Honey bees are wonderful and useful creatures. They are the most common species of bees and pollinating insects. Honey bees are very important because most of the food we consume relies on pollination. Their importance for agriculture and contribution to the economy is unsurpassed. Many people come across this species and do not know at all it is a honey bee because they know nothing about its appearance.
Honey bees are fuzzy, including the eyes. They have an elongated body, which is orange-brown, with black markings on the abdomen. Also, they lack tibial spurs on their legs because they do not dig holes. Their wings have a narrow marginal cell that goes along the front edge of the forewing.
You can also recognize honey bees by their behavior and location. Honey bees have specific movements and speed of flying and live in large and dense swarms. Keep reading to learn more about honey bees and their appearance. I will also touch upon queen bees and African killer bees.
How to Identify a Honey Bee?
There are certain characteristics all bees share. Bees are insects, and they all have three body regions that each have their functions (oh and six legs too!). The body regions have their technical names, they are the head, thorax, and abdomen. Besides this, bees have a pair of antennae on their heads and two pairs of wings.
Fortunately for us, honey bees do in fact have some unique features too. In this part of the article we will go over the different features or characteristics you can use to confirm you are dealing with a honey bee. You will need a keen eye though, as you will need to pay attention to the shape of the body, legs, eyes, or hair. Male and female honey bees also have defining features you can spot when you have your honey bee spotting hat on 🙂
When you first look at the honey bee, you notice they are furry. Other types of bees are also furry, but this is just one characteristic that shows you may have encountered a honey bee. Honey bees also have fury eyes that are tiny. Male honey bees or drones have eyes meeting at the top of the head. Because this feature is not common among other bees, it is the best indicator that you are dealing with a honey bee.
One of the most common characteristics of honey bees is that they gather in large and dense swarms. Swarms can contain hundreds of densely packed bees.
I suggest you watch the bee flying because that can also tell you what species you are encountering. Honey bees usually fly fast. Their flight is swift and frenzied, while other species of bees can fly slowly as if hovering in the air. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the way of flying in order to distinguish them.
Honey bees are not fat and round. This is what bumblebees look like, while honey bees have a more elongated body than, for example, carpenter bees. The color of honey bees is not always light yellow, but more with orange and brown shades, with black markings on the abdomen. You should not mix them with other species that are bright yellow with black stripes.
I have already mentioned that you have to pay attention to the bee’s legs in order to recognize its species. Each species has two tibial spurs on its hind legs. These spurs help the bees dig the ground and the holes. Honey bees live in wax combs and do not need to dig holes and therefore do not have tibial spurs.
Many bees have long tongues, some extra long. Some bees have a tongue as long as their body. The tongue of honey bees is not too long but is on a shorter spectrum.
The mandibles in bees can be large and small, with more teeth and blades, depending on the lifestyle of the bees. Honey bees have spoon-shaped mandibles and they have a specific task. Namely, the back of the mandible has channels that carry food from the brood from the bee glands to the brood cell to feed the young. Rounded edges protect against damage.
Their mandibles act as sharp tools for cutting, tearing, and chewing, and that is why they are easy to recognize. Honey bees feed their young in a more progressive way. They do not give their young liquid food but give them a sweetened pollen ball to chew.
Sometimes you can recognize a honey bee by its wings. Of course, this is not a simple task because most bees have a similar pattern. However, if you have experience and have memorized the pattern of a bee’s wings, you can recognize its species easily. The part of the wing by which you can recognize the honey bee is the marginal cell. This cell is narrow and goes along the front edge of the forewing. The complete cell looks slightly curved and the part furthest from the body is rounded.
A honey bees dance is also a special feature you can spot. It is their way of communication when they find food in a location they want to share with their hive mates. After a honey bee has found food, she communicates it to other bees in the hive via dance language. The scout bee’s responsibility is to fly around and look for this food. Then, the scout bee carries the nectar to the hive and other bees smell it to find out what type of flower it is.
