Honey Bee

black and yellow bee on wooden surface

The honey bee is a hymenopterous social living insect in the bee and bumblebee family and is found in large numbers.

Artificial hives must be maintained regularly to rid them of debris and to harvest honey. Under natural conditions, bees always build a new nest to escape nest parasites. Maintenance is performed by professional beekeepers, the beekeepers. The branch of entomology that specializes in bees is apidology.

The colony of bees has several different manifestations, the hives: the lees, the workers and the drones. The lees or queen is the rarest. The queen is the one who maintains the nest by laying large quantities of eggs, up to 2,000 per day. Like the lees, the workers are female. Most individuals in a colony of honey bees are workers. In summer, the male bees emerge, the drones. In addition to mating, they play a role in temperature regulation in the colony. If there is not enough pollen in the bees’ nest, they are removed. In a nest in winter, one nut and about 10,000 worker bees are present; there are no drones then. In summer, several hundred drones are present and the number of worker bees can reach 80,000.

Distribution and habitat

The honey bee is native to Africa and Europe and its natural range extends to about 60 degrees north latitude. This is approximately the line Oslo – St. Petersburg. However, the bee has spread throughout the world and is found on all continents except Antarctica.

The honey bee is found wherever flowering plants grow that depend on animal pollination. This is even reversible; plants dependent on pollination cannot survive in regions where insects such as bees cannot live. The honey bee is found in almost all possible habitats; only in places that are too cold or, on the contrary, too warm does the species not occur. The only exception is dense forests, where there are too few flowering plants for the honey bee.

Examples of places that are too cold are areas near the poles, such as the extreme southern tip of South America and northern parts of Europe and North America. Honey bees are also absent in pronounced high mountains. The honey bee is also absent from areas that are too hot, such as large parts of northern Africa near the Sahara.


Originally, the western honey bee comes from Africa. The map on the right shows the distribution of the different subspecies in Europe. The boundaries of the different areas are not always clear and the land border of some subspecies is indicated.

The subspecies of the honey bee have different ranges. The nominal species Apis mellifera mellifera is the best known subspecies and has the largest distribution within Europe. This species is the European black bee and thrives best in northern Europe. The range of this subspecies extends from the Pyrenees to the Urals and north to southern Scandinavia. Other known subspecies are Apis mellifera iberica found in the Iberian Peninsula and Apis mellifera carnica from the Balkans.

A 2014 study found that European biofuel policies and the common agricultural policy, through the cultivation of other crops such as rapeseed and sunflowers, are causing a significant shortage of pollinator bees. The reduced presence of legumes, bellflowers and cornflowers in the landscape also decreases the population of bee species that have these as their main food.

External Characteristics

Bees, like all insects, have a body divided into three parts, a head or caput, a thorax or thorax and an abdomen or abdomen. Here each part in turn is divided into segments, some of which bear body protrusions. The head has two antennae on the upper side that serve as a tactile organ and on the lower side located in the mouthparts. The thorax consists of three segments that are fused but the three parts can be recognized by the position of the legs and wings. The abdomen is the largest and bears appendages only at the rear, these form the sting of the females.

The honey bee has distinct body hair, especially the thorax and the top of the head have dense and long hairs. Many hairs are also present on the rest of the head and on the abdomen. Body hair serves to retain heat and plays a role in being able to survive harsh winters.

The honey bee is an insect that exhibits polymorphism, with its appearance depending on caste. Most specimens are workers that are always female, drones, males, also occur part of the year and the main bee in the nest is the lees or queen. The three appearances look slightly different, the drones are easiest to recognize by much larger eyes. The female workers and the lees are more difficult to tell apart as they crawl through the hive. In fact, the nut is not much larger than the worker, although the abdomen is clearly slightly longer.


The head of the honey bee is clearly separated from the thorax and is easily identified by the eyes and antennae. The honey bee has two antennae that always consist of a short base and a long end. Both parts consist of different segments and are separated by a distinct joint. The antenna consists of three parts, at the base the scapus is present, which consists of one part that is slightly extended. The end of the antenna is the flagellum, this part is much longer and is articulated, it consists of segments. Both parts are connected by the pedicel, which is a small thickening that serves as a hinge so that the ends are very mobile.

The honey bee, like all hymenopterans, has two large eyes on either side of the head that are made up of many small sub-eyes, the whole is the compound eye or facet eye. A bee’s eyes serve to recognize its surroundings, also a bee can associate certain shapes with a food source. This ability is somewhat limited, however; for example, a bee can learn to distinguish a cross from a square, but cannot tell the difference between a square and a circle. The eyes can perceive polarized light, which is emitted by the sun and even when it is cloudy a bee can see this light. It is used to find the nest after searching for food. The eyes are adapted to a different light spectrum than humans’ eyes, for example. A bee can see colors but sees different colors than the human eye. The color red, for example, is beyond its ability to perceive, but ultraviolet light can be seen. This plays a role in the search for honey; many plants have a so-called honey mark on the flowers made up of ultraviolet colors.

In addition to the facet eyes, the bee has three ocelli, single eyes positioned in the center of the top of the head. The ocelli are much smaller than the facet eyes and are not always easy to observe due to the rather long hair. The facet eyes perform the main visual function, while the ocelli can only detect coarse shifts in light.

