There are millions of species of insects in the world, but less than a dozen are honey bees. Honey and beeswax have been important to humanity for most of its history and we rely on honey bees today for those provisions as well as the essential work they do pollinating our crops and flowers. Hives of domesticated honey bees are hired by farmers to pollinate their fields and the bees are moved from one field to the next in this endeavor. The popular image of a bear with its head stuck in a honey bee nest that is suspended from a tree generally erroneously pictures a wasp nest but nothing sweet is to be found in a wasp nest.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Arthropoda
Class - Insecta
Order - Hymenoptera
Family - Apidae
Genus – Apis
Common Names – honey bee
Honey bees are true bees, although they can be mistaken for the more dangerous and aggressive yellow jacket wasp. Unlike wasps, bees can only sting once and it always results in their own death. Honey bees are highly social and live cooperatively, and a healthy and thriving colony has abundant worker bees tackling all the varied jobs necessary for their survival, from caring for the young to gathering pollen for food or honey production.
The queen controls the nest completely. She determines the number and gender of all her offspring and she uses chemical signals to direct her workers. The drones are the only males in the nest and they have only one task – to mate with the queen. The queen can decide to lay fertilized (female) or unfertilized (male) eggs, depending on need and she can lay thousands of eggs in a single day. The eggs are placed in combs similar to those used to store honey and are first fed royal jelly and later honey and pollen. If a new queen is needed due to the previous queen’s sickness or death, a few of the larvae continue to receive only royal jelly, which contains a protein that stimulates the growth of a queen.
Almost every honey bee most people will ever see is a female. All of the workers, as well as the queen, are females. The few males, called drones, are allowed to live in the hive during the spring and summer, but they are expelled during the winter, when the hive goes dormant and food sources are scarcer as the colony survives on the honey stores they have created. Honey bees live in a cooperative colony or, as some scientists understand them, a ‘superorganism’. A superorganism can be viewed as a single entity, despite being made up of thousands of individuals because they all work together for the greater good of the colony.
The first appearance of the ancestors of modern honey bees
emerge in the fossil record around 23-56 million years ago, during the change from the Eocene to the Oligocene epochs. There is evidence that the bees evolved in Asia and migrated to Europe. From Europe, they were introduced by humans North America, although there is fossil evidence, found in Nevada, that there was an ancient American species that went extinct. Bees evolved from wasps and the lines diverged when the bee ancestors gave up hunting in favor of collecting pollen to feed their young.
Honey bees are not yet endangered but their steady decline has caused serious concern. Although the term itself is new, Colony Collapse Disorder is not a new phenomenon, but there has been a drastic increase in the disappearance of worker bees from colonies in North America. Studies are continuing worldwide to try to discover the reason for the decline as well as to arrest and reverse the trend. The loss of honey bees would cause possibly irreparable damage to wild and domesticated crops dependent on their pollination.
- The Biology of the Honey Bee by Mark L. Winston
- Honey Bees: An Essential Guide by Raymond Huber
- The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz
- Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder by Renée Johnson