What Are Honey Bees? A Beginner’s Guide To The Honey Bee

what are honey bees

Updated on September 11th, 2022

Bees are flying insects that feed on pollen and nectar from flowers. There are about 20,000 different bee species worldwide. Only eight of these species are classified as honey bees, none of which are native to North America.

Honey bees are flying insects that live in complex social organizations called colonies. They build wax comb in nests to raise young and store food. Adult bees are either male or female. Females consist of two castes: queen bees and workers. Honey bees divide labor and work collectively for the benefit of the colony.

While some other bees and animals also make honey, humans have domesticated some bees that produce surplus honey for harvesting.

The most common honey bee is the western, or European, honey bee (Apis mellifera) maintained by beekeepers in Europe and the Americas. The other major domesticated honey bee is the eastern, or Asian, honey bee (Apis cerana).

This article is a guide to the western honey bees for beginning beekeepers.

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Check out our gift ideas for a beekeeper you know…or for yourself. In addition to standard beekeeping supplies, we’ve highlighted some unique beekeeping-related items.

what are honey bees

About Bees

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, “There are over 20,000 known bee species in the world, and 4,000 of them are native to the United States. They range from the tiny (2 mm) and solitary Perdita minima, known as the world’s smallest bee, to kumquat-sized species of carpenter bees.”

Europe is home to “about 10% of worldwide bee diversity, although the continent only represents 7% of global terrestrial habitats.”[1]

No existing honey bee species is native to North America. They were originally imported from Europe in the 17th century. Honey bees now help pollinate many U.S. crops like fruits and nuts. In a single year, one honey bee colony can gather about 40 pounds of pollen and 265 pounds of nectar.

Note: 2009, a “roughly 14-million-year-old fossil unearthed in Nevada preserves what’s clearly a member of the honeybee, or Apis, genus…” This no-longer-existing honey bee is classified Apis nearctica.[2]

What Are Honey Bees?

Honey bees are flying insects exhibiting “eusocial” organization. Other eusocial insects include wasps and ants.

Eusociality is characterized by cooperative behavior among individuals of the same species through reproductive division of labor, the overlap of generations, and colonial nesting.1 [3]

Species of bees exhibit different types of social organization. For example, in contrast to honey bees, mason bees are solitary.

As eusocial insects, individual honey bees perform specific tasks. However, in undertaking these tasks, the colony acts as a single organism. Thus, a honey bee colony is often referred to as a superorganism.

Honey bees go through three stages of development – egg, larva, and pupa – before finally emerging as either a male or female adult.

Learn more! Read our article about the honey bee life cycle for more information about a honey bee’s stages of development.

What Does A Honey Bee Look Like? | Honey Bee Anatomy

As insects, honey bees have three distinct body areas (head, thorax, and abdomen) and six legs.

Honey bees have an exoskeleton, a hard outer body. The exoskeleton provides support (and protection) for the bee’s internal body parts.

Branched hairs and regular body hair cover the exoskeleton. Branched hairs are excellent for trapping pollen, shown in the image below. Hairs also provide sensory feedback, help regulate temperature, keep the exoskeleton clean.3

Close-up of feathery hairs on a honey bee, which are well adapted to collect pollen. (Photo courtesy Zachary Huang, Michigan State University)

Close-up of feathery hairs on a honey bee, which are well adapted to collect pollen. (Photo courtesy Zachary Huang, Michigan State University).  Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Close-up-of-feathery-hairs-on-a-honey-bee-which-are-well-adapted-to-collect-pollen_fig4_280884049

A Honey Bee’s Head

The head includes a bee’s primary sensory organs, such as the eyes, antennae, and mouthparts.

Honey bees have five eyes.

Three small eyes called ocelli are simple eyes. Their exact use is unknown, but they act as light receptors and help bees “maintain stability and navigate.”[5]

Two compound eyes have nearly 7,000 facets each. These facets provide an overlapping, mosaic-like view of the world that changes as the bee moves.

Bees see color much like humans but on a different spectrum range that includes ultraviolet.