The mouthparts of the honey bee are surrounded by an upper lip or labrum on the top and a lower lip or labium on the bottom. At the front are the mandibles or upper jaws. The jaws of bees are relatively small, since they are no longer used for clipping. Other hymenopterans do have developed jaws because they use them a lot. Examples are folding wing wasps that grind insects into a porridge. The upper jaw of the honey bee is flattened and has a spoon-like shape, the upper jaws are mainly used to knead and work wax. Also present is a hind jaw that bears the proboscis or sucking proboscis, at the end of which is the tongue or glossus with a small triangular structure at the end, the labellum. The tongue has fine hairs and a groove on its underside. Through the groove, honey runs into the bee’s mouth opening.


The thorax or thorax of the bee, as in other insects, is divided into three parts called the prothorax (pro, front), mesothorax (meso, middle) and metathorax (meta, rear) from front to back. Each segment carries one pair of legs on the underside, and both the mesothorax and metathorax segments each carry one pair of wings on the top. The honey bee thus has a total of four wings and can be distinguished by this from some very similar insects, such as the blind bee, a fly in the family Syrphidae. See also under distinction from other animals.


The wings are membranous and transparent, the wings of insects are formed from leg-like structures that have transformed into hardened but very thin membranes. The lower edge of the front wing has a row of grooves and the upper edge of the hind wing has a row of curved hairs. When a honey bee sits on a flower the wings are folded over each other and the grooves and hairs do not make contact but during flight the hairs hook into the grooves so that each pair of wings functions as a single wing which greatly increases the efficiency of flight. These connecting structures are the hamuli. Similar linkage between the wings is also present in other insects, such as many butterflies.

The wings of insects consist of a membranous surface provided with veins. The wing veining is always different in different winged insects, and the veining of the honey bee is also species-specific. The wings have a distinct wing veining that is black in color. The different wing veins have names to distinguish them from each other, as do the cells they form. The cells are the parts located between the veins. The most prominent cell is the so-called radial cell, on the upper side of the wing. In the honey bee, this cell is strongly elongated in shape. Below the radial cell are positioned three small cells; the cubital cells. Below these are the larger discal cells. At the base of the wing, the medial cell can be seen in the middle. On the upper side of the wing margin, a dark spot can be seen, the pterostigma. This structure probably has a stabilizing function so that the wing can be moved more efficiently.

The honey bee travels a tremendous distance during its life by flying from food sources to the nest. The bee can travel kilometers in search of food during a single flight and makes an average of 15 flights per day. However, this can increase to as many as 150 flights per day, the number of flowers visited can reach around 1,000.

Most workers meet their end because their wings are so worn out that they can no longer fly to the nest. This also explains the longer life span of a worker bee in winter and of the lees, as they hardly fly. Because of the hard work and the enormous distances the worker bee travels, her wings wear out quickly, flying up to 250 km on some days. After flying about 800 km, her wings are worn out. She then starves or falls prey to predators.


The honey bee has three pairs of legs, which are similar in parts but the shape of each member is distinctly different for each pair of legs. The legs are used to attach the body to the substrate but also have several other functions. The legs consist of a coxa (hip), a femur (thigh), a tibia (shin) and finally the tarsus (foot). The tarsus is the only part of the paw that consists of articulations; the tarsus of bees always have five articulations. Remarkably, the first tarsus member of the honey bee is always greatly widened and hairy. This first member is the basitarsus, and in the front and hind leg, the basitarsus has a special construction and corresponding function. The last part of the tarsus, that is, at the end of the leg, bears the claws, which are hook-shaped. With these, the bee holds on to the substrate.

The front pair of legs has a complex construction, the leg fulfills a function as a polishing organ for the antennae and eyes. To this end, the honey bee strokes the antenna at the head along an opening in the front leg to clear the antenna of contaminants. The honey bee’s eyes and antennae are very sensitive but if they become contaminated by dust particles, their efficiency suffers. Since the honey bee often enters environments where there is a lot of pollen, they also quickly become contaminated. The polishing organ consists of a round notch in the basitarsus, which has fine hairs on the inside. The end of the part above the basitarsus, the shin or tibia, has a hinged protrusion that is opened when the antenna is inserted into the polish organ and then closed. Thus, the antenna is surrounded by the fine bristles and by sliding the antenna from front to back through the polishing organ, the surface is cleared of small particles. Slightly behind the articulated part of the tibia, a fine bristle is present on the paw, which serves as an eye brush. The eye brush is moved over the eye surface to clean the facet eyes.

The middle pair of legs is similar to the legs of other insects and does not bear specialized structures. The leg does play a role in getting the pollen into the hive; the hairs on the middle leg consist of extended setae that comb the pollen into the hive, so to speak.

The hind legs are the best developed; this pair of legs has a number of structures that enable the honey bee to collect and transport large quantities of pollen. The pollen is gathered in the pollen basket, which is a deeper part of the paw that is surrounded by long hairs directed toward the sunken part. The pollen basket is located in the shin of the leg, on the outside. The pollen is introduced into the hive by movements of the legs, more specifically the widened first tarsus part, the basitarsus. The basitarsus has rows of hairs to form a brush. On a flower, the bee sweeps together the surrounding pollen and puts it into the hive To make it a little stickier, honey is given up from the honey stomach and added to the pollen grains. As the bee flies to the next flower, the hind legs are moved busily, pushing the pollen through the brush into the pollen basket. Occasionally it is tamped down a bit to ensure the pollen stays in the hive.

