“How are the bees?” is a question I am asked every day. People are aware of the plight of bees as losses of honey bee colonies across the world hit the headlines: 50% annual loss of honey bee colonies has become the norm in North America, and this year beekeepers in Argentina, Australia and, most recently, the US have lost their bees in forest fires.
These honey bees making the headlines and increasing public awareness are all the same species: Apis mellifera, the honey bee upon which the global beekeeping industry has developed. This one bee species is the focus for most honey bee research, most books, websites and courses on beekeeping. Policies and honey legislation have even been developed for this one species alone.
The honey bee Apis mellifera is the most researched species after our own and was among the first to have its genome sequenced. The natural distribution of Apis mellifera is from northern Europe to South Africa, eastwards towards Iran and to the west coasts of Ireland, Continental Europe and Africa. It is a cavity-nesting bee, building parallel beeswax combs for its nest and making and storing honey to survive a dearth of flowering periods of many months — it is this behavioural aspect that has made honey bees attractive to humans for thousands of years.
The honey bees of temperate zones of Europe are easily managed. To survive the long, cold European winters with almost no flowers between October and March, these bees have evolved to stay in their cavity (or bee hive) and store abundant honey. For hundreds of years these bees were taken with colonialists as they occupied the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, continents where no indigenous honey bee species existed. Today this honey bee species has been introduced, with greater or lesser success, to every nation.
In their natural nest, Apis mellifera honey bees build their wax combs hanging parallel to one another with regular spaces between. This remarkable structure, evolved over 70 million years, enables the colony to have space to live and rear their young within a regulated temperature and atmosphere, and with expandable storage space.
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