There are almost 20,000 species of bees in the world which have been identified to date. Bees are close relatives of ants, wasp and hornets. One genus under which all honey bees fall, Apis, contains all the known species of honey bee forming at least 44 sub species. Bees in this genus are all characterised by their abilities to produce and store honey and build comb from wax. It is these properties that mankind has learned to use by learning to harvest honey from wild colonies or managing colonies in hives.

Honey Bees are well-known as hive bees: semi-domesticated for thousands of years to produce honey for human consumption. They may form colonies in the wild in wooded areas. As with other colony-living insects, the hive is split into a queen who lays eggs, the workers who look after the young and the drones who are reproductive males. The hive is made of wax 'honeycombs', each divided into a number of hexagonal cells that are used to rear young or store food such as pollen and honey (which is actually regurgitated nectar). The larvae pupate in the cell which is capped by wax until they emerge. The first new queen to emerge may sting following queens to death and will either take the place of her mother (who will leave with a swarm) or will create a new colony.



Apis mellifera is the most wide spread species of honey bee in the world. It is the main species which has truly been “domesticated” by humans, largely due to its habit of building its nests within cavities (e.g. amongst rocks or within hollows in trees). It is due to this habit that A. mellifera lends itself to being “kept” in hives. A. mellifera has been cultivated by humans for at least 5000 years.

The species is characterised by  colonies numbering 10s of thousands that form multiple combs per colony and build their colonies within cavities. The colonies can survive in a very wide range of climates (most climates occupied by humans) and can use a very wide range of food sources. Colonies can live through winters in cool temperate zones (albeit only numbering between 10 to 20% of their summer numbers) by laying down considerable stores of honey gathered through the summer months. It is these characteristics that have led humans to favour A. Mellifera.


Here in the UK, the native bee - and hence most kept bee - is the A. mellifera mellifera. The sub-species is found throughout Britain and Ireland and extends across northern and central Europe. A. mellifera mellifera is a relative newcomer as honey bees re-entered northern Europe following the last ice age. The bees of this sub-species are typically small, stocky bees with a number of variants existing in different geographical locations. Colours can vary from jet back to dark brown. No yellow should exist on native A. mellifera mellifera however, much hybridisation has occurred with Italian bees making pure bred A. mellifera mellifera largely a thing of the past. Neither dark or Italian bees are considered to be aggressive however the hybrids of the two are often aggressive by nature causing beekeepers to spend much time and effort in developing and maintaining non-aggressive gene pools.