Honey Bees

(Apis Spp.)

By Dr. RJ Pretorius

The bee genus Apis Spp. includes social bee species which are known for producing and storing honey in wax nests, as well as their ability to defend these nests by means of stinging.

Dr RJ Pretorius



Honey bee classification:

Class:    Insecta (Insects)

Order:    Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants)

Family:   Apidae (bumblebees, carpenter bees, cuckoo bees, honey bees, leafcutter bees, stingless bees, other smaller groups).

Genus:   Apis spp.


The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is familiar to most people and the most common species are used for beekeeping (Figure 1).
Apart from A. mellifera, native to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, there are actually several more species of honey bees native to Asia. As a genus, honey bees comprise only a small fraction of the 20 000+ bee species known to man, but they are of considerable importance to our wellbeing. Apart from the honey they produce, another distinguishing feature of these insects is their highly developed eusociality in which colonies exhibit a clear caste system (presence of workers, drones and queens), cooperative brood care, and overlapping generations.
Honey bees, as with all the other members of the order, undergo complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa and adult). Brood care in these insects is highly developed, with nurse bees feeding the larvae on honey and pollen. Honey bees display haplodiploidy, meaning that queen bees have the ability to control the sex of their offspring by either laying fertilized eggs that would develop into female workers or potential queens (diploid), or by laying unfertilized eggs that would develop into male drone bees (haploid). The drones serve little purpose in the nest other than going on mating flights to inseminate future queens high in the air. Following mating, the drones die while the mated queens return to the nests from which they were reared. Worker bees are relatively short-lived (usually only a few weeks), while the queens can survive for several years.

Most people are aware of the importance of honey bees for the pollination of some of our food crops (especially fruits and vegetables). In addition to rendering this important ecosystem service, the livelihood of beekeepers also depend on the products manufactured by these insects (honey, wax, propolis, etc.).

It is unfortunate then that honey bees, and A. mellifera specifically, are subject to several diseases and parasites which can significantly debilitate and even decimate mature colonies. In recent years, there has been extensive media coverage of the so-called CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) of A. mellifera in the northern hemisphere. With this disorder, the colony members virtually disappear, with no clues left behind as to what had happened to them. Although the cause behind CCD has eluded scientists for a fairly long period of time, there seems to be a general consensus that it might be a combination of several factors that give rise to this phenomenon, rather than a single causative agent/ factor. Given the importance of honey bees to our agroecosystems, coupled to concerns over a worldwide decline in pollinators, it would be wise to conserve and enhance these insects.

By Dr R.J. Pretorius

  • Pretorius, R.J. 2016. The honey bees (Apis ). S.A. Vegetables & Fruit. Mar/Apr issue, no. 170, p. 29.

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