Hind body

The abdomen of the honey bee is clearly distinguishable from the thorax by a strong constriction. This so-called wasp waist occurs in all hymenopteran insects, such as wasps and ants. Because the thorax and abdomen do not lie against each other – as is the case in other insects such as beetles – the bee’s body has much more freedom of movement. This constriction of the body is formed by the first parts of the abdomen, the petiolus.

In worker bees, the abdomen houses the internal venom glands, the venom sac in which there is a supply of venom. For the functioning of the venom glands, see also under venom gland. At the end of the abdomen is a shaft that contains a protruding stabbing organ; the sting. The abdomen also houses the main parts of the organ systems, such as the digestive system and various glands; these are discussed under internal anatomy.

The sting is actually a converted ovipositor, this ovipositor is also found in other insects. It is used in other insects only to insert the eggs into the substrate, as is the case in sable grasshoppers. In many hymenoptera such as bumblebees, bees, wasps and some ants, the ovipositor is no longer used to deposit eggs but serves only to sting. Because only females have ovipositor tubes, only they can sting; males cannot.

The stinging device consists of several parts; the venom sac stores the poison. The sting consists of two parts surrounded by a sheath-like structure. The sting parts are located against each other and in between them a channel is created. At the end of the sting parts barbs are present, making the sting very difficult to remove. Located above the sting are two small tactile organs, which examine the location of the sting for suitability. Venom is supplied to the sting by two little channels and the venom is injected by the contraction of muscles. The muscles are attached to the hardened abdomen. When a bee tries to sting, the abdomen is first curved and the tactile organs are used to search for a soft surface. Because of this, a bee will not sting a hardened part like a nail. Next, the sting is protruded and the muscles are used to insert it into the substrate. Venom is pumped into the wound and also pheromones are secreted which have an alarming effect on the other bees. The bee then flies away, tearing the stinging organ from the abdomen. This leaves the venom gland present on the victim and through contractions it continues to inject venom even after the bee has already flown away. If the victim is unlucky, other bees in the area pick up the alarm pheromone, after which they will all try to sting.

It is often the sentinel bees guarding the nest that sting, also if a bee searching for food is harassed it will sting. Both the guard bees and those seeking honey are all older specimens. The younger bees mainly work in the nest, building combs and feeding the larvae. Thus, the older bees are constantly being replaced by younger bees, so it is not a big deal that some of the bees are lost because they die after being stung.

It is thought that the queen bee cannot sting because she needs to deposit eggs. However, the eggs come out through an opening at the base of the sting, the sting is fully developed just like the workers, so a nut can indeed sting. However, her sting is different in shape from that of the workers; the tip does not bear barbs so the nut does not die after being stung. She is thus the only honey bee that can sting multiple times.

The sexual organs are also located at the end of the abdomen. An important difference between the lees and the workers is the size of the egg laying apparatus. In the nut, they fill almost the entire abdomen; the base of the whole is an unpaired ovary connected to the sex opening. Just after the genital opening is located the seminal vesicle or spermathea, which connects to the ovary with an opening. Behind the seminal vesicle, the ovary branches into two strands. Each strand is further branched into many dozens of small clusters. These in turn consist of smaller, elongated structures, the egg tubes or ovarioles. In these, the eggs mature until they can be deposited, passing along the unpaired part of the oviduct and coming into contact with the opening to the seminal vesicle. In most cases, eggs are deposited to produce workers and the egg is fertilized. If there is a need for males, the opening to the spermathea remains closed and the egg is not fertilized. Only from unfertilized eggs can males arise, so they have only half the genetic material. A drone has effectively no father but a grandfather due to specialized reproduction.

Distinction from other animals

The honey bee is very similar to other species in the genus Apis, such as the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana). This species is more common in eastern Asia and can often be distinguished by its range. The Asian honey bee remains slightly smaller than the honey bee, another difference being the more pronounced yellow transverse bands of the abdomen. In the honey bee, these are darker in color and less distinguishable.

The honey bee can also be confused with some other species of bees, such as the solitary large silk bee (Colletes cunicularius). However, like other solitary bees, this species does not form colonies and its legs do not carry pollen baskets. Also different is the radial cell, which is the wing cell at the top of the forewing. This is always very elongated in the honey bee; in the large silk bee, the cell is considerably shorter.

Bees and wasps are avoided by some insectivores because they can sting. As a result, they are imitated by other insects, these are almost always hoverflies. In particular, the species in the genus Eristalis are very similar to the honey bee. Hoverflies can be distinguished in several ways, the main difference being the number of wings; bees always have two pairs (four) of wings, while hoverflies always have one pair (two) of wings and two wings transformed into small flaps that are barely noticeable. Hoverflies can hover dead still in the air thanks to these modified wings; bees cannot. Another difference is in the eyes, hoverflies always have round eyes, just like the males of the honey bee. Females, however, which represent almost all specimens found in the field, have elongated eyes. Finally, hoverflies have very short antennae, these, like those of the honey bee, consist of three parts but are substantially shorter. Moreover, the antennal parts of the bee vary greatly in length and those of the hoverfly are about the same length. Hoverflies never have pollen baskets and live exclusively on nectar. Finally, hoverflies never have an ovipositor and therefore lack the sting.

