Allison Wallace

Did you know?

Among modern species of honey-making bees, Apis mellifera is the most common.  Its genus name (Apis) means “bee,” while its species name (mellifera) means “honey-producing.”  All of the information appearing on this page refers to Apis mellifera. 

A honeybee left to its own devices cannot live very long; to thrive, it must live among its fellows in a colony.  Although a colony of honeybees comprises just two genders (male and female), its members come in three types, or “castes”:  infertile females (“workers,” numbering in the tens of thousands), fertile males (several hundred), and (usually) just one fertile female, the queen. 

Collectively, 4,000 bees weigh only about a pound.

To support an average-sized colony, worker bees make approximately a million foraging trips a year to collect flower pollen (a protein-rich food), and about four times that many trips a year to collect nectar (with which they’ll make honey, rich in carbohydrates).  But in temperate climates such as that of North America, flowers don’t bloom—and therefore don’t produce pollen or nectar—year round.  Moreover, bees only forage during dry weather and daylight hours.  So, collectively, workers in a strong colony may make more than 160,000 trips in a single day to keep the hive stocked with groceries. 

A single bee’s “honey stomach”—where it stores nectar it has sipped from flowers for the trip from field to hive—is about the size of a head of a pin.  But the droplets of nectar collected are much smaller.  Approximately 1000 to 1500 visits to the tiny florets of clover flowers are required to fill the honey stomach just once. 

It takes about sixty full honey stomachs to make just a thimbleful of honey.  One pound of honey represents about ten million nectar-foraging trips, made by countless numbers of bees. 

Most westerners enjoy eating honey now and then, but the really crucial, indispensable service rendered to people by bees is not honey production but rather flower pollination-- which the bees accomplish pretty much by accident, as they move among various flowers.  Think fruit trees and bushes, many vegetable crops, crops we raise for seed oils, and crops we grow to feed livestock.  Without honeybees, then, our own grocery shelves would be much depleted. 

Habitat destruction (via human development and sprawl) and widespread use of herbicides and pesticides constitute the major threats to honeybee survival.  However, Apis mellifera is much less troubled by these forces than are other species of insects (most of which play important roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems), chiefly because beekeepers can move their colonies, when necessary, out of harm’s way.  Native bees and other insects don’t enjoy such protective supervision, and as a result are being lost at alarming rates. Also extremely serious for honeybee populations in recent years: infestations by two species of predatory mites.

How do bees make honey? Where does all the wax come from to build honeycomb?  Do bees hibernate in winter?  What did ancient peoples think of honeybees, and how did they learn to “keep” bees almost as a farmer keeps other kinds of livestock? 

Find the answers to these and other questions in A Keeper of Bees: Notes on Hive and Home.