Cute and generous, the common honeybee

Common honeybee on a lawn flower

These days, the domesticated honeybee often makes the news for sad reasons: populations are dwindling and environmental consequences are dire. Indeed, an individual honeybee is able to pollinate over 700 flowers an hour. This extraordinary performance makes it a precious ally in the vegetable patch and orchard.

Learn all there is to know about the common honeybee and find out how to attract and protect it in your garden.

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What there is to know about the domesticated honeybee

A flying insect belonging to the Hymenoptera order, the common honeybee is also known under many other names: European bee, honey fly, and also Apis mellifera in latin, which is its botanical name. All these names designate the same pollinating insect.

Description

The honeybee has yellow and black rings and is covered with fuzzIt’s easy to identify the honeybee:

  • light fuzz on the thorax;
  • black stripes on a yellow abdomen, but some sub-species have other colors than yellow, especially native ones;
  • wide hind legs for worker bees, which helps them gather pollen into little clumps.

The common honeybee’s size depends on the individual you’re looking at:

  • the queen (also called “queen bee”) is the largest, usually from 5/8ths to 6/8ths of an inch (15 to 20 mm);
  • males, (or “drones”) are between 15 and 16 mm long (just over half an inch).
  • worker bees are the smallest, and barely reach half an inch in size (13 mm).

The honeybee is often mistaken for a wasp. To tell them apart, simply remember that wasps don’t have any fuzz on their body, and the silhouette is very distinct: the point where abdomen and thorax meet is very thin. This characteristic is what led to the expression “wasp waist”, in women’s fashion!

Did you know… ?

Even though the honeybee has a stinger, it will only sting you as a last recourse: stinging other animals will kill it, too. This is because once the stinger is lodged under the skin, it can’t be pulled out. As a consequence, when the bee flies off, the venom sac rips out of the insect’s abdomen, and within an hour the bee dies.

Biology and lifecycle

The common honeybee is a gregarious insect that lives in a community that houses three types of individuals:

  • Queen bee and workers on a honeycombThe queen bee mates on a single day and then spends the rest of its life laying eggs (worker bees, future queens, and drones). This ensures the continuity of its colony. Its average lifespan is 3 to 4 years.
  • Worker bees have a much shorter life span, which partly depends on the season. In Summer, when they work full time, they only live 6 to 8 weeks. In Winter, however, there is less to do, and most worker bees can live 5 to 6 months. Worker bees aren’t fertile, but their role is essential. In fact, they bear the brunt of everything that needs to be done in a hive: harvesting nectar and pollen, building and maintaining the honeycomb, feeding the larvae, etc. In a single hive, there usually are from 15,000 to 50,000 individual worker bees.
  • Lastly, drones, the males honeybees, don’t do any pollinating. Their main role is simply to mate with future queens. Even though they’re much less numerous than worker bees (rarely over 1,000 individuals), since drones aren’t productive, they’re sometimes considered parasites in the hive. When fall rolls in, worker bees actually kick them out of the hive! And if you’ve been wondering… the bumblebee isn’t the “papa bee”… it’s a completely different species!

Benefits of having bees in the garden and vegetable patch

We’re all familiar with the crucial task that the common bee carries out: pollination. A honeybee never stops hopping from one flower to the next, making the species an excellent pollinator that measurably increases productivity of all kinds of crops. That’s why it’s important to protect and care for this insect.

How to attract the honeybee to the garden and protect it?

Components of a beehiveHarboring a hive of honeybees isn’t very easy in a small garden. However, if you’re lucky to have a wide space, it isn’t a problem at all to host one or more hives so that you might benefit from having this excellent beneficial animal nearby. Nonetheless, even tiny, narrow gardens can contribute to making honeybees feel welcome.

There are many other things you can try:

  • Create a flower bed that has many different types of flowers;
  • sow a flowered prairie;
  • favor melliferous plants over those that might not have as much nectar and pollen;
  • and, most importantly, reduce and even abandon chemical products, especially insecticides which have dramatic consequences on honeybee colonies.

To learn more, read:

Smart tip about the common honeybee

If ever a runaway swarm appears in your garden, the best thing to do is to call a professional beekeeper. He or she will come collect the swarm and house it elsewhere.


Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Common honeybee foraging by Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois, own work
Bee in hand by Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois, own work
Queen bee by Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois, own work
Beehive components by Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois, own work