Sex determination is not necessarily important when you want to determine if a bee is a honey bee. However, sometimes you happen to see a bee that looks like a honey bee worker but with 13 segments, then it cannot be a honey bee.
To distinguish a male from a female, it is necessary to know that the female has 12 abdominal segments and the male 13. Females have six visible abdominal segments, and males seven, and the rest are hidden or invisible. Also, females mostly carry pollen in an organized way.
Are Honey Bees Fuzzy?
You have probably noticed by now that bees are mostly very fuzzy and have hair even on their legs, tongue, and eyes. These hairs have their role and are very useful because they help honey bees to collect pollen that sticks to each hair. The hairs look mostly branched, and those that are not are for sensory purposes. The hairs also give shape to the honey bees.
These hairs are of a different material from the fur of mammals, similar to human hair. The hair collection for collecting pollen has another name – scopa. It differs in size, shape, location depending on the type of pollen. It contains long hairs that hold pollen, and the second layer is shorter hairs that absorb oils. The bigger and longer the hair, the more pollen grains they can hold.
Scopa’s location is on the hind legs. It is recognizable by its thick rows of hair. You can also find scopa on the lower abdomen. If there is pollen in other places, such as the head, honey bees can easily clean them with their front legs using special hairs and pack them in a scopa.
Why Do Bees Have Fuzzy Bodies?
As mentioned before, honey bees are extremely fuzzy, but it has its purpose. Their sensory hairs help them detect air flows. The fur is essential for their survival, and it helps others distinguish them from other insects.
Bees are vegetarians. They use nectar from flowers and turn it into honey, which is their food supply during winter. However, they require proteins that pollen provides. They use protein from flowers to create “brood food”. They use special glands in their heads for that.
Honey bees collect nectar both for themselves and their young’s needs. Their hair plays an important role, as pollen grains catch in hairs. Honey bees usually use hairy front and middle legs. They brush the comb pollen off their bodies and keep it in hairy recess (pollen baskets or corbicuale) on their rear legs.
Bees leave some pollen grain behind when visiting another flower and it is the primary mechanism of pollination without which life would be much different. Thanks to their fuzzy bodies, honey bees are able to do this.
Honey bees have almost 3 million hairs on their bodies. Some scientists took time to look closely at their bodies and hairs. They found hairs are strategically placed so they can store as much pollen as possible. Each hair can hold a grain of pollen–just imagine what millions of them can hold.
Due to so much hair, bees carry only 30% of their weight in pollen. The clever part with bees hair though is the fact that honey bees only take three minutes to brush off 15,000 particles of pollen.
Another reason honey bees have fuzzy bodies is to keep them warm in cold weather. When bees are together, it is even better, because there are many fury bees to regulate the temperature in a hive or nest.
Bees also have hairs on their tongues that help them lap up nectar from flowers. This hairy tongue will help them act like a tube for sucking up nectar.
Also, hair on honey bees’ bodies helps them pick up vibrations, even touch from their surroundings. And if they can feel them, they can respond to them 🙂
Why Do Honey Bees Have Hairy Eyes?
If you look closely enough at any bee, you notice it has five eyes. On either side of the head, the bees have two eyes, and three more at the top of the head that detect light. With the help of these eyes, they sense when a predator is close to them.
Although some cannot see a bee’s eyes, scientists can do so with a variety of instruments to have insight into their anatomy. When honey bees collect pollen, it covers their body, until fully covered when they come back to the hive.
The hair on the eyes of honey bees has an important role as it prevents pollen from sticking to their eyes. However, if honey bees do not remove pollen from their eyes, it will mess with their flying and navigating. Due to this, honey bees remove pollen from their eyes and transport it back to pollen baskets on their hind legs and then back to the hive.
Many people tried to examine the way a honey bee removes pollen from its eyes. They concluded honey bees have a pre-programmed method of cleaning. It does not depend on how much pollen is covering them and does not vary from bee to bee. The bees remove pollen from their eyes, in the same way, using their front legs. To clean eyes and antennae, honey bees take up to 20 swipes.
