Bee species

More than 25000 species are known to exist today worldwide classified into about seven biological families, 4000 of these are found in the us and about 250 species are found in Britain. The journey of discovery of more species is still ongoing. The species range in size from the smallest being the stingless bee to the largest megachile Pluto bee. They are found in almost every continent of the earth and few of them live in colonies. Some of the bee species include honeybee, carpenter bee, European dark bee, western honeybee, stingless bee, African bee, Italian bee, American bubble bee, Lasioglassum, Halictus among others


Honeybee classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymnoptera

Suborder: Apocrita

Superfamily: Apoidea

Family: Apidae

Subfamily: Apinae

Tribe: Apini

Genus: Apis

Species: Apis melifera


Honeybee comprise of all bees of genus Apis and their primary characteristic is the production of honey, which they store in a wax. They also live in colonies and by the end of 21st century; there were seven major species of honeybees identified but there exist other species of honeybees. Man has domesticated these species for commercial purposes, which include crop pollination and production of bee products. They include Apis melifera, Apis cerana, Apis dorsata, Apis florea, Apis nigrocinta, apis indica and Apis amdosani.

There are also stingless bees kept for their products that are valued for their medicinal properties.

Apis melifera

This is the western or European honeybee and it is found in Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Middle East. They are literally found in every part of the world except Antarctica and are the most popular and widely kept bee species. They prefer environments that are well endowed with flowering plants like the meadows, mountains, orchards, wetlands, open grasslands and deserts with trees that provide shelter, water and food. They make their nests in cavities, hollow trees or well-sheltered caves that are free from pests and parasites.

Subspecies of Apis melifera and their Distribution Around the World.

African subspecies of Bees

  1. Apis melifera litorea– eastern African lowlands

Common name- African honeybee. It is widely distributed in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania

  1. Apis melifera scutelata– African honey bee- Tanzania, central, west Africa, they are one of the most aggressive bee species and are known to pursue their enemies further off the hive. They also have faster colony growths thus known to swarm more than their European counterparts do.
  2. Apis melifera monticola– highlands of eastern Africa- 1500-3000m above sea level. mt Kenya, mt Kilimanjaro, mt meru, mt Elgon
  3. Apis melifera saharahensis– west African desert, morocco
  4. Apis melifera adansonii– Nigeria, Burkina Faso
  5. Apis melifera capensis– also known as cape honeybee is a South African honeybee. This bee sub species is treated unique do to its ability of its worker bee to lay haploid fertile eggs.
  6. Apis melifera intermissa– morocco, Tunisia and Libya
  7. Apis melifera jementica– Sudan, Yemen, Uganda and Somalia
  8. Apis melifera yamackii– Egyptian honey bee- Nile, Sudan, Egypt
  9. Apis melifera simensis– Ethiopia
  10. Apis melifera unicolor– Madagascar

Middle East and Asia subspecies of Bees

  1. Apis melifera anatoliaca– turkey, Iraq, Armenia
  2. Apis melifera syriaca- Syria, near east and Israel
  3. Apis melifeera meda-
  4. Apis melifera caucasia-iraq
  5. Apis melifera pomonella-sha mountains, central Asia

European Subspecies of Bees

  1. Apis melifera macedonica– Macedonia, Greece
  2. Apis melifera cecropia-southern Greece
  3. Apis melifera adami– Crete
  4. Apis melifera ligustica- southern Europe, north and South America
  5. Apis melifera carnica-Eastern Alps, Slovenia, Northern Ballkans (Carniolan honeybee)
  6. Apis melifera cypria– Cyprus
  7. Apis melifera melifera– German honey bee-eastern Europe
  8. Apis melifera ruttneri-Maltese islands
  9. Apis melifera sossimai– Ukrain, northern regions of Caucasus.
  10. Apis melifera remipes- Iran, Caucasus and Caspian sea
  11. Apis melifera siciliana– Sicily

Bee Castes

In a colony, there are three types of bees:

  1. Queen
  2. Drone
  3. Worker bees
Bee Castes

Honey bee castes Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2006

Queen Bee

There is only one queen bee in a colony whose sole purpose is to lay fertile eggs. It is more than inch long and has a tapering has shorter wings and smaller eyes than those of the drone. It also has a sting but it does not use it. Unlike the worker bees, the queen has no pollen basket in its legs. The worker bees raise it out of a special diet called royal jelly; it is a highly nutritious food that is secreted by the worker bees from their head glands. The need for a new queen is dictated by factors like infertile queen due to old age or sickness, increase in the size of the hive colony, death of the queen among others.