Bee vs Human visible color spectrum
Comparison of bee and human color perception

On the front of the bee’s head are two antennae.

Each antenna has multiple segments covered with sensory components. The antennae are the bee’s primary organs for touch and smell. The sense of smell is vital as bees use chemical pheromones for communication.

The bottom of a honey bee’s head has a complex structure arrangement comprising the mouthparts. Mouthparts suck up liquids, manipulate wax, taste, smell, and touch.

A Honey Bee’s Thorax

A honey bee’s middle section is the thorax used to move around.

The thorax has three sections, each with a pair of legs. Hairy legs are used for grooming, transferring wax, and carrying pollen. The rear legs of the worker bees function as pollen baskets.

Two sections of the thorax each have a pair of wings.

A Honey Bee’s Abdomen

The third segment of a honey bee’s body is the abdomen. The abdomen has openings that connect to the bee’s respiratory system. Moving the abdomen assists various internal functions like digestion.

The queen bee abdomen is longer and narrower than those of drones and workers, making it a distinguishing feature.

At the end of the abdomen, queens and workers have stingers. Drones have no stinger. Since drones are a small component of a honey bee colony, honey bees are classified as stinging bees.

Learn more! For more information about how and why bees sting and what to do when you are stung, read our article Do Honey Bees Sting?

Three Types Of Adult Honey Bees

There are three types of adults in a honey bee colony: a queen, workers, and drones.

Males are called drones.

There are two “castes” of female honey bees: a queen bee and worker bees.

Note: Drones are often referred to as a caste and, therefore, honey bees as having three castes.

However, “[t]he term caste in social insects is applied to individuals of the same sex that differ in morphology (form and function), physiology, and behavior. Drones…are not members of a caste since all drones exhibit the same morphology and behavior.” [4]

Queens and workers are female and develop from fertilized eggs. Drones are male and develop from unfertilized eggs.

Queen Bees

Honey bees divide reproductive labor between the female honey bee castes. Most colonies have only one queen responsible for laying eggs. A fertile queen can lay thousands of eggs per day.

In addition to egg-laying, queens have unique pheromones (queen substance) to influence the colony’s behavior.

If a colony thinks a new queen may be necessary, it selects some female larva for a special diet. Thus, some females develop as queens instead of worker bees.

Queens will fight to the death for dominance in the hive. As a result, most colonies have only a single queen.

Learn more! For detailed information about queens and how they develop, read our article What Is A Queen Bee’s Role In The Hive? A Beginner’s Guide To Queen Bees

Worker Bees

Worker bees are the other caste of females in a colony.

Workers are the smallest bees in the hive. Except for reproduction, workers perform all the tasks required to maintain the hive and provide for the colony’s survival.

Tasks performed by female worker bees include nursing the brood, tending to the queen, building wax comb, guarding the hive, foraging for nectar and pollen, and making honey.

Bees drawing comb on foundationless frame
Bees drawing comb on foundationless frame

A worker bee’s responsibilities vary based on the colony’s needs and the bee’s age.

Learn more! See our article What Is A Worker Bee? for more information about all the roles played by workers.

Drone Bees

Drones have no tasks related to the maintenance of the hive.

A male drone’s sole purpose is to mate with a virgin queen. Once mated, a queen can assume her place as a colony’s egg layer.

Few drones ever mate. Those that mate die from the process.

Since drones have a limited role, colonies control their population based on seasonal needs and the scarcity of resources. Drones are forcibly evicted from hives before the onset of winter months when their services are not needed, and food is most precious.

Learn more about drones! Read What Is A Drone Bee? | About Male Honey Bees

Honey Bee Races

The western honey bee came to North America with European settlers in the 17th century.

The different varieties of western honey bees are informally ranked as races based on specific traits. The race names reflect the origin of the characteristics.

The most common races of European honey bee are:

  • Italians – most popular race in North America
  • Carniolians
  • Caucasians
  • Russian
  • Africanized

Each race has general traits that can make them more (or less) desirable by beekeepers.

