Honey Bee Characteristics

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A remarkable insect, the impressive honey bee characteristics that we appreciate have developed over millions of years. They boast a complex social structure and have special adaptions that help them function. Through pollination, they help plants make fruit and seed and they pollinate many of the crops that we use for food. And, everyone knows that bees make delicious honey. So, let’s really get to know-the honey bee. What makes the characteristics of honey bees so interesting?

Honey bees in hive showing the common characteristic of sharing food..

Honey bees are one of the most recognizable insects in the world. In fact, there are several different types of honey bees – in regards to race or breed. But, there are actually several different species too. While they may be different in some ways – these bees do share some common traits.

Unique Characteristics of Honey Bees

The honey bee we are most familiar with (Apis mellifera – also called the Western Honey Bee). Those black honey bees were rather feisty but provided pollination and honey for early colonists in North America.

Like all bees – they have 3 major body parts (head, thorax, abdomen), bees have 6 legs and 2 pairs of wings. These are the basic bee facts we all learn in school. But, honey bees have characteristics that distinguish them from the rest of the buzzing crowd.

  • social behavior
  • hive construction
  • communication and navigation
  • unique adaptions

Social Behavior

Honey bees live in large, highly organized colonies, with a complex social structure. This is different than most bees which are solitary insects.

The honey bee family consists of three types of bees in the hive: queen, workers and drones. Each member has a designated role to play.

Two images of queen bee and worker bees together showing the different visual characteristics of size.

Queen

One of the most common facts about queen bees – she is the central figure in the hive. Normally, a colony has only 1 egg-laying queen at a time. If she begins to fail, the workers will kill the queen and make a replacement.

Why is she so important? The primary role of the queen is to lay eggs. In good conditions, she can lay thousands of eggs in a day.

Another important characteristic of honey bee queens is pheromone production. These external hormones assure the colony that a queen is present and doing her job.

Workers

Most of the bees in a hive are females. Yep, like the queen – workers are girls too and they are the most populous members of the colony. It is not uncommon for a hive to boast upwards of 60,000 members during Summer.

They gather needed resources, build beeswax comb and protect the hive from predators. These non-reproductive females also serve as nurses bees.

They feed royal jelly and brood food to baby bees that are not their own offspring. Not a unique characteristic that applies only to honey bees – but an interesting fact.

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A special characteristic of honey bees is the workers ability to switch from one task to another. They do not perform only one task during their lifetime. Tasks naturally change as the bee ages.

But, also the job performed varies depending on the needs of the colony. If all of the foraging bees are killed by pesticides, workers on other tasks will become foragers.

Drone honey bee with large eyes.

Drones

Drones are the male bees in a colony. Their sole function is to be available to mate with new virgin queens. Normally only present in the hive during Summer – drones have a short lifespan.

Because their role is limited to bee reproduction, drones do not have a stinger. They are not involved in colony defense and do not need one.

Hive Construction

Most insects collect plant materials for nest building. But, a unique characteristic of honey bees is that they produce the materials for nest building with their own bodies.

Young adult workers have special wax glands on the underside of their abdomen. These glands produce thin scales of beeswax that is used to construct the honeycomb structure of the hive.

Communication in Honey Bees

With thousands of family members, it should come as no surprise that communication is important. Thankfully, honey bees have a couple of ways to share messages with other members of the hive and to get to where they need to be.

Bee Dances

When a foraging bee finds a rich source of food, she returns to the hive to tell her sisters. How does she do this? She dances on the comb.

Dancing to communicate is a notable honey bee characteristic that is not seen often in the insect world.

In fact, there are several different bees dances (round dance etc.) used to communicate hive resources – but the most well-known is the waggle dance.

These buzzing movements give the other foragers an estimation of the distance and direction of the food source.

Pheromones

We mentioned pheromones earlier in reference to the queen. But, there are many types of bee pheromones present in a hive.

Workers can emit alarm pheromones that calls others to come and help defend the hive during attack. Even, developing brood – bee larvae give off pheromones. These chemical messengers help each colony member to know hive conditions in an instant.

Unique Method of Navigation

An intriguing characteristics of honey bees is how they navigate. They use the position of the sun (as a compass) to find their way to and from the hive.

Yes, even on a cloudy day – they can fly – travel several miles and make it back to the hive.

worker honey bee with specialized pollen basket.

Adaptions of Honey Bees

Though they share many of the same attributes of other insects, honey bees have some special differences that help them survive. Of course, bee anatomy is designed to give them the abilities they need.

Workers gather pollen so they have special pollen baskets on their hind legs and hairy bodies to attract pollen.

The queen bee mates only once in her life – so she has a special structure in her abdomen to store sperm. However, beyond the anatomical differences – certain behaviors help the colony survive.

Defense Mechanisms-Stingers

If you have ever stepped on a bee in the clover, or gotten to close to a beehive – you know that bees sting. Not usually, aggressive – honey bees will sting to defend themselves or their hive.

Due to their barbed stinger, stinging usually results in their death. The barb become stuck in your skin and is ripped (along with the venom sac) from the bee’s body.

While this is bad for the bee, it does ensure that a full load of venom is pumped into the attacker (that’s you by the way.) Talk about colony defense!

Honey Production

Another neat honey bee characteristic is honey production. While they are not the only insect that makes honey, they are the only honey bees make a lot of honey.

Workers collect plant nectar from millions of flowers. The bees transform nectar into honey which is stored inside the hive. This is why they can survive the cold months of Winter in temperate climates.

Other insects do not do this. Because they do not over-Winter in large groups. They have no need to make store abundant food.

Temperature Regulation

The inside of a beehive is a very busy place on most days. Even at night, the processes of the hive continue – though bees do sleep so some may grab a quick nap.

Because they mostly live in enclosed cavities, the colony must have a way to regulate heat. If temperatures grow too high, the wax honeycomb will melt.

Likewise, if internal hive temperatures go too high or too low, developing bee brood will die. Using a combination of consuming honey and vibrating wing muscles, workers are able to warm a portion of the brood nest.

In hot weather, bees use water and wing fanning to make a sort of “air-conditioning” system. Hot air is pressed out of the hive and cool air brought inside. The hotter the day – the harder the bees have to work.

FAQs

How do honey bees communicate with each other?

Honey bees communicate through a variety of methods: bee dances (such as the waggle dance) to communicate the location of food sources, bee pheromones that give information about colony status, and tactile methods such as antenna touching.

What makes honey bees such effective pollinators?

Honey bees have specialized adaptations for pollination, including branched body hairs that collect pollen, a structure called a “pollen basket” on their hind legs for transporting pollen, and electrostatic charges that help pollen adhere to their bodies.

How do honey bees navigate over long distances?

Honey bees use a combination of visual cues, such as landmarks and patterns of polarized light, as well as the position of the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate.

Final Thoughts

As we compare honey bees to similar insects, it is easy to understand their appeal. As they face threats from pests, disease and environmental pressures – we begin to realize their true value. The special characteristics of honey bees makes them a highly specialized and important species within the bee family.

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