There are almost 20,000 species of bees in the world which have been identified to date. Bees are close relatives of ants, wasp and hornets. One genus under which all honey bees fall, Apis, contains all the known species of honey bee forming at least 44 sub species. Bees in this genus are all characterised by their abilities to produce and store honey and build comb from wax. It is these properties that mankind has learned to use by learning to harvest honey from wild colonies or managing colonies in hives.
Many of the sub species described to date have one or more other variants. Geographical isolation and breeding of favoured local bees by beekeepers has led to numerous versions of the better described sub species. Given the vast number of sub species (and it may be possible to describe many more than 44), we will only look at the main species and the better known subspecies we see in modern beekeeping and some of the more interesting species from which mankind has learned to harvest from to his advantage.
Apis mellifera (the “European” or “Western” honey bee)
Apis mellifera is the most wide spread species of honey bee in the world. It is the main species which has truly been “domesticated” by humans, largely due to its habit of building its nests within cavities (e.g. amongst rocks or within hollows in trees). It is due to this habit that A. mellifera lends itself to being “kept” in hives. A. mellifera has been cultivated by humans for at least 5000 years.
The species is characterised by colonies numbering 10s of thousands that form multiple combs per colony and build their colonies within cavities. The colonies can survive in a very wide range of climates (most climates occupied by humans) and can use a very wide range of food sources. Colonies can live through winters in cool temperate zones (albeit only numbering between 10 to 20% of their summer numbers) by laying down considerable stores of honey gathered through the summer months. It is these characteristics that have led humans to favour A. Mellifera.
Due to the wide geographical spread of A. mellifera, a number of sub-
Apis mellifera mellifera (the “Northern European” or “dark” or “German” honey bee)
Here in the UK, the native bee -
Apis mellifera ligustica (the “Italian” honey bee)
A. mellifera ligustica originates in Italy and the neighbouring parts of the Mediterranean where it is believed to have survived during the last ice age. It is the most widely spread (and preferred) of all the sub-
Apis mellifera carnica (the “carneolan” or “grey” bee)
Sometimes known as the Slovenian bee, due to Slovenia’s mountain ranges creating geographical isolation (and hence purity) of A. mellifera carnica, the carneolan bee is a sub-
Apis mellifera macedonica (The “Macedonian” bee)
The Macedonian Bee looks similar to its northern cousin A. mellifera mellifera. Like its northern cousin, the Macedonian bee has readily hybridised with the the Italian bee. Although first described in Macedonia and northern parts of Greece, it is naturalised in an area extending all the way into the Ukraine and stretching around the north of the Black Sea towards the Middle East from where this strain is first thought to have arisen.
Apis mellifera cecropia (The “Greek” bee)
Very similar in appearance to the Italian bee, the Greek bee is favoured for its very mild temperament, large colony size, lack of tendency to swarm and good foraging ability. However it is renowned for being a heavy producer of propolis, making it difficult to separate hive parts and is not thought to do well in the damp and cooler climates of northern Europe. The Greek bee has often been used to produce crosses in an attempt to instil less aggression into northern bees. However, some beekeepers have reported that crosses of Greek and Northern strains often produce very aggressive colonies one or two generations on.
Apis mellifera iberiensis (The “Iberian” bee or “Gibraltar” bee)
An unusual bee from southern Europe, A. mellifera iberiensis (sometimes referred to as iberica) is a small, black bee that can be found throughout much of the Iberian peninsula. Although there are considerable numbers of Italian bees kept by beekeepers in the region, the Iberian bee has remained relatively pure. The sub species, thought to originate from crosses with bees from northern Africa, exhibits a high degree of polyandry, with drones actively seeking out other colonies in order to mate with queens. The drones are believed to be very specific to their own kind and this habit maintains a very pure yet genetically diverse strain. Colonies are often destroyed upon being found. The Iberian bee, although not overly aggressive, has a tendency for a handful of “sentry” bees to patrol the area around the colony up to 24 hours following a disturbance and attack any intruders. This has led to a poor reputation and the bee often ends up the loser.
Apis mellifera caucasica (the “Caucasian” bee)
The Caucasian bee originates in the Caucasus region (the mountain range dividing South-
Other European Sub Species of the Western Honey Bee
A number of island dwelling sub species have been described in the Mediterranean all having become geographically isolated and specialised for their particular habitats.
A. mellifera ruttneri (the “Maltese” bee 1) -
A. mellifera sicula (the “Sicilian” bee 2) -
A. mellifera cypria (the “Cypriot” bee 3)
A. mellifera adami (the “Cretian” bee 4)
Apis mellifera scutellata (the “African” honey bee)
An otherwise unremarkable sub-
In fact, the A. mellifera scutellata is no more aggressive than most other sub-
Apis mellifera scutellata is actually under threat. The Cape bee (A. mellifera capensis) from southern South Africa readily invades the colonies of African bees. The Cape bee workers are capable of laying eggs that turn into clones of themselves, known as thelytoky (from the Greek thēlys "female" and tokos "birth"), gradually growing in numbers and taking over the colony. Thelytoky is a type of parthogenesis -
Apis cerana (the “Asiatic” or “Eastern” or “Himalayan” honey bee)
Apis cerana is found in a vast range from northern India, across southeast Asia to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan. Like A. mellifera, cerana is a cavity nesting bee making it suitable for housing in a hive. The species is kept extensively by farmers across this vast region although due to having a smaller colony size than the Western honey bee (A. mellifera) its honey yields are quite small. This has led to wide scale importation of the Western bee which in turn has led to bee diseases of A. cerana crossing over to A. mellifera -
A. cerana is characterised by a smaller (around ¾ the length of A mellifera), narrower body than that of the Western bee and has quite marked yellow bands between the abdominal segments. It is renowned for adapting to seasonal changes (in temperature and flora) rapidly. The species is found in habitats ranging from low land forest and scrub to high mountain passes in the Himalayas. In fact it is reported that A. cerana can survive short spells at freezing point -
The Asiatic bee has co-
Many will have seen the Asiatic honey bee on video clips from the National Geographic channel. The Asiatic bee faces a number of fearsome predators in the Asian hornet, the largest of which is the Japanese giant hornet. The latter being 5 times larger than the honey bee can destroy entire honey bee colonies numbering 30,000 bees within 2 to 3 hours. Once a scout hornet finds a bee colony, other hornets are led to the colony and proceed to attack the bees until all are dead, leaving the hornets free to gorge themselves on the honey and take the bee larvae back their nest to feed to their own young. The Asiatic honey bee has learned to adapt to this onslaught. The bees are unable to take on such a large predator one-
Apis dorsata (the “giant” honey bee)
The giant honey bee is found in locations across southern and south east Asia. It is typically found in densely forested areas and nests beneath large branches and under rocky over-
The giant honey bees are -
Due to the giant honey bee not building its combs in enclosed cavities (like A. mellifera), it has never been domesticated.
Apis florea (the “red dwarf” honey bee) and Apis andreniformis (the “black dwarf” honey bee)
Existing as two species (A. florea -
The dwarf bee -
Closely related to A. cerana, A. nigrocincta has become slightly distinct from its more widespread neighbour due to its isolation on a handful of islands in Indonesia and the Philippines.