Internal anatomy

Some organ structures are located in a particular part of the body, such as the stinging apparatus and the sexual organs located in the abdomen. Other systems are located throughout the body such as the nervous and circulatory systems. The various glands are often located in a particular part, but the secretory system is treated separately for clarity.

Respiration, circulation and nervous system.

Like all insects, the honey bee has no lungs and does not breathe through its mouth. The bee obtains oxygen from atmospheric air through the breathing openings on either side of the abdomen. These suck in air that pumps air through tubes or tracheae to the organs. These breathing openings are the stigma. Oxygen is thus carried directly to the organ tissues and not through a blood fluid. The blood is therefore colorless to yellowish; it contains no oxygen-binding molecules that give the blood a distinct red or blue color in other animals. Respiration is easily visible as regular contractions of the abdomen due to pumping movements.

The nervous system of the adult honey bee is well developed which explains its complex behavior. Other insects also have sometimes extraordinarily complex lifestyles and have a wide range of behaviors, in the honey bee, however, such behaviors and the underlying causes have been well studied.

The honey bee has a relatively large brain compared to other insects. The brain parts of the honey bee worker that control orientation are proportionally much larger. The brain is connected to the two nerve nodes in the thorax and the five nodes in the abdomen through two nerve strands that connect the whole.

The entire body of the honey bee is covered with fine hairs or setae, which contain mechanoreceptor sensory cells. These can convert movements into electrical signals that excite the nervous system. The main sensory organs are located on the head, such as the antennae. These are covered with receptors that pick up chemical compounds. They serve to perceive smells and tastes. The claws on the tarsus can also perceive tastes.

The larvae of the honey bee have a nervous system consisting of brains on the head side and a nerve node or ganglion in each segment that controls local nerves. These nerve nodes can be controlled directly by the head brain if necessary.


The mouthparts of a honey bee consist of an upper lip or labrum and a lower lip or labium, located between these is the sucking proboscis or proboscis, which can be extended to reach deeper into the flower. Once the bee sucks up food, it is brought to the esophagus by contractions of muscles. Located at the end of the esophagus is the honey stomach, which stores the nectar. The honey stomach is an enlarged part of the esophagus and is similar to a crop as found in vertebrate animals. It depends on the flower from which the bee sucks food how quickly the stomach is filled. The flowers of clover, for example, do not contain much nectar and a honey bee must visit 1,000 to 1,500 flowers in order to suck enough nectar to fill the honey stomach.

To prevent the bee from digesting the collected nectar itself rather than releasing it into the nest, a valve is present between the honey stomach and the actual stomach. This valve is the proventiculus; the valve can be opened by the bee when there is a need for energy. The valve also removes small solid particles from the nectar, such as pollen grains and even bacteria. These particles are removed and taken to the midgut where they are digested. The midgut is the bee’s actual stomach. The midgut secretes enzymes that absorb the sugars and proteins in the food so they can be converted into the substances useful to the bee. What remains is transported to the rectum. At the end of the midgut are many tube-like structures, Malpighi’s tubes. These structures drain the nitrogenous wastes after which they too are transported to the rectum. The tubes are similar in function to the kidneys of mammals

Bees prefer to defecate not in the nest but while flying. Only in winter do bees have to relieve themselves in the nest, which increases the risk of disease. If a bee cannot relieve itself for an extended period of time, such as during a frost, the rectum can be greatly stretched. If the rectum is overstretched, diarrhea or stirring may occur.

The larvae’s food is rich in proteins (pollen) and sugars (nectar), and the larvae digest the food almost completely so that little waste remains. The larvae have a highly adapted digestive system; they have the disadvantage of spending their entire development in a brood cell. If they were to defecate, the cell becomes contaminated with their own feces and this encourages bacterial growth. To this end, the feces are collected in the rear end of the larva’s body and only just before pupation can the larva get rid of the digestive remains. The larvae’s midgut has no outlet through which the wastes are stored. Only just before pupation are the feces released, they are then stuck against the wall of the cell and covered with a layer of spindle.

Glandular Systems

The honey bee has several glands throughout its body that serve a variety of functions. Some glands have a function in digestion and serve to make food more digestible. Other glands play a role in nest building, and scent glands are also present to provide information to conspecifics. The different glands bees have are described below from front to back.

The bee’s head contains several glands, which play a major role in maintaining the bee colony. The most important gland is the hypopharyngeal gland or feed juice gland. This gland is located at the front of the head and consists of many round, cluster-shaped organs connected to a duct in the middle. The duct of the feeding juice gland exits into the mouth. The feed juice gland is a highly specialized organ that completely switches in function during the development of the adult bee. In the honey bee, a young bee cares for the larvae and only the older bees move outside the nest to look for food, see also under division of labor. Young honey bees have a fully developed feeding gland that produces a sweet secretion that serves only to feed the bees’ larvae. As the honey bee ages, the gland shrivels and no more forage juice is produced.