The pollen grains size is also important because smaller grains can stick between the hairs on honey bees’ eyes and it is difficult to remove them. Larger grains remain near the tips of the eyes and are easily removable and collectible. The hair on bees’ legs is longer and useful for eye grooming since hairs on legs are longer and can reach the space between the eye hairs to collect pollen. Genius, right!
What Does a Queen Bee Look Like?
The queen bee is fascinating. She has the most important role in the hive–to lay eggs that will, later on, produce worker bees and drones. The Queen bee is the mother figure in the hive and other bees will feed and groom her.
Finding the queen bee is a demanding job for many. The queen bee can look different, be a different color, even behave differently, and these are things you need to pay close attention to. The first thing is the appearance of the queen bee. The queen bee is usually the largest and longest (around 20 mm) in the hive. She also has a back that differs from other bees, and it is black, shiny, and hairless. On the other hand, her legs are long and hairy.
A queen bee usually has a black dot on her thorax. Her torso is in one color, something many look for when they want to find a queen bee. Also, the queen bee’s reproductive organs make up the most important characteristic. She has spermatheca where she stores sperm. Queen bees collect sperm during their mating flight time and use them to lay eggs, that will, later on, produce worker bees.
The queen bee has also developed ovaries, unlike worker bees that do not have such delights! Besides, her wings cover only part of her abdomen while workers’ wings fully cover it. Do not forget to pay attention to her stinger, which is much smoother than in worker bees.
Many people try to rely on the color of the queen, but they do not know that she can vary and be different from what you imagined. Many believe that the queen must be brighter than other bees or have a distinct pattern on the back. Therefore, it is necessary to study its true appearance. The queen bee can be a variety of colors that can wear out. You should therefore take into account not only the queen bees looks but also how she behaves. You will build this knowledge over time as a beekeeper. Practice makes perfect after all 🙂
Why Do Honey Bees Have Barbed Stinger?
Honey bees protect their hive from danger and often sting to defend it. The interesting fact is that only female bees sting. When they are far away from the hive, honey bees do not sting, unless someone accidentally interferes with the hive. The stinger of a honey bee consists of two barbed lancets.
When a honey bee stings, it unfortunately dies, because it cannot pull the stinger back. Along with the stinger, the honey bee also leaves a part of its abdomen, nerves, and muscles. This creates a hole in the abdomen that eventually kills her. A honey bee can sting other insects and pull out a stinger safely.
Even if you chase away a bee when it is near you or manages to sting you, its stinger does not stop working. The nerve cells that accumulate coordinate the muscles of the stinger left behind. The barbed shafts are then useful because they rub back and forth and go deep into your skin. The muscular valves then pump the toxins out of the venom sac and release them into the wound after the bee leaves.
Therefore, many people scrape the stinger instead of pinching it off, which is not always a good idea. As said, the sting continues to work even though the bee has disappeared, so it is best to remove the sting immediately, as any delay can have harmful consequences.
Many believe honey bees can sting once, but this is not true. Although honey bees have a barbed stinger, that goes deep into the victim’s skin, tearing the bee’s abdomen and causing its death in few minutes, this can only happen if the victim’s skin is thick. Honey bees are the only species that have a barbed sting, unlike other wasps with small barbs.
The honey bee is one of the few that has a suicidal sting. The reason honey bees have barbs is that they store large amounts of honey. They keep that honey from bears and badgers who often steal it.
Because of this, the honey bee has developed protection against various mammals and has a sting that works even after a bee dies. The need to fight and protect honey led to this mechanism that helps honey bees keep their storage and protect their hive.
Do Honey Bees Have Claws?
One of the interesting facts is that honey bees have claws at the tips of their feet. The role of claws is to help them stand on surfaces without falling off. Their feet have soft pads that help them stand on smoother surfaces and also provide information on the place on which they stand.
