Identification

The honeybee is a medium sized bee that lives in social colonies. The colony contains a single fertile female (the queen), 5-50,000 sterile females or worker bees and a few hundred male bees or drones. The queen spends most of her life inside the hive, only venturing out for mating flights at the beginning of her adult life and later if she leaves the hive with a swarm to found a new colony.

Worker bees construct the wax combs used for raising the larvae and storing pollen and honey. They also feed the larvae, protect the hive from intruders, and gather nectar and pollen. Male honeybees have broader bodies than the workers and much larger eyes. The honeybee is brownish black in colour and can vary in the amount of brown banding on the abdominal segments.

Size

A queen honeybee is about 16-18mm in length. Worker bees are 12-14mm and drones are about 15mm.

Distribution

Common throughout Britain.

Status

Wild colonies of honeybees can be found in hollow trees, buildings and other suitable dark cavities. However such colonies are of short duration. This is because a parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, has become established on the European honeybee, having transferred from an Asian honeybee. The mite sucks fluids from the larvae, pupae and adult bees and also spreads virus diseases amongst the bees. The mite infestation can rapidly build up in unmanaged bee colonies, causing the colony to collapse. Colonies in beehives can be looked after by beekeepers, who will take the necessary steps to keep the mite infestation at a relatively low level. Bee swarms that are missed by a beekeeper may find a new home for themselves in a hollow tree but without the care of a beekeeper, their future is bleak.

Habitat preference

Gardens and other flower-rich places.

Where to find in the garden

In some gardens, in beehives. Worker bees can be found visiting flowers from February to November. They may also be seen in mid winter on mild sunny days. During hot weather in summer, bees may be seen collecting water from bird baths, ponds, swimming pools and other water sources.

Role in the garden

The hairy nature of honeybees means that they become liberally dusted with pollen when they visit flowers. When the bee moves to another flower of the same species, some of the pollen is transferred to the female part of the flower (the stigma). The pollen grains germinate and grow down to the ovules, allowing fertilization to take place. The plant is then able to set seeds. This process of pollination is essential for many flowering plants, which rely on insects to transfer pollen from flower to flower. All garden fruits, apart from hazel and walnut, need insect pollination.