Honey Bee Characteristics

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Honey bees play a vital role in our ecosystem. This is due to impressive honey bee characteristics that 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 them – what they are?

Group of worker honey bees on comb.

Honey bees are one of the most recognizable insects in the world. There are several different types of honey bees – in regards to race or breed. But, there are actually several different species too.

Unique Characteristics of Honey Bees

The one we are most familiar(Apis mellifera) with came from parts of Europe and were brought to North America by early colonists.

They have 3 major body parts (head, thorax, abdomen), six legs and 2 pairs of wings. There are many fun bee facts to learn. But, honey bees have several characteristics that distinguish from the rest of the buzzing crowd.

Social Behavior

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

The large 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.


The queen 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. This is vital to maintain the colony’s work force because workers don’t live very long.

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.


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.

These bees are the work force responsible for all hive tasks. Worker bees are responsible for gathering nectar and pollen and storing it.

They build beeswax comb and protect the hive from predators. These non-reproductive females also serve as nurses for the young. They feed royal jelly and brood food to baby bees that are not their own offspring.

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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


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. They are kicked out of the hive as Winter approaches.

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.

Communication & Navigation

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.

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.


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


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.

Unique Adaptions of Honey Bee Colonies

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. The queen bee mates only once in her life – so she has a special structure in her abdomen to store sperm.

But beyond that, the colony has some behaviors that work together to help this large social unit be successful.

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 (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 ones that make a lot of it.

Workers collect plant nectar from millions of flowers. They use this nectar to make 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 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.


As we compare them to similar insects, it is easy to understand their appeal. As they face threats from pests, disease and environmental pressures – we realize their value.

The combination of these and other characteristics make honey bees a highly specialized and important species within the bee family, with a unique role to play.

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