The reduced gland takes on a substantially different function and secretes the enzyme invertase. Invertase plays an important role in the conversion of nectar to honey. A honey bee is able to convert the gland function again if needed, and honey bees that hibernate turn off the mechanism so they can continue to feed their larvae.

The honey bee has two types of salivary glands, with the head salivary gland located in the head. At the front of the thorax, the mammary salivary glands are positioned. These glandular systems consist of branching clusters of tissue that produce enzymes, these play a supporting role in digestion. Both glands drain into the same glandular duct; the gland opening is located in the oral cavity (pharynx) of the honeybee. When fluids are secreted from the feeding gland, some fluid is always added by the salivary glands. The head carries an upper mandibular gland and a lower mandibular gland, the whole being referred to as the mandibular glands. These glands add a preservative to the feed juice liquid so that it is less likely to spoil.

The wax glands serve to produce wax to build up the comb cells. It does occur more frequently within the animal world that an animal builds its own habitat from body secretions, as occurs, for example, in spiders. However, the wax production of bees is one of the most specialized forms of nest building; most other nest-building insects make their nests from natural products found in the environment, such as sand (termites), leaves (weaver ants) and small twigs (tubeworms). However, the honey bee’s comb comes entirely from the glands on the underside of the abdomen, the wax glands. These glands are located between the abdominal plates or sternites on the underside of the abdomen. The honey bee always has four pairs of wax glands, so eight in total.

The stinging apparatus of the Hymenoptera originates from an egg laying tube or ovipositor and is transformed into a sting. For a description of the stinging apparatus, see under abdomen. The sting is a kind of hypodermic needle that administers venom; the venom is produced by a thin, thread-like venom gland. The produced venom is collected in the venom bladder, which is the most pronounced part of the gland. Another alkaline gland is present on the abdominal side as part of the venom gland. This gland plays no role in venom production, but produces a waxy substance that permanently lubricates the sting, so to speak, so that it is ready for use at any time.

At the end of the abdomen, at the top, between the last dorsal plate and the tip of the abdomen, there is a scent gland that serves for communication, the nasonov gland after its discoverer. The scent gland is normally stowed under the abdomen plates, but can be protruded to disperse attractants. In doing so, the bee assumes a specific body position and stands high on its hind legs to elevate the gland which increases its efficiency. When using Nasonov’s gland, the honey bee will flap its wings to further disperse the secreted odorants. Located at the end of the abdomen are the abdomen glands.

The area surrounding the nest, such as a hollow tree, often has gaps and holes that provide access for small nest parasites. Such openings in the nest that are too small to be used as exits are bricked up with a special sealant called propolis. Propolis is not a pure glandular secretion like wax or feed juice, but is a natural material usually of plant origin. Often resin or ground plant parts are used, but it has also been described that tar is sometimes used from asphalted roads. However, secretions are added by the bee that give the substance an antimicrobial effect. The substance is antiviral and fungicidal and bactericidal. Propolis is also used on castor cells to protect them from microbes. Here, however, only a thin film layer of propolis is used.

Division of labor of worker bees

Maintaining the nest requires a great deal of cooperation, and the worker bees maintain a strict division of labor. Important tasks include making new comb cells, caring for the larvae, keeping the nest clean, chasing away enemies, sealing small nest openings, ventilating the nest, making honey, searching for food and protecting the nest. The active life of a honey bee begins right after it crawls out of the cell.

Honey bees have an internal biological clock, which allows them to better navigate and divide tasks. In addition, the biological clock is very important in the bee dance, through which the workers pass information to each other about food sources.

A honey bee’s tasks change throughout its life. The young, newly hatched bees have different tasks than older bees. The younger ones can fly right away but rarely do so, staying in the nest and performing household chores. A newly hatched honey bee will mainly occupy itself with cleaning cells, a few days later it is also able to process nectar. Meanwhile, the young worker bee watches her peers perform a bee dance. After six days, she can nurse and feed young larvae. When the worker is about 15 days old, she will occasionally visit the fly opening and also helps guard the home there. When she is about 21 days old, the worker bee will fly out for the first time to collect nectar and pollen.

Instead, the older bees fly a lot and search for food or guard the nest entrance. This change in division of labor increases the efficiency of the hive and is maintained by the constant supply of new bees crawling out of their pupa. This causes the bees to disperse from inside to outside the nest. In large hives, 1,000 to 2,000 new individuals may hatch daily.

Building the nest

The vast majority of honey bee populations live in man-made nests called hives or hives. In the wild, bees live in sheltered places such as hollow trees and sometimes in underground nests.

The honey bee is born in an egg that has been introduced by the nut into one of the cells in the bee comb. The cell is supplied with food and then sealed by a lid of beeswax. The comb itself is also made of wax; the comb can contain hundreds of cells that have different functions. Some cells serve as incubators for larvae and pupae, while others serve as stores of pollen and honey. The cells are cleaned by the workers after use; the cells are used several times.

The comb consists of beeswax and what immediately stands out are the cells which are all hexagonal which means they have a hexagonal shape. Another feature of the cells is that they are materially made up of exactly the right thickness. The combs are composed of a waxy substance called beeswax. The cells in which males grow up are larger than those in which the workers develop. The males have a wider head because of their large eyes.

