Apis dorsata is among the largest species of bees (17–20 mm in body length and a forewing length of 12–15 mm). As in other species of honey bees, A. dorsata is highly variable in coloration depending on the race, which is also associated with the distribution. Apis dorsata is remarkable for having a well-organized mass defense reaction, where once an intruder is marked by being stung, it can be followed kilometers away. In addition, a single colony of A. dorsata can migrate between 100–200 km every year, and it is dependent on the dry and rainy seasons (Gupta 2014).
As with all species of honey bees, A. dorsata is a generalist and visits a broad range of plants for food.
Nests of A. dorsata are typically constructed in open or exposed and conspicuous areas (tall trees, rock cliffs, or even buildings). Usually the nests are aggregated (although they can also be single), and it is not uncommon to find 10–25 nests in the same area or even on a single tree (also known as bee trees). Their nests are normally at heights of around 6 m above ground (Engel 2012), however, some nests can be found as low as 3 m and as high as 25 m. In terms of their architecture, nests are composed of a single comb built below rocks or tree branches (undersurface of its support), and their organization is similar to that of other species of honey bees: honey storage is at the top, followed by pollen storage, worker brood, and drone brood. The lower part of the nest is the active area or “mouth” where workers take off and land and where dances are performed by scouts. Dances take place on the vertical surface of the comb.
There are three currently recognized subspecies: A. dorsata dorsata, with the broader distribution; A. d. brevilingua which is in the shorter range of body size but has a broader metasoma, a short tongue, intermediate forewing length, and is found in the Philippines; and A. d. binghami (the Indonesian honey bee) which has a longer tongue and forewing compared to A. d. brevilingua and is only found in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The latter two subspecies are more similar in coloration (uniformly black and with distinctive bands in the metasoma) compared with A. dorsata dorsata (more yellowish-orange).
Apis dorsata is widespread across most of South (Indian subcontinent) and Southeast Asia (Basavarajappa and Raghunandan 2013, Gupta 2014). It is common in lower altitudes and in plains of its distribution (not above 2000 m).