Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Class: Insecta.  Order:  Hymenoptera.  Family: Apidae.  Genus:  Apis.  Species:  mellifera

Although the honey bee is familiar to all of us it is such a vital component of the horticultural and farming industries I felt it deserved to be included in my 'insects'.

Honey bees are introduced insects.  They are dark brown with yellow bands on the abdomens.  Their legs are hairy and the eyes also have hairs on them.  They are social insects that live in large colonies.  They feed on nectar and pollen and their usual size is 13-15 cm.  Honey bees on bottlebrush flowers:

Honey bees defend their nest aggressively.  The bee dies after stinging, as the sting is left in the victim, tearing out part of the bee abdomen. The sting, with venom gland pumping, is left in.  Honey bee stings cause intense local pain and swelling, and some people have severe allergic reactions.  (I do have bad reactions from honey bee stings but fortunately not too severe).

This honey bee shows collected pollen in a sac on its hind leg:

Australia does, of course, have its own native bees; in fact there are over 1,500 species of native bee in this country.  They can be distinguished from flies in that bees have four wings, whereas flies have only two.  These bees collect pollen from flowers to feed their young.  Wasps and flies don't do that although they may be seen eating pollen, so identification is not always easy.

Ten of the native species, the social native bees Trigona and Austroplebeia have no sting.  Of the remainder, which live solitary lives, none are aggressive, and most cannot actually use their sting on humans because they are too small to do so.  Larger examples of Australian native bee are capable of stinging if handled or squashed.  The stings of most Australian native bee species will cause relatively minor discomfort to most people - "not as painful as those of a bull ant or paper wasp and last only a few minutes".  However, they may sting more than once, and can cause an allergic reaction - increasing effect associated with repeated exposure to the antigen.

Social species of Australian native bees do produce honey, but not much, as they are relatively primitive bee species.  In cool climate areas of Australia, all the honey the bees produce is needed by the swarm to live through the winter.  Collecting honey from these native bees can cause many of them to drown in spilt honey.  Thy honey is tangy in comparison with commercial honey taken from the European honey bee  The bees store their honey in "small resinous pots which look like bunches of grapes".  This is a cloak and dagger cuckoo bee:

The different species of Australian native bee have different habits and preferences in gathering pollen, so different species are better pollinators of a given plant than other species.  Research is currently underway into the use of Amegilla ("blue-banded bees") for use in pollinating hydroponic tomatoes, while some hydroponic growers are petitioning for introduction to the Australian mainland of the European bumblebee, Bombus terrestris - the island continent Australia has a history of sensationally poor outcomes from introduced species, the most famous being that of the cane toad - Bufo marinus - so the question of the use of native vs introduced bees for pollination in Australia is very controversial.  These native bees are forming a hive in the brickwork of a house in Darwin, in northern Australia:

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