The swarm cells or nut shells in which a nut grows up are made on top of the comb. Nut shells are easy to recognize because they are built on top of the comb and stand out clearly because of their vase shape. Thus, they are not part of the nest. As soon as a nuthead notices one, an egg is immediately deposited in it, even if it is not quite finished. Before the first nut shells are made, the workers have first built some test cells, the play cells.

Collecting food

The adult honey bee lives primarily on nectar and pollen produced by plants. The worker bee can only find food during daylight and the bee can be found outside the nest from early morning until late at night looking for food. The bees are active only when the outside temperature is above ten degrees Celsius and there are flowering, nectar-bearing plants in the area.

The plants use the bee to transfer pollen from one flower to another, enabling cross-pollination. No matter how well the bee brushes itself to get the pollen into the pollen basket, a few grains are always left over to enable flower fertilization. The relationship between flowering plants and the insects that pollinate them has existed for 130 million years.

The nectar provides sugars that are used as a source of energy for flight. Flying takes a lot of energy and the sugar-rich and easily converted into energy nectar is ideal as fuel. The collected pollen grains are sources of proteins (proteins) needed to enable various glandular secretions, such as wax from the wax glands. However, these two types of food must not come together, so they are stored strictly separately. When the nectar and pollen are mixed, the whole thing can begin to ferment. The nectar is sucked into the honey stomach and the pollen is stuck to the legs. The pollen does get sticky using nectar so it is not lost along the way.

Some bees are tied to a particular plant or group of plants, but the honey bee does not have a preference and visits plants from different flower families and can also get along with different flower types, poly collection. Other types of bees have specialized on a single plant and are oligolexic. Sometimes they suck the sweet excretion of aphids instead of nectar. This sugar-rich honeydew is similar to nectar. Honey made primarily from honeydew is pine honey or leaf honey.

The honey bee sometimes encounters a large food source and is able to communicate the location of such a source to its nestmates. The bee does this by performing a rhythmic dance, this is the bee dance. This ability is also known from other unrelated bee species, such as the stingless bees. From the species Scaptotrigona postica, a bee that has discovered a food source is known to alarm her conspecifics by causing vibrations in the nest. The other bees form a swarm and the specimen that has found the food deposits a strong scented secretion close to the food source. This scent flag is picked up by the other bees. An odor flag is deposited especially on plants that have a less strong odor of their own.

Less strongly developed bees try to lure their peers along by buzzing and touching the other bees. However, these methods are not nearly as effective as the honey bee’s bee dance. The honey bee’s dance was long misunderstood. The dance is never performed outside the nest and thus always takes place in the dark. Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch used a transparent hive and discovered that there were two different dances, a round dance for a food source at a short distance and a wagging dance for a food source at a longer distance. The bee dance is an important method of transmitting information and can be seen as a primitive language. Von Frisch was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973 for, among other things, his work on bees.

Temperature maintenance

The temperature of the nest is crucial to the bee’s functioning; reproductive rate is also largely dependent on ambient temperature. In spring and summer, the ideal temperature of a colony is 35°C. There are larvae then and the workers fly out. In winter there are no larvae and the workers are inactive, the nest temperature is then about 17 °C.

In summer, the honey bee is mainly affected by heat. It therefore has several ways of cooling the nest. The honey bee is very efficient at cooling the combs, a colony exposed to an outdoor temperature of 70 °C managed to maintain the nest temperature at 35 °C. Part of the honey bee’s life consists of serving as a living fan. The honey bee spends part of its life holding itself up in the nest while its wings are being moved. This changes the air in the nest which serves a number of different purposes. The most important is to maintain the temperature. This must not get too high or the bees will overheat. Fresh oxygen is also supplied and an important reason for nest ventilation is to replace the moist nest air with dry air from outside. This plays a role in honey production, most of the nectar collected evaporates.

When the temperature gets too high the bees stop extracting honey and start looking for water. They collect this from puddles and the like and bring it into the nest. Here they drain the droplets over the tongue so that it evaporates faster. In this way, nectar is also converted into honey, but evaporating water cools the nest faster. Once the nest temperature has dropped sufficiently, the workers stop fetching water and go about their normal business.

In the winter, when the bees are reduced in activity, they cluster close together as a winter bunch to maintain the temperature. The bees move their wing muscles to generate heat. Those muscles are then disconnected from the wings so they are not moved in the process. By vibrating only the flight muscles, heat is generated in the thorax and all the bees together significantly increase the nest temperature. In winter, the temperature fluctuates between 20 and 36 degrees. The bees reappear when temperatures are high enough and the first nectar-bearing plants emerge. Plants that emerge a little earlier than other plants and carry nectar include snowdrops (Galanthus), coltsfoot (Tussilago) and willow (Salix).

Honey production

Once the nectar collected by the bees is brought into the nest by a fetching bee, it is introduced into a comb cell. The honey is always stored in the outer cells of the nest. The honey worker receives a drop of nectar from the fetch bee and adds the enzyme invertase to it. Then the nectar is thickened, this is done by exposing the nectar to the outside air so that some of the water evaporates. To do this, the bee extends the tongue on which the nectar is located so that the evaporation surface is increased. The other bees assist this process by flapping their wings, ventilating the nest. Especially in the evening, when the honey bee is not flying, many specimens are busy converting nectar into honey. This involves extracting not only water from the nectar but also many aromatic substances. These are very volatile and they cause a strong floral smell in the vicinity of a bee’s nest where the bees are busy thickening en masse.


