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Garden Allies: Honey Bees

Articles: Garden Allies: Honey Bees
Larva, worker, queen, and drone. Illus: Craig Latker

An Insect Synonymous with Civilization

In the late 1600’s, Johannes Swammerdam meticulously dissected a honey bee with home made tools and a primitive microscope. In doing so, he discovered that the “king” bee possessed ovaries and was, in fact, a “queen.” His remarkable drawings remain unparalleled. Swammerdam demonstrated that insects had systems as complex as any other animal. He was also the first to elucidate the process of metamorphosis, determining that caterpillars and other holometabolous larvae did not mysteriously change into a completely different animal, but gradually transformed into an adult form.

Honey bees have long fascinated humankind. No one, for example, finds it odd that we devote entire shops to a single species of insect and its products. Honey bees are an ageless and enduring motif in human cultures around the world. They were important in Greek mythology, in which priestesses of Demeter and Artemis were known as the “Melissae,” or Bees. They are featured in the creation myth of the San people of the Kalahari Desert, and appear as Freemason, Hindu, and Christian symbols. The Mayans were known to worship a bee god, and the Egyptians revered bees as a symbol of the sun god Ra. Honey bees are viewed as hard working, industrious, and cooperative; their social structure universally admired and emulated.

A Multitude of Services

It is no accident that honey bees have our respect; historians note that the domestication of honey bees is associated with the rise of early civilizations, and well over thirty percent of our crops rely on pollination by honey bees. Of course, humans also appreciate the taste of honey and have sometimes gone to great lengths to acquire it; Himalayan honey hunters, for instance, cling to sheer cliffs to gather honey, an ancient practice that continues today. With the advent of paraffin, we take candles for granted, but bees were once the principal source of household wax candles. Other bee products include propolis, a mixture of resins gathered and used by bees as a sealant, now valued for medicinal and antibacterial properties. Royal jelly, a glandular secretion fed to larvae and queen bees, has a long history as a health and beauty treatment. Allergy sufferers sometimes eat regionally produced pollen to better tolerate the effects of local flora when it is in bloom. Even bees themselves have been enlisted; a longtime folk remedy (supported by a recent study) is bee sting therapy to reduce the pain and inflammation of arthritis.

In the wild, bees live in colonies in trees and other hollows, while domesticated bees live in hives. The familiar honey bee and other Apis species are not native to the Americas, but several species of “stingless” meliponine bees in South America also produce harvestable honey. Once honey bees arrived in eastern North America, they quickly spread, but did not cross the Rockies, and were not introduced to the West until the mid-1800s, when they arrived by ship. There was no Native American word for honey bees; they were known as the white man’s fly.

Hives are often moved long distances to provide pollination services for crops; about one third of all the hives in the US, for instance, are trucked in to pollinate almonds. This movement of hives is undoubtedly a factor in the many health problems honey bees face today, as it contributes to the spread of diseases and parasites. Another factor may be the corn syrup that is often fed to bees as an overwintering nutrient in commercial operations. Pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, are increasingly implicated in the depletion of bee populations.

Worker with pollen ball. Illus: Craig Latker

Specialized Labor

Honey bees live in perennial colonies, with a generally solitary queen bee that lays all the eggs. Unfertilized eggs become drones, and fertilized eggs become workers. A fertilized egg laid in a special cell, and supplied with only royal jelly as larval food, becomes a queen. The queen lays hundreds of eggs a day, especially in the spring, as worker bees only live a few weeks and must be replaced. Workers divide labor according to life stages, beginning their adult stage with the care of larvae and queen. A few days later, they switch to hive maintenance tasks such as wax work and nectar processing. At about three weeks, most worker bees become foragers, while others take on roles in defense or disposal of dead bees.

Honey bees collect pollen, a valuable source of protein for larvae, in “pollen baskets” on their hind legs. They are able to communicate the direction and distance from the hive to good sources of nectar and pollen with a delightful “waggle dance.” Honey bees visit a wide variety of flowering plants but concentrate on a single plant species at a time; this makes possible the diverse flavors of honey, such as the clear flavor of clover, the floral note of orange blossom, and the deep richness of chestnut. No summer garden is complete without the pleasant hum of honey bees.

At Insecta-Palooza, the annual celebration of all things entomological at Sonoma State University, no matter what the theme, we celebrate the honey bee each year by providing our hard-working crew of student and community volunteers with worker bee tee shirts. A few students opt for drone tee shirts. There is, of course, only one queen bee!

Worker at the hive. Illus: Craig Latker

In a Nutshell

Popular Names:

Honey bee, European honey bee, Western honey bee

Scientific Name:

Order: Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees). Superfamily: Apoidea (bees). Family: Apidae, which comprises over 5,000 species. In addition to honey bees (Apis mellifera), the family includes bumble bees, carpenter bees, orchid bees, long-horned bees, stingless bees and several more obscure groups, including other honey producing bees not considered here.

Common Species:

Over twenty subspecies of honey bee (Apis mellifera), adapted to different conditions. Hybrid strains also exist, including the infamous Africanized honey bee. The most common strain in the western US is the Italian honey bee (Apis mellifera subsp. ligustica). Subspecies and hybrid strains may exhibit great variability in color, behavior, aggressiveness, and other characteristics.


Honey bees are thought to have originated in tropical Africa, then spread to the Mediterranean and Asia thousands of years ago. Introduced to North America with the first European explorers and colonists.

Life Cycle:

Complete metamorphosis. The queen is (with rare exceptions) the only reproductive female; other females work to maintain the colony; males (drones) exist only for reproduction.


Eggs: small, translucent, sausage-shaped. Larvae: white, legless, grub-like, relatively inactive. Pupae: Exarate (legs and appendages are free). Adults: Italian bees include dark and light strains, but are generally golden, with brown and golden yellow-striped abdomens.

Life Span:

The queen lives three to four years on average. Spring and summer worker bees live only a few weeks; overwintering workers live several months, especially in areas of harsh winters. Drones live only a few weeks.


Honey bee larvae are fed pollen, nectar (honey), and royal jelly. Prospective queen larvae are fed only royal jelly.

Favorite plants:

Angiosperm flowers for sustenance; in the wild, hollow trees serve as nesting sites. Honey bees favor blue or white flowers, but will visit flowers of any color.


Pollination, honey, wax, and other products.


Colony collapse disorder, mites, and a host of other issues. Common predators include spiders, mockingbirds, skunks, dragonflies, and bears.

Interesting facts:

Only Hymenoptera sting, and only females have stingers. A stinger is a modified ovipositor (the reproductive structure used in egg laying). In honey bees, the stinger is barbed; both stinger and the venom sack remain in the skin of the human victim. Bees are a specialized type of wasp, having descended from the wasp family (Sphecidae).


Hives readily available; providing abundant floral resources will attract many pollinating bees to gardens.

More information:

Garden Allies, Pacific Horticulture, April 2010 and April 2011.

Honey Bees: Letters from the Hive, 2011, Stephen Buchmann (Ember).

UC Davis information: https://entomology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/mussen/news.cfm, https://beebiology.ucdavis.edu/HAVEN/honeybeehaven.html, and https://entomology.ucdavis.edu/web.cfm.

https://www.ted.com/talks/louie_schwartzberg_the_hidden_ beauty_of_pollination.html.

Golub microscope collection: https://golubcollection.berkeley.edu/


A honey bee sanctuary: www.themelissagarden.com




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