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Honeybees: An Invaluable Asset

Honeybees: An Invaluable Asset

Sterling Herron , Administrator  

The Honeybee: A Biological Perspective


Although many flying insects with stingers are referred to as "bees," there is only one honeybee, the species Apis mellifera. Unlike many of their waspish cousins, honeybees are usually very gentle, and their venom is less painful than some wasp or hornet venom. They are also unique in that they have been trained to live symbiotically with humans in what is called apiculture, or beekeeping.

There are three main types of honeybee in a hive, and they all fill a necessary role. First and foremost, the queen is responsible for laying the eggs, which hatch into the worker and drone bees that keep the hive going. Second, the drones (the only males) mate with the queen to keep her producing eggs. Finally, the worker bees (the ones you see out in the field) do the bulk of the work in that they gather all of the nectar and pollen from the area to take back to the hive for consumption. Once secure in the hive, the worker bees (all female) refine the nectar into honey, which can then be eaten by the larvae (baby bees) and saved for the winter months (in which honeybees stay essentially dormant).

In one honeybee hive, there can be as many as 80,000 residents, the majority of them worker bees.

(Sources: Fairfax County Public Schools, New Jersey Forest Resource Education Center)

Types of Honeybees

(Image Source: New Jersey Forest Resource Education Center)

Drone: The drone is distinct in that it has much larger eyes than the queen or worker bee. He is also the only honeybee that does not have a stinger. In the winter, the drones are kicked out of the hive by the worker bees. There are at most approximately 100 drones in one hive.

The stinger-less drone (this one has been kicked out of the hive).

Queen: The queen bee is the largest and most important bee in the hive (since she is responsible for producing all of the progeny). Because of this, the worker bees will fight to the death to keep her safe. The queen has a stinger herself as well for extra protection.

There can be only one queen per hive. When a new queen is produced (by being fed royal jelly), the old queen must leave and form a new colony.

Worker: These are the bees that essentially keep the hive going. Worker bees have a variety of different roles and tasks, depending on what stage of life they are in. These tasks include gathering nectar and pollen, taking care of larvae, protecting the queen, protecting the hive, cleaning the hive, making honey, and making wax. They make up the majority of the population of the hive.

The worker bees are all female, but they are unable to lay eggs.


Honeybee workers forage during the day from spring to fall, or while the temperatures rise above about 10 - 12.7 ° Celsius or 50 - 55 ° Fahrenheit. They seek many types of flowers for pollen and honey, including many common crops, such as fruit trees and corn, and weeds, such as clover and goldenrod. (See these pages by the University of Illinois and The Melissa Garden for more information on which flowers bees most prefer.)

Worker bee gathering nectar from white clover (Trifolium repens L.).

Worker bee gathering nectar from potato onion flowers.

DID YOU KNOW: Honeybees are not indigenous to the United States; they were brought over by European settlers.

(Sources: Fairfax County Public Schools, New Jersey Forest Resource Education Center, State of Connecticut)

Honeybees are in the same family as bumble bees, orchid bees, and stingless bees (Source: ITIS).

Beekeeping: An Ancient Human Tradition

Humans have cultivated a unique relationship with the honeybee since ancient times; in fact, the practice of beekeeping has been around for more than 4,000 years. A recent archaeological discovery in Tel Rehov, Israel (an Iron Age city) has confirmed that beehives have been used for at least 3,000 years. Evidence of beekeeping / apiculture was also found in Middle Eastern texts, and, of course, preserved honey was found in King Tutankhamun's tomb. (Sources: Industrial apiculture in the Jordan valley during Biblical times with Anatolian honeybees - PMC, University of Minnesota Morris.)

Honey hunting has been around even longer. Paintings uncovered in Spain depicting a honey hunt are thought to be anywhere from six thousand to twelve thousand years old. (Source: Texas A&M University)

It was only relatively recently (in the last 160 years) that our modern system of beekeeping came into being. Before the mid 19th century, many different types of vessels were used to keep bees in, including pots, wooden structures, and, most famously, the straw skep (see image below).  Unfortunately, most of these containers and methods did not allow the beeker to extract honey and wax without killing the hive. (Source: Oertel, USDA).

Straw skep (Image Source: Oertel, USDA)

However, in the 1850s, a shrewd Pennsylvanian minister named L. L. Langstroth developed a type of beehive with removable frames. These frames, carefully spaced approximately 3/8" apart, allowed the honeybees to build their hive and the beekeeper to inspect and gather honey with minimal damage. It was a great step towards a true symbiosis between human beings and honeybees, and this method is still used today (see picture of modern (wooden) beehive below). For this innovation, Reverend Langstroth is known as "the father of modern beekeeping" today. (Source: Oertel, USDA)

A modern Langstroth beehive.


Apitherapy is any healing method having to do with honeybees and their natural products (e.g. propolis, honey, etc.). From honeybee venom to different varieties of nutritional honey, there is a myriad of effective treatments originating from this spectacular species.

Bee Pollen

Bee pollen is simply the pollen that worker bees collect (in the pollen compartment on their back legs) while gathering nectar. It is later brought back to the hive for use along with honey in nourishing the hive's occupants. Bee pollen has also been used medicinally by humans since ancient times, and interest in it only continues to grow. It is used by athletes today as well for an energy boost. Still others use bee pollen in their diet to help them lose weight.

Nutritionally, bee pollen contains high percentages of protein and carbohydrates. It also contains a wide range of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and amino acids that our body needs. In fact, some European researchers have determined that a human being can live on bee pollen and water alone.

