The honey bee is a remarkable insect in many different way. The biology of the honey bee reveals just how special it is and what makes it different to other insects. Here you can learn more about the features of the honey bee and some honey bee key facts about what makes it so special…

Six legs, four wings five eyes!

  • Legs – The honey bee has three pairs of legs, six legs in total. However, the rear pair is specially designed with stiff hairs to store pollen when in flying from flower to flower. This is why a heavily laden  worker bee is seen to have two golden pouches in full season. The front pair of legs has special slots to enable the bee to clean its antenna.
  • Wings – The honey bee has four wings in total. The front and rear wings hook together to form one big pair of wings and unhook for easy folding when not flying.
  • Eyes – Incredible as it may seem, the honey bee has FIVE eyes, two large compound eyes and three smaller ocelli eyes in the centre of its head.

The bees knees – fact or fiction? We’ve all heard the popular expression ‘Its the bees knees’, meaning something which is the best or has everything one could wish for. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase originated in the late eighteenth century meaning something very small. However, its current meaning is believed to stem from American slang in the same way as “the cat’s whiskers”. Although bees have legs with joints like any insect, they do not have a knee cap and, apart from the articulated nature of the joint, they do not technically possess knees.

Honey bee, wasp or bumble bee? It is commonly asked how one can tell apart these three insect types. Here are some key distinguishing traits to help you:

  • Honey Bees are seen as the highest form of insect life, living in a well-organised colony without the need to hibernate. Indeed, in winter they can survive in the hive at high temperatures while outside the temperature is several degrees below zero! Over winter, honey bees cluster together and using their bodies to generate heat. This cluster is about the size of football, with bees taking turns to be on the cold outside. Of course, honey bees also produce HONEY! They produce and store it in wax comb – and they use the same hive from one year to the next. The typical maximum population of a colony is between 35,000 and 50,000 bees.
  • Wasps begin life in the spring with a single queen wasp that has hibernated under leaves or in cracks. The queen wasp builds a new hive constructed from paper and about the size of a golf ball. This hive (or bice) builds up through the summer, but no honey is stored. In the autumn the colony organization breaks down, with homeless wasps becoming an increasing nuisance around bins and rubbish. The typical maximum population of a wasp colony is just 2,000.
  • Bumblebees, or as the Victorian’s called them ‘Humble bees’, are similar to wasps in that only the queen hibernates and survives the winter. In the spring the queen bumblebee seeks an old mouse- or vole- hole and builds within it a nest of leaves and moss. She constructs nodular wax cells and incubates her young as a bird would. As her first offspring hatch and begin to fly the queen increasingly stays within the hive to produce young. Bumblebees do make a small amount of honey and store it in one special cup like cell. There is no more than a tablespoon at any time. The typical maximum population of a bumblebee colony is tiny, compared to the honey bee, being between 50 and 150.

What types of bee do we find in a honey bee colony? In any hive there are three types of honey bee: a single queen; thousands of female worker bees and, in the summer, hundreds of male drones. The drone bee does no work and in the early autumn they are evicted by the workers and die. For more information about life in the hive, click here.

Incredible navigational skills It is amazing to see how colonies of bees stick together, despite the vast distances each worker must travel in order to serve the hive. It is now known that bees use the position of the sun to help them know where they are and where they need to go back to; there is now some evidence of sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field too. It is worth saying too that bees’ eyes are sensitive to polarized light which penetrates through even thick cloud so they are able to ‘see’ the sun, even when the weather is poor.

Waking and sleeping It is often asked how – or if – bees are awake or asleep. Bees do not sleep – but they do remain motionless to preserve vital energy for the next day of foraging. During the day, and out on their travels, bees eyes can detect a wide array of colour. Their eyes are sensitive more to the blue end of the spectrum and into ultra violet. Flowers reflect large amounts of ultra violet light and to a bee will be very bright. Curiously, when it comes to red, bees are totally blind.

Honey bee on Cotoneaster

Honey bee on Cotoneaster

Fly me to the moon – distance, flight and speed statistics The distance each bee flies in its life is astonishing. It is possible for bees to fly as far as 5 miles for food, however an average distance would be less than a mile from the hive. A strong colony therefore flies the equivalent distance of to the moon every day! A honey bee will not fly much higher than the height of any obstacle in its path. The bee will learn to fly straight out from its colony at high speed and be most surprised if it strikes an new obstacle such as you standing in the way. It may lash out and you will receive a sting so be careful when walking close to the front of a busy beehive. Mating drones will fly up to 30mtrs above ground to find a queen and can go much higher if warm rising thermal air carries them so. The normal top speed of a worker would be about 15-20mph (21-28km/h) when flying to a food source and about 12mph (17km/h) when returning laden down nectar, pollen, propolis (resin collected from tree buds) or water.

Deadly diseases Friends of the Honey Bee is a campaign to help protect the honey bee particularly from the predations of the Varroa mite. However, there are a number of diseases affecting bees, some more serious than others. They are not infectious to humans but dangerous for the bee. Some of the most serious AFB (American Foul Brood) and EFB (European Foul Brood) are normally treated by destroying the colony (UK). If left they can spread throughout out the whole apiary and affect surrounding beekeepers. Spores from AFB can remain dormant for over 50 years in old beekeeping equipment and cause problems decades later.

The importance of pollen Pollen is mixed with water and to form a type of bread that is fed to the growing larvae. It provides rich source of proteins and fat whilst honey provides energy (carbohydrate). Bees collect about 20kg of pollen every year that’s 1 million pollen loads at 20mg per trip! This is why a key part of our Friends of the Honey Bee campaign is to help people plant more flowers wherever they live – the more flowers, the more food (forage) for the honey bees. Greater food sources enable honey bees to be much stronger in the face of disease.

Why bees sting and why they die when they do so A bee only stings under two conditions. To protect the colony or when frightened. When a bee stings, barbs in the lance of the sting cause it to firmly stick into the victim pulling out the venom sacs and glands when the bee is shaken off. The venom sac muscles continue to pump after these organs have been torn from the dying bee. Only the female workers and the queen can sting, the queen having a smooth sting which she uses to kill other queens, while surviving herself.