Worker bees make a special cell called queen cups when the need arises and either can be found in the middle or hanging at the side of the comb. It resembles a peanut in both shape and size. The queen will deposit an egg in this cell and in case it fails, the worker bees will transfer on from the normal cells in less than 3 days after laying. It is the type of food that will determine the growth of the developing larvae into either queen or worker bee. The queen has the ability to determine which egg to fertilize and which no to thus the sex of the offspring. When the cells are not used, they are left as false queen cups.

A good queen lays about 1500-2000 eggs per day and has a life expectancy of 4yrs thus the longest is responsible for maintaining the bee colony through  secretion of pheromones that keep the worker bees from deserting the hive. As it becomes old, it is superseded by raising another queen. The colony will move towards the new queen, leaving the aging one with no will starve to death.

The Drone

Drones are male bees that are produced from unfertilized eggs and their sole function is to fertilize the queen. A drone is bigger than both the queen and the worker bee. They do not sting, as they do not have a sting thus their abdomen is flat, only covered with a tuft of hair. To ensure that they locate the queen from far at the time of mating, their eyes are larger and protrude from the head.

There are only a few drones found in the hive, numbering about 600 and are only found in the hive between match and October. They go out of the hive to mate with the queen and die after a successful mating process. In case they try to return to the hive after unsuccessful mating, they will be attacked and killed by the worker bees. At the time of food scarcity, they are driven out of the hive by the worker bees. And because they cannot fend for themselves, they die out of hunger. It has a longevity of 6 months.

The shape of a drone cell is same as that of a worker bee, the only difference being the size. They also have a dome shaped covering, which is usually dark in color. During the first three days of its development, the drone is fed on royal jelly after which it undergoes the same feeding program as the worker bee.

Worker Bee

This is the smallest bee among the tree bee types in a caste. There are approximately 20000 worker bees in a colony. Worker bees are female bees that have underdeveloped sexual organs. They are well adapted to their functions. They have longer tongues, stronger wings, jaws, specialized hind legs for pollen collection and possess a sting for defense. Pollen baskets are hollow structures which are found on the last segment of their hind legs.

Life Cycle of the Honeybee

Honey Bee life cycle

Honeybee just like most insects undergo complete metamorphosis.

The queen takes 3 days to hatch then, 6 days at larva stage, and 8 days from pupa to adult.

Mating behavior

Mating in bees takes place only once in a lifetime. The queen flies out of the hive about 5 days after emergence from her cell to greater heights in what is called nuptial flights. This however may take a longer time depending on the suitability of weather conditions; she waits until the conditions are most favorable. Other factors that influence the duration of mating are coolly of the drones, age of the queen and mating apiary. The drones having bigger eyes are able to notice a queen from a distance. Many drones fly out and are found concentrated in the sky in drone congregation zones. They fly frequently until they mate. Up to 15000 drones can be found in a drone congregation zone at a time.

Mating takes place multiple time (usually 8-10) until the spermatheca of the queen is filled with about 3.5 million motile spermatozoa. However, the queen has no control in the number of times it is mated.

The mating process is fatal to the drones. Part of its endophallus remain in the queen and testicles usually bursts after the mating leading to death. The queen will start to lay eggs 2-3 days upon its return to the hive from a successful mating.


  1. Log hive

Log hives are made by cutting and drilling hollow cavities in tree stems or huge sisal species. After drilling the hollow space, the inside is charred with fire to make it smooth, resistant to pest destruction and to attract bees. A lid is made on each end of the log that is made of either wood, metal or plastic with holes made to allow entry and exit of bees. Some of the hives have a third entrance on the side and the hive is usually hanged with this entrance facing down to avoid water getting into the hive. This middle hole is usually used for honey harvesting. These kinds of hives are common in Africa where local communities to keep bees, as they are easy to make, use them. They are effective in thermal regulation compared to modern hives, which are thin walled. The hives are hanged on tree trunks. They come in different shapes and designs depending on the material used and the community making the hive.