(Sources: Vanderbilt University, NC Cooperative Extension)


The propolis (a sticky material which honeybees derive from the buds of trees and use as a sort of glue in their hive) of beehives has shown both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Propolis has been used for millennia and for a variety of ailments, from external wounds to asthma. (Sources: Florida Gulf Coast University (PowerPoint), Bryn Mawr, NC Cooperative Extension).

Royal Jelly

Royal jelly is a combination of honey, pollen, and enzymes which is fed to honeybee larvae destined to become the next queen. The queen will continue to eat only this royal jelly throughout her lifespan. As far as human benefit goes, royal jelly has been shown to have antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties (just to name a few). Royal jelly has also been found to be of potential help in treating Grave's disease (an autoimmune disorder). Unfortunately, royal jelly also seems to cause asthma in some individuals. (Sources: University of Utah, (1), (2), (3)).

Raw Honey

Although there are regulations enforcing the pasteurization of honey, raw / unprocessed honey has shown a variety of promising benefits. New honey showed strong antimicrobial properties as well as being effective in treating infected wounds, according to Al-Waili NS (Islamic Establishment for Education). As he stated, "Its potency was comparable to that of local antibiotics."

Consuming local raw honey can also help treat allergies (since the bees are gathering their nectar and pollen (which is in the honey) from local plants which could be causing the allergies).

As with most medicines, there are a few cautions. Raw honey should not be fed to infants due to the risk of botulism, and diabetics should not eat it.

(Source: Kansas State University - Adobe File)

Manuka Honey

Manuka honey is a type of raw honey derived from beehives that take most of their nectar from local manuka shrub (Leptospermum scoparium) in Australia and New Zealand. It is particularly well known for its strong antibiotic and antibacterial properties, signified by the UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) rating. A study by Michigan State University indicates that raw manuka honey is indeed more antibacterial than other types of raw honey. The National Cancer Institute also recognized manuka honey for its antibacterial properties.

Plus there seems to be few side effects associated with the consumption of manuka honey, as this study by the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research Limited shows (safety of UMF 20+ manuka honey).

Other uses for manuka honey include healing infected wounds and as treatment for chemotherapy and radiation therapy side effects (see article by the Stanford School of Medicine) among many other uses. For more information on manuka honey, visit this page by the Linus Pauling Institute.

Honeybee venom

Treatment involving the injection of honeybee venom (Bee Venom Therapy (BVT)) has been shown some intrigue as well. Studies, such as this one by the College of Veterinary Medicine and Research Institute of Veterinary Medicine, show that bee venom could be an effective treatment for arthritis pain. It has also demonstrated some ability to protect DNA from radiation damage (radioprotective) (see this Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health study).

Honeybee venom is also used (along with other bee venoms) to build immunity in those with bee allergies. The patient is injected with venom regularly for a certain period of time until they are virtually immune to allergic reaction.

Links for Apitherapy:

American Apitherapy Society

Agricultural Necessity

The honeybee is the farmer's friend. Honeybee pollination is pivotal for many crops, especially fruit and nut trees such as almond trees. According to the ARS, honeybee pollination adds fifteen billion dollars to the value of crops. (Source: ARS). Tons of food crops would be lost if not for the pollination of our six-legged friends. Clearly, honeybees are worth more than their weight in honey and beeswax.

Threats to Honeybees

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

Colony collapse disorder is a fairly new and still mysterious problem facing beekeepers around the world. In colony collapse disorder, almost the entire adult hive population disappears without a trace, never to be found again. All that is left are the queen, the larvae, and honey. With the issue really starting in October of 2006, these disappearances already have cost beekeepers many hives. The causes of this apicultural disaster are still being studied, and scientists have not really arrived at a consensus at this time. (Source: ARS)

The ARS pinpoints three possible causes: 1) overuse of pesticides on plants which the honeybees pollinate, 2) parasites and / or other harmful microorganisms, or 3) an overpowering combination of stresses.

The Connecticut State Government provides here a list of some of the most toxic pesticides for honeybees.

Another possible cause is genetic modification of crops (such as corn) which the bees pollinate, particularly those designed to be insecticidal. However, government tests have generally discounted this theory. (Source: Colony Collapse Disorder Action Plan - USDA)

What you can do to help encourage the tradition of beekeeping...

1. Support your local beekeeper by buying his or her honey and keeping him or her in business.

2. Avoid growing genetically modified crops or spraying with pesticides to reduce the risk of colony collapse disorder.

3. Grow wildflowers that honeybees enjoy and in which they can find plenty of nectar. See this page by The Melissa Garden to find out which flowers honeybees enjoy the most.

4. Start beekeeping yourself. It requires minimal time commitment and upkeep, is a fun hobby, can produce a profit, and allows you to produce your own raw honey right at home. Plus, you can feel great in that you are supporting a worthy cause and helping to pollinate any neighboring farmers' crops.

Nature Labs Videos for Honeybees (Apis mellifera):

Honeybee Bearding

This is by no means an exhaustive summary of honeybees and their many functions. Thus, if you are interested in learning more about honeybees or even pursuing beekeeping, the following links and books may be of help to you.


Honeybee - Profile by National Geographic

Honey bee - Profile by the ARKive

Honey bee - Profile by the Encyclopedia of Life


Beekeeping for Dummies (2nd Edition) by Howland Blackiston

NOTE: This article is for informational purposes only and should not replace the advice or prescription of a medical professional or beekeeping professional.



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