Honey bees enjoy nectar from plants, and their claws on front legs actually help them detect it. They can do it thanks to sensilla or sensory receptors. It allows bees to detect sugar as soon as they land on a flower. Besides claws, these sensory receptors are also present in the areas of antennae and mouths.
Honey bees rely on their taste to find nectar in the environment around the colony. Their claws are sensitive to salt and sugar and many found it impressive. Sense of taste helps honey bees detect nectar on flowers. Also, when they are hovering over the water, they can sense the presence of salt in the water.
If you give the honey bee contradictory information and put sugar on one leg, and salt or caffeine on the left one, the honey bee’s central nervous system will weigh up this information incorrectly. I have already said the honey bee will extend its tongue if it tastes sugar. However, if you reverse salt and sugar in this way, there is only a 50% chance it will stick out its tongue for sugar. This is the bee equivalent of sensory overload 🙂
Honey bees also use their claws for festooning. When bees exhibit festooning, they hang from frames in chains, looking clingy. Many try to find out why they do that, but one theory is bees increase the temperature in a way that helps secretions of wax. Another theory is they do it to measure and keep proper bee space.
There is also speculation that honey bees use festooning to build a bridge in open space. The reason bees behave in such a way is unknown and intriguing. If you look through frames, you will see lattices and chains between combs. These chains consist of many bees holding onto each other with their toes. These toes are actually claws that give a good deal of dexterity.
Besides hanging onto the comb, claws also allow bees to grip various surfaces and it is useful when looking for food. Using claws, bees attach to one another in a swarm, especially during extremely hot weather.
How Do You Tell the Difference Between a Honey Bee and a Killer Bee?
The first time they identified African killer bees was in the 1950s. They spread across other countries, until they arrived in Mexico, and then to southern California, Oklahoma, western Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and central and southern Florida. Killer bees are dangerous insects known for chasing people or animals when aggressive or excited. That is how they got their name.
When you compare a killer bee and a honey bee, you will notice they look the same. This is because they crossbred with local bees when they first arrived in Brazil, who introduced these bees in an attempt to increase honey production (although it turned into an experiment gone wrong, I can tell you!). The only way to determine to which species each bee belongs is to observe their appearance and behavior. Although they look almost the same, you will spot the difference when you measure their bodies.
Killer bees are around 10% smaller than honey bees, which is difficult to see without proper testing and measurement. Some tests used are FABIS or Fast African Bee Identification System and USDA-ID or Universal System for the Detection of African honey bees.
African killer bees are more aggressive and persistent than honey bees. Beekeepers have a hard time working with them and they also pose a threat to ordinary people. Honey bees are also aggressive when they want to protect their hive but to a much lesser degree.
Killer bees will not send a couple of protective bees to protect the colony, but hundreds of them. This is potentially harmful to people and animals in the surrounding because it means there will be more painful stings flying in their direction. As said before, a killer bee will often chase a person or an animal, even up to 40 yards.
Another difference between killer bees and honey bees is the size of their colonies. European honey bee colonies have over 60,000 bees. On contrary, killer bees have 15,000 or fewer bees in the colony. They are resistant to severe weather, unlike honey bees. African bees have smaller hives in exposed places such as tree branches. Because of that, they are sometimes hard to see.
European bees love their hives in dry and warm places, preferably hidden, because they want to protect the queen. You can find their hives in your home, such as in walls, where they can grow up to 80 pounds.
African bees and honey bees differ in the way they look for food. African bees prefer darker times when foraging for food, usually after dawn and before dusk. Honey bees look for food in sunny and warm weather.
Killer bees are smaller and because of that, they swarm many times a year, 6 to 12 times. They will not continue living in the same place when someone or something threatens their hive. Instead, they will find a new place. Smaller colony size helps them easily pick up and move from place to place.
Now you have all the information you need to know if you are encountering a honey bee or some other species. Honey bees are an important part of the ecosystem and, thanks to them, fruits and vegetables from farms and wilds grow more successfully. Therefore, we need to protect them and be careful not to destroy their hives.