Advantages of log hive

  • They are cheap to make
  • They do not require any specialized skills to make.
  • The hives can accommodate a large colony of bees
  • They are suitable for bee wax harvesting since bees spent allot of it to seal cracks and crevices in the hive.


  • It is very difficult to inspect the hive.
  • Bees can build combs in different directions interfering with its orientation
  • It is quite difficult to circulate buffs of smoke when harvesting.
  • Due to a high number of cracks and holes, the hive is prone to moths attack and other pests’ infestation.
  • Bees spend a lot of time and energy in making combs as most of it is removed during harvesting
  • It is hard to open the hive since bees build combs from top to bottom
  • Honey is easily contaminated when harvesting if care is not practiced.
  1. Basket hive

Baskets hive is another type of traditional hive. It is made of either grass, reeds, bamboo or any other pliable material woven together just like the normal basket but is opening is left for bees’ entry and exist. Bees will built their combs on the crests of the weavings. The local communities in Africa and around the world also use it. Bamboo basket hive is common among the Ogiek community living in Kenyan forests.

  1. Pot hive

Pot hive is a type of traditional beehive native to Africa and other local communities around the world. It is made from the normal pot their covered with a lid, holes drilled at the bottom for bees’ entry and exit and put upside down. Two pots can be attached to each other at their mouths. Nowadays, the hive has been modified by adding top bars for easy harvesting of honey.

  1. Langstroth hive

Langstroth hive is currently the largest beehive. Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth developed it over 150yrs ago.

Courtesy: wikipictures.

Components of langstroth hive

  1. Top cover.

This is the outer cover that protects the hive from rain and other adverse weather conditions. It is made of iron sheet and wood frames.

  1. Bottom board

This can be ether solid bottom board or meshed bottom board. It needs to be made from a strong material since it carries the weight of the hive and it is where bees get in and out of the hive. A meshed bottom board is usually preferred as it allows one to inspect the hive for pest like mites, termites and moths.

  1. Boxes

These are bee and honey carriers. They come in different dimensions but a standard one is 16 by   by   inches. Different number of the boxes can be stacked together making the langstroth one of the most preferred beehive. It is the most productive beehive.

Brood chamber/ lower deep

This is the box/ compartment where the queen lays her egg and is found at the lower part of the hive.

Food chamber/ upper deep

Has about 10 frames and is used for honey collection.

Shallow honey super

This is the box/ compartment made specifically for honey harvesting. It also has 8-10 frames; each frame is usually 25mm.

Queen extruder.

This is a frame screen that is placed just below the super to prevent the queen from laying on all the combs and confines it to the brooder chamber only. It has holes big enough for worker bees to pass but small to hinder the queen bee.

  1. These are for holding honeycombs and they are made of either plastic or wood. They are eight to ten in number. A wire mesh is attached to the frames with a wax coating called the foundation. However, there is an increasing use of foundationless frames giving bees freedom to create their own foundation.

Advantages of langstroth hive

  • Langstroth hives are the largest honey producers with the possibility of harvesting twice during heavy nectar flows.
  • The hive design provide for easy inspection.
  • The hive can easily be moved since combs are firmly attached to the frames.
  • The queen extruder provide for harvesting of clean honey free of larvae
  • The brood is not easily disturbed when harvesting honey.


  • It is quite expensive compared to other beehives
  • Its construction requires special carpentry skills
  • It is not suitable for wax harvesting since most of it is returned to the hive after harvesting.
  • Because of one exit/ entryway, the hive can be easily stolen, as bees do not have any other exit point when the hole is blocked.
  1. Top bar hive

Top bar hive is one of the oldest hives and is widely used in the world. Tredwell and Paterson developed it in 1965. It is a trapezoidal, prism-shaped hive, with movable bars at the top and a top cover that is either flat or slanting. The tube too bar hive has its origins in Crete at around the middle 17th century.

Kenya top bar hive

Dr V Maurice Smith and Dr Gordon Townsend from Guelph University developed the hive as a project that was sponsored by the Canadian International Agency. It was carried out in Kenya in 1971 as a four year oversees project. It was originally designed to hang on poles and trees and the design has inspired other top bar hives like the Tanzanian top bar hive and the South African Jackson hive.

Design and components of top bar hive.

  1. The roof/top cover
  2. Top bars
  3. Body
  4. Hanging string