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The honeybee

The honeybee belongs to the Hymenoptera order of insects, which includes sawflies, wasps, bees and ants. In common, they all have two pairs of wings with the hind wings connected to the forewings by a series of hooks.

The UK honey bee population is of the species known as the ‘European honey bee’ (Apis mellifera). The two most common subspecies found here are the ‘Italian bee’ (A.m. ligustica) and the ‘European dark bee’ (A.m. mellifera).

See more detail on classification at Wikipedia

A bee colony is (usually) made up of three different types of bee – one fertile female ‘queen’, female ‘workers’ and male ‘drones’. The queen is the largest, followed by the drones, then the workers.

The queen lays eggs in hexagonal wax cells (comb) prepared by the workers. These develop into larvae, after which the cells are sealed for the pupae stage. Egg to emergent bee takes between 16 days (queen), 21 days (worker) and 24 days (drones).

The colony may increase in number from 15 – 20,000 in the winter to 60 - 100,000 in the summer. Queens may live (on average) from 2 – 5 years. A worker in the summer will live for 2 – 4 weeks, whereas a ‘winter’ bee may survive for approximately 24 weeks. Drones are ejected from the hive at the end of each season.


Honey bees are sometimes mistaken for wasps (which also have striped abdomens and sting). The main visual differences are that wasps are bright yellow with yellow on their faces and on their legs. They have longer antennae than honey bees. The wasp’s flight pattern is noticeably different and they can sting repeatedly (whereas a bee can usually only sting once).

Wasps (and hornets) are carnivorous, feeding their young on meat in the form of aphids and other small insects. In this respect they are useful to the gardener. Honey bees build their homes with vertical combs made of wax – wasps build horizontal sheets of cells made of a papery pulp. Wasps can be seen gathering wood pulp by ‘grazing’ on fences and sheds during the summer.

Other insects mistaken for honey bees include bumble bees, solitary bees and hoverflies. Click here to view our page on 'Other Bees'.

Link to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Help with insect identification - the Natural History Museum

Link to site specialising in solitary bees

Bee stings

It is generally accepted that if you keep bees, you will probably get stung sooner or later. Most stings can be avoided by careful handling of the bees, correct dress and judicious use of the smoker. It is a good practice to wear protective clothing (especially around the head and face) – bees are not always predictable!

The ‘venom sac’ becomes detached from the bee. Remove this as quickly as possible by scraping with a finger nail or hive tool. The sting gives off a scent to the other bees, encouraging them to sting in the same area. This can be masked by puffing smoke onto the affected area.

The effects can be minimal (like a nettle sting) or more painful and enduring. It is common for the affected area to be slightly swollen and itchy for a few days. A smaller number of people are allergic to bee stings. Symptoms might include disorientation, increased heart rate or difficulty in breathing. For this reason, it is always good practice to carry a mobile phone when working with bees.

The Anaphylaxis Campaign - Bee and Wasp Sting Allergy



Click here to download free fact sheet from IBRA about honey bees

from 'The Encyclopaedic Dictionary' Cassell & Co Ltd, 1909

A bee colony is (usually) made up of three different types of bee – one fertile female ‘queen’, female ‘workers’ and male ‘drones’. The queen is the largest, followed by the drones, then the workers.

Queen marking follows agreed conventions. If the year ends in 1 or 6, the colour is white...

1 or 6 White  

2 or 7 Yellow

3 or 8 Red

4 or 9 Green

5 or 0 Blue

2014 Queen colour is GREEN

In the UK, if someone has an allergic response to a bee sting, you can contact the emergency services by dialling 999 or 112 (from a land line or mobile phone).

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Photo NAL

Apis mellifera foraging on Sedum.

The Queen bee is noticeably longer than than her peers.

Photo NAL

Photo NAL

Queen wasp - this one was photographed in March looking for a nest site.

Photo NAL

A bee sting, showing the poison sac on the end of the barb.

A bee usually dies as a result of deploying the sting as the barb sticks in the victim and rips out the abdomen

Secrets of the honeybee bite revealed

Vita researchers have just revealed startling findings about the bite of the honeybee in the prestigious scientific journal, PLOS ONE.


The researchers have discovered that honeybees can bite as well as sting and that the bite contains a natural anaesthetic. The anaesthetic may help honeybees fend off pests such as wax moth and the parasitic varroa mite, and it also has great potential for use in human medicine.


Their remarkable findings are expected to stimulate new research in many new directions.


Read more about this fascinating news here

and the detailed scientific paper is here.

 Information supplied courtesy of VITA (Europe) Limited

UK butterflies continue to decline

Photo NAL

The British butterfly population is continuing a marked downward trend. This is according to a national survey which revealed that numbers of the insects fell by more than 20% between 2010 and 2011. The results, announced by the charity Butterfly Conservation, appear to contrast with a recent study revealing a boom in numbers of rare UK species. But while rare species may thrive in Britain's "pollinator hot spots", the more general outlook appears bleak.

Link to article on BBC

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