The bee colony is a strong living community, reproduction is not focused on a single bee but rather the entire colony. The colony grows in spring when many plants are in bloom and large amounts of food in the form of nectar and pollen are available.

For a long time, the reproductive mechanisms of the honey bee were totally misunderstood; bees were thought to arise spontaneously in the bee’s nest in a process of autogenesis. It was not until the seventeenth century that the Dutch natural scientist Jan Swammerdam described the drones. Today, it is known that the honey bee is one of hundreds of species of insects that live in social colonies where the females actually call the shots.

Worker bees

At the base of every colony is a queen or nut that deposits the large quantities of eggs. From this, mainly female worker bees crawl out to build the colony, collect food and care for the larvae. Worker bees are not infertile, but their fertility is suppressed by certain pheromones secreted by the lees. If the lees die unexpectedly, the workers can become fertile and develop eggs. From these, only drones can be born (it is called “darter brood”), because the eggs are not fertilized. However, this happens only rarely.


The female worker bees make larger cells in the comb, and in these cells the lees deposit unfertilized eggs. From these haploid eggs, the male bees, the drones, emerge after 24 days and reach sexual maturity after about a week.

The lees

Once there are drones, the workers start making several large nut shells along the edges of the combs. The lees lay a fertilized egg in these. After three days, when the larva crawls out of the egg, this larva receives special food produced in the head glands of the workers. This protein-rich royal jelly or royal jelly is produced by the workers using nectar, pollen and the feeding juice gland in their heads. These chosen larvae grow very quickly and pupate after six days. Thirteen days after the larva hatches, the new lees are born.

The old lees fly out with about half the population after the first queen cells are closed, that is, between 1 and 7 days before the young queens are born, and look for a new home. The first young lees to emerge from her cell will begin to make a special sound: the tute. This lets the other young moths, who are still in their shell, know that there is already a young moth walking around in the population. They therefore stay in their shell (otherwise it will be fighting) and answer the tuts with the lower croak.

Even if something unexpected happens to the queen, the people can make a new queen from a larva of a fertilized egg in a normal cell. That red cell is then quickly modified afterwards to resemble a nutcup. In redcells, it is usually obvious that the origin was horizontal.


In this annual population movement or swarming, the first swarm of bees usually contains 10,000 to 20,000 bees. The bees have completely stuffed themselves with honey beforehand and therefore cannot sting easily. A bee swarm is therefore very passive. In the halved colony, several queens will hatch within a few days and each time the oldest, with half of the remaining colony, will leave the hive to find a new home. In this way, the people split into 3 to 6 populations. The colonies immediately begin building combs in their new home; the new moths make their nuptial flight after about 3 to 15 days.


In the afternoon, the young moths fly out and make their way to a place where the drones have gathered. The drones chase the nut and only the fastest can mate with her, this occurs during the nuptial flight. Because the moths have a preference for drones belonging to another colony, the offspring is provided with new genes.

Mating in the honey bee is rapid and lasts at most a few seconds. Once a drone fertilizes the lees, it dies. This is because when the sperm cells are released, its abdomen tears open which is fatal for a drone. The nut mates with as many drones as possible, collecting enough sperm for the rest of her life. She has room for about 5 million sperm in her abdomen, but can receive up to 80 million sperm during the nuptial flight. The nut mates with 10 to 20 drones. When the fertilized moth returns, she continues to stay in the home and about two to three days later begins laying eggs. The moth can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day in the peak season, which is about double her own weight, so the population quickly grows to a community of 40,000 to 80,000 workers.

Drones slaughter

The drone does not fetch its own food, but is fed by the workers. In late summer, when there is less pollen, the workers no longer feed the drones. This causes the drones to weaken and then the workers chase them out of the nest. The drones then die of starvation or cold. Only rarely, if they do not cooperate, are they stung to death during the drones slaughter.



The egg of the honey bee is oblong in shape and white in color, the egg is about two millimeters long. The eggs are almost always deposited by the lees. If the lees die unexpectedly, workers may also become fertile, but this is extremely rare. The peculiarity of the nut’s eggs is that they can be either fertilized or unfertilized. Before depositing an egg in a cell, the moth examines the size of the cell with her front legs. If it is a larger (darter) cell, the egg is deposited without adding sperm and the egg is unfertilized. Only a male can then hatch. If it is a smaller (worker) cell, a sperm is admitted and the egg is fertilized. The honeybee egg has a micropyle, a small dent-like structure on one side through which the sperm cell has entered.

The embryonic stage is completed after about 3 days after which the worm-like larva crawls out of the egg. The number of eggs deposited daily can reach 2,000 per day, which averages more than 80 per hour. Since a nut can live for 4 to 5 years, it can produce over two million eggs during its lifetime.

The nut lays eggs in the cells of the comb. After three days, a larva crawls out of the egg. This larva is fed by the workers and after six days it pupates: then the cell is closed by the workers with a lid of wax. In the closed cell the metamorphosis takes place. Twenty-one days after laying the egg, the young bee gnaws off the wax cover and crawls out of the cell. The larva has then grown into a worker bee.

