- Apis mellifica Linnaeus, 1761
Honey Bee, Western Honey Bee, European Honey Bee
No status defined
Value of species
The western honey bee was one of the first domesticated insects, and it is the primary species maintained by beekeepers to this day for both its honey production and pollination activities. With human assistance, the western honey bee now occupies every continent except Antarctica. Because of its wide cultivation, this species is the single most important pollinator for agriculture globally. Western honey bees are threatened by pests and diseases, especially the Varroa mite and colony collapse disorder. As of 2019, the western honey bee is listed as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List, as numerous studies indicate that the species has undergone significant declines in Europe; however, it is not clear if they refer to population reduction of wild or managed colonies. Further research is required to enable differentiation between wild and non-wild colonies in order to determine the conservation status of the species in the wild.
Western honey bees are an important model organism in scientific studies, particularly in the fields of social evolution, learning, and memory; they are also used in studies of pesticide toxicity, to assess non-target impacts of commercial pesticides.
The western honey bee can be found on every continent except Antarctica. The species is believed to have originated in Africa or Asia, and it spread naturally through Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Humans are responsible for its considerable additional range, introducing European subspecies into North America (early 1600s), South America, Australia, New Zealand, and eastern Asia.
Western honey bees adapted to the local environments as they spread geographically. These adaptations include synchronizing colony cycles to the timing of local flower resources, forming a winter cluster in colder climates, migratory swarming in Africa, and enhanced foraging behavior in desert areas. All together, these variations resulted in 29 recognized subspecies, all of which are cross-fertile. The subspecies are divided into four major branches, based on work by Ruttner and confirmed by mitochondrial DNA analysis. African subspecies belong to branch A, northwestern European subspecies branch M, southwestern European subspecies branch C and Middle-Eastern subspecies branch O.
Unlike most other bee species, western honey bees have perennial colonies which persist year after year. Because of this high degree of sociality and permanence, western honey bee colonies can be considered superorganisms. This means that reproduction of the colony, rather than individual bees, is the biologically significant unit. Western honey bee colonies reproduce through a process called "swarming".
In most climates, western honey bees swarm in the spring and early summer, when there is an abundance of blooming flowers from which to collect nectar and pollen. In response to these favorable conditions, the hive creates one to two dozen new queens. Just as the pupal stages of these "daughter queens" are nearly complete, the old queen and approximately two-thirds of the adult workers leave the colony in a swarm, traveling some distance to find a new location suitable for building a hive (e.g., a hollow tree trunk). In the old colony, the daughter queens often start "piping", just prior to emerging as adults, and, when the daughter queens eventually emerge, they fight each other until only one remains; the survivor then becomes the new queen. If one of the sisters emerges before the others, she may kill her siblings while they are still pupae, before they have a chance to emerge as adults.
Once she has dispatched all of her rivals, the new queen, the only fertile female, lays all the eggs for the old colony, which her mother has left. Virgin females are able to lay eggs, which develop into males (a trait shared with wasps, bees, and ants because of haplodiploidy). However, she requires a mate to produce female offspring, which comprise 90% or more of bees in the colony at any given time. Thus, the new queen goes on one or more nuptial flights, each time mating with 1–17 drones. Once she has finished mating, usually within two weeks of emerging, she remains in the hive, laying eggs.
Throughout the rest of the growing season, the colony produces many workers, who gather pollen and nectar as cold-season food; the average population of a healthy hive in midsummer may be as high as 40,000 to 80,000 bees. Nectar from flowers is processed by worker bees, who evaporate it until the moisture content is low enough to discourage mold, transforming it into honey, which can then be capped over with wax and stored almost indefinitely. In the temperate climates to which western honey bees are adapted, the bees gather in their hive and wait out the cold season, during which the queen may stop laying. During this time, activity is slow, and the colony consumes its stores of honey used for metabolic heat production in the cold season. In mid- through late winter, the queen starts laying again. This is probably triggered by day length. Depending on the subspecies, new queens (and swarms) may be produced every year, or less frequently, depending on local environmental conditions.