Honey Bees! Everyone loves them! Everyone knows at least something about them. Yet this species (Apis mellifera) can still surprise you. This species, also known as the Western or European honey bee, is distributed across most of the globe, with the exceptions of northern Africa and Asia. Such a broad distribution implies a massive amount of branching out into varying subspecies – with 32 different subspecies of Honey Bee worldwide. This species most closely resembles the stereotypical appearance of a bee, with yellow fuzz covering the head and thorax segments, which have black skin underneath. The eyes, antennae, and legs are black as well, with the abdomen being broken up by black-and-yellow stripes. These eyes have been described as hairier than those of other bee species.
Honey bees exhibit eusocial colony building behavior, similar to how they are depicted inmost media. This is organized into the usual castes of female workers, male drones, and the Queen (all present at separate points of the hive cycle). A hive population fluctuates between 40,000 and 80,000 bees. Worker bees are typically 1 to 1.5 centimeters in length; drones are longer, maxing out at 2 cm; and Queens are larger still, ranging from 2 to 3 cm. The familiar image of the honeycomb is certainly present with this species. Larvae are sealed within the individual wax combs to transform into their pupal stage, with other combs devoted to honey storage. Honey bees frequent a wide array of flowers for pollination, an activity that makes themprized agricultural workers. Apples, cherries, melons, almonds, and blueberries are just some ofthe plants dependent on honeybees. A distinctive feature of this species is the “pollen basket”. The pollen basket doesn’t refer to the many crops pollinated by honey bees, and it’s not an adorable tournament where honey bees compete against each other. The pollen basket is a clump of hair on several species of bees’ hind legs. If you’ve ever seen a bee with a yellow mass on their hind legs, this is the pollen that they gather in the basket. The pollen is held together with nectar and packed on by bees when they groom themselves.
Unfortunately, honey bees have been exhibiting signs of a disturbing decline. Colony Collapse Disorder is a phenomena that has affected between 30-50% of hives in the late 2000’scharacterized by a mass exodus of worker bees from a colony, even when the colony had ample honey and pollen. The reason for this is unclear, but stress from agricultural intensification is a likely culprit. Bees are victims of stress from unsafe handling practices or being placed in constant close proximity to human habitation. Naturally, this is a worrying trend, given the importance of honey bees in agriculture. This has sparked a renewed interest in beekeeping.
Written by: Robert Gibson, an undergraduate Environmental Studies student at the University of Oklahoma