Sometimes the worker bees lay eggs; this normally happens only when a colony is without a nut. Even in nests in which a nut is present, a worker bee may sometimes deposit eggs, but these are not accepted by the other bees. The other workers can tell the difference between an egg from one of their sisters and the egg from the nut, this is because the nut gives off a pheromone on each egg. The eggs of other workers are eaten and most deposited worker eggs are destroyed within two hours.


The larva of a honey bee is wormlike and legless, the larva looks like a thick fly larva and is white to yellow in color. The larva has a curved, C-shaped body that is clearly segmented. The larva grows very rapidly and gains tremendous weight; a newly hatched larva will gain weight by a factor of 1,500 before pupation occurs. The larva of a nut even gains 3000 times its initial weight during the feeding period. The skin of the larva is somewhat stretchy but cannot grow with it so the larva has to grow in steps and a molt or ecdysis takes place each time. Here the old skin is shed. The underlying new skin is wider so that the larva can grow in size. The larva of the honey bee always molts four times and thus has five larval stages or instars.

The larval stage of the honey bee is completely hidden from view because it takes place inside the bee’s comb. The larvae have a well-groomed existence. They get as much food as they want and receive constant attention from the workers and are heavily guarded. Only a few enemies manage to attack the larvae without being stung to death by the workers.

The honey bee must gather a lot of food because the larvae cannot take care of themselves. The larvae’s food consists of a liquid that is stored in storage cells. The larval food is supplied by the workers and consists of sugars, fats and carbohydrates; exactly what the larvae need. Because the larvae are given the perfect food, they grow relatively quickly and, in addition, little waste remains after digestion. The food the larvae receive also determines their fate. Most larvae are given normal food and larvae that are given special food grow faster and become larger. Only the larvae in the nut shells receive this royal jelly. Only when the lees drop out unexpectedly, workers in red cells begin to feed the normal larvae royal jelly so that they can still grow into lees. Such converted cells can be recognized by the fact that they are not built on the nest, like true nutcups, but were created from a normal comb cell and later converted to a nutcup.


The pupa stage, like the egg stage, is inactive in which the insect cannot move or feed. To protect the body, a cocoon is first spun by the larva, using glands near the head to produce spindle. Inside the pupa, metamorphosis takes place; in the case of the honey bee, this is a complete metamorphosis in which the liquid body of the larva is transformed into the adult insect or imago, which instead has a largely hardened body. The pupal stage lasts about ten days in the case of a worker bee, a lees hatches after about five days.

The pupa stage is normally hidden from view because it takes place in a sealed cell. A newly pupated honey bee is entirely white in color, after a few days the eyes turn from red to purple and also the thorax and abdomen turn yellow in color. Later, the antennae and legs turn dark and the pupa is then at the end of its development.


Once the pupa has hatched, the adult bee remains in the cell for another day to harden off. Finally, the cell is gnawed open and left, the bee can fly immediately. The pupated honey bee is not yet fully developed; for example, the sexual organs are not yet mature. A nut can mate only after an average of four days, in a female bee this takes much longer with an average of thirteen days. Initially, the honey bee stays in the nest and cares for the colony, later searching for food on its own. This behavioral change is preceded by body processes, see also under endocrine system.


Honey bees suffer from a wide range of enemies that can be classified into several groups. Some only live off the bees themselves, others live parasitically in the nests and still others can be classified as enemies because they are looking for honey and in the process destroy the nest.

Natural predators

The honey bee can sting and few animals can defy this form of defense. Only a few animals have specialized in eating the honey bee; a well-known example of bee-eaters are wasps. Many wasps primarily hunt flies but a bee is also sometimes eaten. The bee wolf, a digger wasp, is known to capture and paralyze mainly bees and drag them to a nest corridor. Here an egg is deposited among the bees after which the hatched larva eats the paralyzed bees. The beetle bee wolf eats mainly plants, but the larva is a nest parasite of several solitary and colony-forming bee species.

The bees are eaten by various insectivores, such as birds, reptiles and other insects. These actively prey on the bee when it is outside the nest. A well-known example are the colorful bee-eaters.


Honey is one of the most sugar-rich sources in nature and is very rich in energy. This makes it a highly sought after product that attracts a variety of animals. The bees defend themselves with their sting and only the most persistent animals manage to get the honey. Some bird families, such as the honey suckers (Nectariniidae) and the honey eaters (Meliphagidae), despite the name, do not have honey but nectar on their menu. They are food competitors of the bee but not direct enemies. Animals that obtain the honey are not enemies of the honey bee itself but can completely ruin a nest during its capture. A well-known example of such an enemy is the bear.

Other mammals such as the European badger are also capable of eating the nests where bee stings do not deter them. The honey badger gets its name from its targeted search for honey. This marten-like animal has very tough skin and large claws and can devastate a nest within a short period of time. There are several insects that invade the nest to snack on the honey, although they are often less destructive. A well-known example is the death-head moth (Acherontia atropos), a large moth that sometimes visits the bees’ nest. The butterfly knows a number of tricks such as making squeaky sounds and spreading a bee scent, but is not infrequently stung to death and removed from the nest.