For example, Italian honey bees are considered gentle and breed well. They are excellent foragers. However, they are more likely to engage in robbing behavior.

Carniolan populations grow rapidly in spring. They overwinter well. However, the rapid population growth can make them prone to swarming.

Africanized Honey Bees

Africanized bees resulted from a cross-breeding experiment conducted in South America intended to increase honey production. Unfortunately, some of the bees escaped, and they have since spread up into the southern United States and bred with other races.

They are very defensive and aggressive and sometimes referred to as “killer bees.”

Hybrid Bees

In addition to these races, breeders develop hybrid bees to foster particular traits such as resistance to Varroa mites. An example of such bees are Sasktraz bees.

Learn more! In our article about what kind of honey bees to buy, we discuss the different races of bees and their advantages and drawbacks.

Honey Bee Nests

The western honey bee’s natural environment is a wooded area where it can nest in tree cavities.

When bees swarm in search of a new home, scout bees search for a desirable location. These scouts report back to the swarm until the bees reach a consensus on which place will become home.

Desirable locations are dark cavities typically at least 15’ (4.6m) above the ground.

Cavities must be large enough to accommodate the bees and wax comb for brood and food to sustain the colony. In addition, the dimensions should provide for the ability to keep brood cells and honey separated.

Openings to the new home can be large enough for bees to come and go freely during peak foraging times but small enough to be defended easily.

In his fabulous book Honeybee Democracy, Thomas Seeley describes his study of swarms and how they pick a new home. His findings indicate the ideal location for a new nest has a volume of about 40 liters (1.5 cu. ft.) which is about the size of a 10-frame deep hive box. You can find Honeybee Democracy here on Amazon.

Honey bees construct wax comb inside their nest. Honeycomb cells are hexagonal and meant to hold brood and food.

Learn more! Read our article What Is Honeycomb? (Talking Beeswax) for information about how bees make wax and build comb.

Honey Bee Hives

Beehives are man-made structures that imitate a honey bee’s natural nesting environment.

The use of beehives to house colonies is critical to human’s domestication of honey bees. By placing bees in hives, beekeepers manage colonies in attempts to maximize their production for the benefit of both the colony and the beekeeper.

Colony Populations

The queen and colony monitor and control the size of the population in sync with their seasonal needs.

In spring, the population snowballs to take maximum advantage of the coming availability of nectar and pollen known as honey flow.

For example, a spring colony of about 10,000 bees (the size of a new bee package) can grow to 50,000 or more by mid-summer in favorable conditions.

When resources are scarce during nectar dearth, the queen lays fewer eggs and may stop altogether.

As the hive prepares for winter, a colony’s population declines in the fall. The goal is to have enough bees to keep the hive warm and enough food to survive until the following spring.

Honey Bee Nutrition

Honey bees forage for plant resins, pollen, and nectar.

Plant resins are a “sticky, water insoluble substance which plants secrete primarily to protect injured tissue, young sprouts or leaf buds from herbivore and/or pathogen attack.”[6]Bees convert these resins into propolis (sometimes called bee glue). Bees use propolis to seal openings and glue things together in the hive.

Pollen and nectar are the primary components of the honey bee diet. From these essential ingredients, honey bees secrete high-protein royal jelly and make bee bread (a pollen and nectar mix) to feed the bee larvae.

Bee mix nectar with enzymes in a special sac called a honey stomach. This mixture is stored in wax cells and ripened into honey, the leading food of adult bees (and the main reason for beekeeping).

Learn more! Read What Do Honey Bees Eat? for more information about the roles of nectar, pollen, and honey in the honey bee’s diet. Also, check out Why, What, How & When To Feed Honey Bees for details on supplementing your colonies’ natural food sources.

European Honey Bees Are Pollinators

“Pollination is the main mode of sexual reproduction in plants, which occurs when the transfer of pollen (male) from the anther of a flower to a stigma (female) results in fertilization which produces seeds and, in some cases, fruits.”[7]

According to the U.S Department of the Interior, “About 75% of North American plant species require an insect—mostly bees—to move their pollen from one plant to another to effect pollination…About 20%-45% of native bees are pollen specialists, meaning that they use only pollen from one species (or genus) of plants.”

