Honey Bee Characteristics

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One of the most amazing creatures on the planet, honey bees play a role in sustaining balance in the natural ecosystem and aid in modern agriculture. They can do this due to some special honey bee characteristics that enable them to be so productive. In this article, I want to share some key characteristics of honey bees that make them so valuable to our world.

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 (races or breeds. While they differ in some behavioral ways – they share traits too.

Key Characteristics of Honey Bees

Like all members of the bee family, honey bees have 3 major body parts (head, thorax, abdomen). The honey bee has 6 legs and 2 pairs of wings. These are the basic anatomical bee facts we all learn in school. They apply to a very large family of insects called bees.

But, honey bees have characteristics that distinguish them from the rest of the buzzing crowd.

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

1. Social Structure

Honey bees live in large, highly organized colonies, with a complex social structure. The honey bee family consists of three kinds 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.


One of the most important facts about the queen bee – she that she is the only fertile egg-layer in the hive. Capable of laying thousands of eggs in a day – she is responsible for producing the work force for the colony.

The queen also produces pheromones. These external hormones assure the colony that a queen is present and doing her job.

The queen bee life cycle begins with a fertilized egg that is fed a rich diet that allows her to develop into a reproductive adult. If she begins to fail, the workers will kill the queen and make a replacement.


The worker bees in the hive are sterile females. It is not uncommon for a hive to boast upwards of 60,000 during Summer. They collect resources for the hive, build wax comb, feed young (nurse bees) and tend to the queen.

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 or the needs of the colony changes.

Drone honey bee with large eyes.


Drones are the male bees in a colony. Their function is to mate with new virgin queens. Normally only present in the hive during Summer – drones have a short lifespan and live only a few months. When Winter arrives they are thrown outside to die.

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

2. Complex Communication System

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 information on food sources, colony needs and threats.

Waggle Dance

Dancing to communicate is a notable honey bee characteristic. 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.

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

The dance movement share information regarding the direction and distance of the nectar or pollen relative to the hive and the position of the sun.

Pheromones: Chemical Messaging

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

  • queen pheromones – “queen substance” maintains social order
  • alarm pheromones – produces by worker bees when hive is threaten to call for help
  • brood pheromones – developing brood – bee larvae and pupae give off pheromones
  • nasonov – Nasonov gland of workers helps with hive orientation and cohesion.

Food Sharing

If you have ever seen two honey bees that seem to be kissing on the lips – this is trophallaxis. Through food sharing, bees also share chemical cues and hormones that influence the behavior of the recipients.

3. Methods of Navigation

Honey bees are renown for their impressive navigational skills. 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 – these amazing bees can fly – travel several miles and make it back to the hive.

  • sun as a compass
  • polarized light to guide
  • visual landmarks
  • memory
worker honey bee with specialized pollen basket.

4. Honey Production

Another neat honey bee characteristic is the way they make honey. Worker bees collect plant nectar from millions of flowers. Then, bees transform nectar into honey and store in the the hive for later.

5. Pollination Powerhouse

Honey bees are some of the most efficient pollinators in the world. Their role in crop pollination plays a significant part in many of the foods we eat.

By pollinating a diverse range of plants, honey bees support the health and diversity of ecosystems – more food for wildlife.

6. Nest Construction

Most insects collect plant materials for nest building. But, worker honey bees produce wax from special glands on their bodies for nest construction.

7. Defense Mechanisms

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 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!

8. Temperature Regulation

The inside of a beehive is a very busy place. Even at night, work continues- 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 hive.

In hot weather, they use 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.

9. Complex Reproductive Strategies

In truth, the way bees reproduce is more complicated than you might think. Honey bees reproduce in two ways: individually and at the colony level.

  • queen mating – mating flights take place away from the hive – where the queen mates with drones
  • swarming – honey bee swarms is reproduction on the colony level

10. Adaptions of Honey Bees

Honey bees have some adaptions that help them survive. Their special bee anatomy is designed to give them the abilities they need.

  • workers have special pollen baskets on their legs and hairy bodies to collect pollen
  • queen bees have a special structure in her abdomen (spermatheca) to store sperm
  • workers have an organ “honey stomach” before their digestive tract to carry nectar


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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