The genus Apis

In general when we say honey bees, normally we are referring specifically to the Western Hive bees (Apis mellifera L). In a strict sense this is not correct, honey bees are actually a genus (Apis) and are consisted of several different species. In the following I will describe briefly the biology of other honey bees. Throughout the chapter, scientific name in Latin will be used to refer specifically to different species. A Latin name consists of two parts: the first (capitalized) refers to the genus and the 2nd (not capitalized) refers to the species. In some cases when the reader knows the genus, it is shortened to one letter, for example, Apis mellifera, can be written as A. mellifera. Sometimes a subspecies (or race) is indicated, adding a third part to the latin name, for example, Apis mellifera ligustica.

The giant honey bees

[Apis dorsata images at photo.bees.net]

The giant honey bees used to have only one species, Apis dorsata. Apis dorsata workers are bout 17-19 mm (nearly 1 inch) long, and nest in the open, they make a single comb, usually on a tree branch and is 6-10 ft across (2-3 meters) and usually 10-60 ft (3-20 meters) from the ground. Drone cells are the same size as worker cells, so in this species, the drones are only slightly larger compared to workers. Workers can also forage at night when there is full moon. Interestingly, when worker perform dances at night, they indicate the actual position of the sun (i.e. on the other side of the globe)! These bees are tropical and found in China, India, Malaysia, and Thailand. In most places they migrate seasonally. There are now recent evidence showing that these bees actually come back to the same nest site, even though most, if not all, the original workers might be replaced in the process — it is a mystery how the bees retain the memory. Apis laboriosa is very similar in morphology and behavior to A. dorsata and was recognized around 1985. A. laboriosa is generally darker and often nest under indenting rocks. Honey from both species are hunted by local people but not ‘kept’ as Apis mellifera. Bees are generally much more aggressive compared to mellifera. A parasite of A. dorsata, Tropilaeleps clarae, has switched host from dorsata to A. mellifera in China and India and is causing a large damage to the beekeeping industry.

The dwarf honey bees
[Apis florea images at phot.bees.net]

Apis florea used to be the only species of the dwarf honey bee, but now it is recognized that there is a separate species of bees, Apis andreniformis. Apis florea is more reddish and the first abdomen is always red in an old worker (younger workers are paler in color, as is the case in the giant honey bees), while A. andreniformis is in general darker and the first abdomen segment is totally black in old bees. Both are about 10 mm long and about half the size of the regular Western hive bees. The dwarf honey bees also are open nesting and construct a single comb on a tree branch, but much smaller in scale compared to dorsata. The comb is usually not more than a feet (30 cm) across, and the nest is usually within the reach of a person (4-6 ft, or 1.5-2 meters). Foragers dance on a flat platform on top of the nest and point to the food source directly. The drones are much bigger than workers in both cell size and body size.

The eastern hive bees
[Apis cerana images at phot.bees.net]

The eastern hive bees was originally considered to be one species, Apis cerana, which is distributed in China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, and other Asian countries. In the last 10 years also, this was further recognized to be consisted of several new species. They are Apis nigrocincta, Apis koschevnikovi and Apis nuluensis. The distinction among the species is too technical to be covered here and one needs to examine male genitalia and DNA sequences to tell them apart. The new species are more restricted in their distribution around Malaysia and the Philipians. Apis cenara is of similar size to Apis mellifera or slightly smaller (sometimes much smaller — I have seen ones in Thailand only a bit larger than the florea), and is cavity nesting. It has been used for beekeeping in many countries such as China and Japan. China, for example, has 2 million colonies of A. cerana, some of that number still in traditional tree hives or in wooden boxes with fixed frames. The honey yield is usually smaller (10-20 kg per colony) due to its smaller colony size. Workers perform the ‘cleaning dance’ more often and groom each other more rigorously, perhaps a reason why Varroa does not cause much damage in this bee (but see later discussions of different species of Varroa mites), which is the original host of the parasite. Workers do not re-use old wax as often and therefore their brood capping looks much lighter compared to those of A. mellifera, they usually tore down old combs and build new wax constanly. In A. cerana, workers also ventilate their hive with their head toward outside (opposite of Western bees which fan with their head toward entrance). A. cerana also defend against a giant Asian wasp by forming a cluster around the enemy, and producing heat (around 45C) to literally ‘cook’ the wasp to death.

Other races of honey bees

A. mellifera has 24 different races. Winston (1978) gave a good overview of various races and I will only cover the most common ones. A. mellifera ligustica is the so called "Italian" bees and is perhaps the most common bees kept, although by and large, most bees kept in North America has become a mix of ligustica and a few other races. The Italian bees are golden yellow and winters in large population, with a high consumption of honey during the winter. A. mellifera scutellata is the African bee, which was introduced to the Brazil in 1957. This race is the most defensive race among all honey bees and will mass attack a human or animal with 500 to 5000 stings. Other races almost never do that. With that many stings a person will die (even if not allergic) due to venom toxicity, if not treated medically right away. A. mellifera carnica (Carniolan bees) are also widely bred and used in North America due to their gentleness. Bees are darker and overwinter in smaller populations. A. m. capensis (Cape bees) is another African bee also causing problems in Africa. This bee has a high rate of parthenogensis so that workers can produce worker and queen offspring even though they are never mated. The workers also develop their ovaries easily and become ‘false’ queens. These features enable the cape bee workers to invade other non-Cape bee colonies, kill the queen, and become a false queen and laying mostly drone eggs but some do become workers, the workers grow up and repeat the cycle to invade more colonies, causing a large economic loss to beekeepers because the invaded colony eventual die off.