Honey bees foraging for pollen and nectar join native bees as pollinators, particularly for food crops. The value of honey bees in crop pollination far exceeds the value of their hive products.

Honey Bee Hive Products

Honey bees produce six hive products collected by beekeepers for human consumption as food or medical purposes:

  1. Honey
  2. Beeswax
  3. Pollen
  4. Royal jelly
  5. Propolis, and
  6. Apitoxin (bee venom).

We all know honey. Honey is a sweet, thick food made by honey bees.

Productive, healthy bee colonies produce honey as their primary food source. During good times, bees produce an amount of honey that exceeds their current needs.

Beekeepers harvest that excess honey for human consumption.

Honey and honeycomb
Honey and honeycomb harvest

Learn more! See What Is Honey? (A Guide For Beginning Beekeepers) for information about how bees make honey, the different forms of honey, and more!

Beeswax is a popular hive product used in candles, leather and wood polishes, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.

Bee pollen is reputed to be a “superfood” containing “vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, lipids and protein.”[8] While scientific evidence confirming the health benefits of bee pollen is lacking, bee pollen is a popular product.

You can find bee pollen here on Amazon if you’d like to try it.

Royal jelly is a high-protein hive product with a variety of nutrients. In addition, royal jelly may provide health benefits, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, a positive impact on cholesterol levels, and more. However, as with bee pollen, scientific evidence backing these claims is inconclusive.[9]

Propolis is used as “a natural remedy found in many health food stores in different forms for topical use. It is also used in cosmetics or as a popular alternative medicine for self-treatment of various diseases.” It is also found in throat lozenges, mouthwashes, and other products.[10]

The honey bee’s stinger delivers Apitoxin or bee venom. Bee venom can be life-threatening to those with severe sensitivity by inducing anaphylaxis. Most individuals, however, experience various degrees of localized swelling and itching.

According to healthine.com, “Bee venom has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and may benefit the health of your skin and immune system. It may also improve certain medical conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain.” Research is ongoing to support the potential benefits of bee venom.


Honey bees are fascinating insects. A colony acting collectively works for the survival of the colony and the propagation of the species.

As beekeepers, our job is to assist the honey bees with minimal disruption to their activities.

In doing so, we can benefit from all the bees have to offer.

Additional Reading

First Native American Honey Beeby Kathy Keatley Garvey – July 28, 2009 – University of California, Agriculture, and Natural Resources

[1] Introduction to Bees– European Commission – Environment – Nature & Biodiversity

[2] Fossil shows first all-American honeybee – by Susan Milius – July 23, 2009 – ScienceNews

[3] Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping by Dewey M. Caron with Lawrence John Connor published by Wicwass Press, LLC – October 2018 – Chapters 3 & 5

[4] The Beekeeper’s Handbook, Fourth Edition by Diana Sammatro and Alphonse Avitabile, Chapter 2 – Colony Activities.

[5] How Bees See And Why It Matters – by Sharla Riddle – Bee Culture magazine – May 20, 2016.

[6]  A clue on bee glue: New insight into the sources and factors driving resin intake in honeybees (Apis mellifera)

Drescher N, Klein AM, Schmitt T, Leonhardt SD (2019) A clue on bee glue: New insight into the sources and factors driving resin intake in honeybees (Apis mellifera). PLOS ONE 14(2): e0210594. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210594)

[7] Crop Pollination– S.G. Potts, T. Breez, B. Gemmill-Herren – Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Food Systems, Academic Press, 2014.

[8] Bee Pollen Benefits and Side Effects by Debra Fulghum Bruce, Ph.D. – WebMD

[9] 12 Potential Health Benefits of Royal Jelly Written by Ansley Hill, RD, LD on October 3, 2018 – healthline

[10] Wagh VD. Propolis: a wonder bees product and its pharmacological potentials. Adv Pharmacol Sci. 2013;2013:308249. doi:10.1155/2013/308249

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