European Honey Bees

Facts, Identification & Control

SCIENTIFIC NAME

Apis mellifera

GENERAL INFORMATION

The European honey bee, also referred to as the western honey bee, is a member of a group of bees in the Genus Apis that are extremely valuable for their honey-producing abilities and their role in pollinating plants, trees and crops. Because of this, European honey bees are one of the most popular domesticated honey bee species throughout the world.

APPEARANCE

European honey bee adults vary in appearance based upon their caste and are either worker bee adults, drone adults or the colony’s queen. The worker bees are about ½ inch long, yellow and black in color and are covered by numerous hairs on their bodies. Their major body parts are the head, thorax, abdomen, large dark colored eyes, two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs. When viewed from above, the junction between the thorax and abdomen is constricted and gives the adult the look of being “thread-waisted.” Another body part on honey bees is the “pollen sac” located on both rear legs. It is used to store pollen collected from plants the adult worker bee visits. Worker bees have a stinger they can use to help defend the colony. Workers are non-reproductive female bees.

Drones are the colony’s male caste. Their head, eyes and thorax are larger than the workers’, and their abdomen is thick and blunt at the end, unlike the worker bees’ pointed abdomen. Drones do not have a stinger.

Queens look much like larger versions of the workers, but have a more rounded and longer abdomen. The queen also has a stinger that she rarely uses.

BEHAVIOR, DIET & HABIT

European honey bees develop via the four stage process of complete metamorphosis: egg, larvae (grub), pupae (cocoon), and adult. Honey bees also exhibit social organization and sharing of work and resources by the respective castes of bees. The only role of the drones is to mate with an unmated queen from another colony. The queen is the only egg layer in the colony and produces all of the colony’s eggs – up to about 1,500 eggs per day. Workers carry out all other work within the colony: defense, maintenance and nectar collection and honey production. Each worker bee provides various tasks based upon their age. The youngest workers care for the eggs, larvae and pupae, while older workers build the wax combs, maintain honey storage and defend the colony by stinging. Since the worker’s stinger is barbed, it remains in their victim, resulting in the worker bee’s death.

REPRODUCTION

European honey bees expand their numbers by producing more colonies through swarming. That typically occurs in the spring and early summer when food sources are plentiful. The triggers for swarming are thought to be an abundance of nectar and pollen and the growth of colony size. The swarming process begins with a dozen or more daughter queens being produced by the colony’s mother queen. When the daughter queens are in the late pupal stage, the mother queen and about 60-70 percent of the adult workers leave (abscond) the colony, swarm and travel to a location where they will begin a new colony.

The new queen in the original colony will be one of the daughter queens that developed from one of the daughter queen eggs laid by the mother queen before swarming. A colony can only have one queen. Once daughter queens emerge as adults, they will fight until one queen is left alive. Should one daughter queen emerge from the pupal stage before the other daughter queens, she will hunt them out and kill them, thus becoming the sole surviving queen. After about a two week period needed for the new queen to mature, she leaves the colony to mate with drones from other colonies and returns. Once successfully mated, the daughter queen begins laying eggs, thus insuring the continued survival of the original colony.

In temperate climates where the season for pollen and nectar production is only a few months, bees usually swarm once per year. In other locations like the tropics, honey bees will commonly swarm more than once per year.

SIGNS OF AN INFESTATION

Since honey bees are so valuable to our economic interests, extreme care should be taken to manage a problem created by honey bees. Without question, honey bee colonies can cause problems if a colony is in a wall void, a hollow tree on a homeowner’s property or some other location where their presence creates a stinging hazard to pets and people.

DISTRIBUTION

European honey bees are found in temperate regions throughout the world. Contrary to its name, the European honey bee is not a European native. Instead, these bees originated from the Middle East and Asia. They were named European honey bees because European colonists introduced them to North America.

MORE INFORMATION

Seventeen (17) states in the U.S. identify the honey bee as their state insect.

CONTROL OF NUISANCE COLONIES

Controlling honey bee colonies should be left up to your pest management professional (PMP). If possible, your PMP may recommend contacting a bee keeper who can capture the colony members and relocate them without destroying the colony. However, if no other options exist, your PMP may be forced to resort to colony control, but only as the last resort. Another important reason to have bee control or removal done by an expert is the problems created by the hive and leftover honey when a colony is either removed or destroyed. This residue is an attractant for many pest insects and to other animals and may also result in the honey residue dripping from the hive and creating a mess in other parts of the house.

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

Pollination is critical to food production. Within the United States, the value of crop pollination is up to $15 billion annually. In addition, honey bees produce other products such as honey, pollen, beeswax and propolis extract.

AFRICANIZED HONEY BEES

Within the past 25 or so years, many areas have experienced Africanized honey bees introduction. While being slightly larger than Africanized honey bees, it is not easy to identify these two groups of honey bees. While honey bee experts use differences in wing vein patterns and the size of some body parts, it still is hard for the average homeowner to determine whether a colony is European or Africanized. Aggressiveness is usually a reliable way to recognize Africanized honey bees since the Africanized workers are much more aggressive and an “intruder” is very likely to be stung many more times by Africanized honey bees than by European honey bees.