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European Honey Bee - Apis mellifera - (c) Copyright 2015 Sharp-Eatman Photo


Western Honey Bee

(Apis mellifera)  - 3/8" - 5/8"  (medium-sized)

Honey bees originated in tropical Africa.  They  were brought to the  Americas 350 years ago by European colonists, who domesticated them for honey and beeswax production.  With time, the bees became naturalized and spread throughout the United States.  Once plentiful in the Western World, in the past decade honey bees have experienced a swift drop in numbers in both Europe and the United States.  In 2006, American beekeepers began reporting a 30% or greater yearly decline in honey bee populations. Honey bees' value as pollinators is estimated in billions of dollars annually. They are essential to the pollination of crops as diverse as onions, fruit trees, strawberries and almonds.


Of the 20,000 species of bees worldwide. only a handful have proven capable of semi-domestication; honey bees are one of these. Honey bees are social animals with highly complex communal lives.  Their well-organized colonies can contain tens of thousands of honey bees, which makes them particularly well-suited for honey production in apiaries and for crop pollination. 


The beehives at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture contain Western honey bees.  These bees pollinate and feed on the nectar of a wide variety of spring-flowering trees at Stone Barns, among them honey locust, black locust, black tupelo, linden, cherry and apple.  In late spring and summer, the bees forage at a nearby bee garden that harbors ample stands of multiple flowering plants that include, among others, bee balm, orange buttefly weed, goldenrod, yarrow, mountain mint, asters and nettles.


Honey bees can rove 1 to 5 miles in a single day.  Rockefeller Park thus provides a buffer zone for Stone Barns' bees, allowing them to forage on nearby land safeguarded from pesticides and other agents harmful to bees.  In Rockefeller Park, honey bees are among the earliest bees to emerge in spring; in early March, honey bees can be spied foraging on skunk cabbage flowers when snow still lies on the ground.  During summer, the bees forage in large numbers in the park on mountain mint, dogbane and milkweed.  Honey bees remain visible in the park through mid-October, feeding on purple New England asters and other wildflowers.  They are among the last bees to disappear as cold weather arrives.

There is some controversy over whether honey bees sometimes have a negative impact on wild bee populations.  It is the opinion of this guide's authors that beekeepers of honey bees tend to cultivate environments that are highly beneficial to native bees.  This topic is discussed at greater length elsewhere in this guide.  (See,"Are Honey Bees a Threat to Wild Bees?" )


Identification Information:  Apis mellifera  are medium-sized bees, with black heads and thoraxes; abdomens girded by golden, brown or black bands; black legs, eyes and antennae; and transparent colorless wings. Their faces are heart-shaped, their heads are rimmed with pale hairs and their thoraxes are covered with golden-brown hairs.  Honey bees vary greatly in color and size, according to age, function (drone, worker or queen) and subvariety.  Subvarieties of honey bees run a range of colors from honey-brown to blackish-brown.  In addition to the more commonly seen golden-brown honey bee, a variation with a gray-and-black striped abdomen (shown at right) is sometimes seen at the park.

Apis mellifera
Apis mellifera

PHOTO CREDITS:  All photos and text © Copyright 2014-2017 Paula Sharp and Ross Eatman, unless otherwise noted.  All rights reserved. If you wish to use any of the photographs here for educational or other purposes, please read permissions page.


REFERENCES:  For a comprehensive list of references used in compiling this guide, click here:

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