Apis mellifera


Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Apidae
Subfamily: Apinae
Tribe: Apini
Genus: Apis Linnaeus, 1758
Species: Apis mellifera Linnaeus, 1758
Common names: European honey bee, western honey bee, honey bee


Apis mellifera, or the western honey bee, is the most commonly domesticated species of the eight honey bee species in the genus Apis. All Apis species are eusocial, forming large colonies with a queen and many female workers. The western honey bee is the species most commonly used in agriculture and is kept by beekeepers as well as hobbyists to produce honey and for pollination services. Honey bees are used to pollinate more than 30% of our food, and in the United States honey bees annually pollinate over $14 billion worth of crops.

How to separate from Asian giant hornet

  • Honey bees are MUCH smaller than Asian giant hornets; workers are approximately 1 cm long
  • Honey bees have a "fuzzy" thorax and dark head/face


With the aid of humans, the western honey bee has been introduced to all continents except Antarctica. This species is thought to have had its origins in Africa (Whitfield et al. 2006) or Asia (Han et al. 2012), and later dispersed through Africa, the Middle East, and Europe (Mortensen et al. 2013).

Distribution map of Apis mellifera: https://www.gbif.org/species/1341976

Diagnostic characteristics

  • Long hair on their eyes
  • Hairy bodies
  • Barrel-shaped body (without slender petiole between thorax and abdomen)
  • Body length 1 cm (0.5 inches)

Worker identification:

  • Hind legs with corbicula to carry pollen masses back to the colony
  • Barbed sting
  • Smallest and most abundant of the three castes

Queen identification:

Drone identification:

  • The male honey bee caste
  • Eyes meet on top of the head
  • Head and thorax larger than the female castes
  • Abdomen thick with a blunt end


Because these bees are highly adaptable, they have become widespread geographically, long enough to have formed distinct races (Whitfield et al. 2006). Historically these geographic races have been described as many as 31 subspecies, but they have all been found to be cross-fertile (Engel 1999).

Host/prey associations

Honey bee workers collect pollen and nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants. Nectar is transported back to the colony where it is converted into honey, and fed to the larvae and stored for times of food stress. Larvae destined to become future queens are fed royal jelly, a white material produced by the workers, composed of a mixture of pollen and glandular secretions.

Importation of honey bees from their native ranges has led to the introduction of honey bee-specific pathogens and pests. Western honey bees in the United States are susceptible to a wide range of viral, fungal, and bacterial infections, including deformed wing virus, chalk brood, Nosema, European foulbrood, and American foulbrood. They are also susceptible to infestation by nest parasites, such as tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi), wax moths (Achroia grisella), small hive beetles (Aethina tumida), and Varroa mites (Mortensen et al. 2013).

Nesting and general behavior

Like all honey bee species, the western honey bee is eusocial and has large colonies with: a single fertile female, the queen; many sterile females, or workers; and a small number of fertile male drones. Female larvae can become workers or queens, depending on their diet. Royal jelly, a special secretion from the glands of worker bees, is initially fed to all bee larvae. Workers and drones are not fed royal jelly after the first three days of development. Larvae that will become new queens are fed royal jelly throughout the rest of their development and their entire adult lives.

Most bee species are solitary with annual colonies. However, honey bees have perennial colonies that continue from year to year. Western honey bee colonies reproduce through a process called "swarming." In most climates, they swarm in the spring and early summer, when there are abundant flowers for collecting nectar and pollen. In a typical colony several thousand worker bees cooperate in nest building, food collection, and brood rearing. Worker honey bee tasks are divided among individuals based on their age.

Known invasives

Although honey bees are extremely important to agriculture all over the world, they compete with native pollinators and can spread disease. Honey bees were first introduced to North America by settlers in the early 1600s.

<p><em>Apis mellifera</em>; photo by USDA, Flickr</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em>; photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em>; photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em>; photo by USDA, Flickr</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em> in apiary; photo by USDA, Flickr</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em>; photo by USDA, Flickr</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em>, dorsal view; photo by Hanna Royals, USDA APHIS PPQ ITP</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em>, lateral view; photo by Todd Gilligan, USDA APHIS PPQ ITP</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em>, anterior view; photo by Todd Gilligan, USDA APHIS PPQ ITP</p>
<p><em>Apis mellifera</em> (left) compared to <em>Vespa mandarinia</em> (right), dorsal view; photos by Hanna Royals and Todd Gilligan, USDA APHIS PPQ ITP</p>