriving for many years to come.
Interested in learning more about these miraculous pollinators? Visit my bees page to learn all about the different roles within the beehive, different bee species, beekeeping, and more!