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
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
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.