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Honeybee species

The honeybee is categorised as being part of the Apidae family, which also includes the 'Cuckoo', 'Carpenter', 'Digger', and 'Bumble' bee.

All honeybees are located within the Apis genus (category), which is the Latin for 'bee'. This genus is comprised of three subgenera (Micrapis, Megapis, and Apis), split further into seven species (Florea, Andreniformis, Dorsata, Cerana, Koschevnikovi, Nirgocincta, and Mellifera). These in turn are divided up into at least 44 different subspecies.

There are so many variants of this insect that it is difficult to tell exactly how many completely separate subspecies there are. This article will focus on the main subspecies of the European/Western honeybee, Apis Mellifera, which produces four important substances collected by apiarists – honey, propolis, beeswax, and royal jelly.

Types of Apis Mellifera bee

Apis mellifera mellifera
Also known as the 'Northern European', 'Dark', or 'German' honeybee, this insect is found in Britain, Ireland, and across northern and central Europe. Its average length is 12mm and it has a dark-coloured stocky body.

Generally gentle bees, they have a low tendency to swarm and a high drive to collect pollen (from which they make honey). In addition to this, they survive winters quite well and have a long lifespan – the queen living for 2-5 years, and worker bees (if they survive the winter) living up to 11 months. These bees are often chosen for domestication due to those traits.

Apis mellifera ligustica
Originating in Italy, this bee is often referred to as the 'Italian' honeybee. These insects are slightly smaller than the Northern European type, and are now found in many different parts of the world, such as across Europe and North America.

These bees, like the Apis mellifera mellifera, are gentle and do not swarm very often. However, they have some traits which make them more difficult to farm. They are highly driven to breed and look after their young, and they have a tendency to drift from their hive and get lost. They are also not particularly useful for apiarists collecting propolis, since these bees do not make as much of it as some other species.

Apis mellifera carnica
This bee is also known as the 'Carneolan', 'Grey', or 'Slovenian' honeybee. Originating in the Balkan peninsular, it appears grey in colour due to the density of hairs on its body. These insects are about the same size as the Italian honeybee.

The Carneolan is popular amongst beekeepers because it is able to defend itself against other insects that might invade the hive, but is very docile towards human beings. As well as this, it is a very effective collector of pollen and extensive users of propolis. One negative point however, is that they are prone to swarm.

Apis mellifera macedonica
Known as the 'Macedonian' honeybee, this insect looks similar to the Northern European honeybee, and is found in Macedonia, parts of Greece, the Ukraine, and around the Black Sea. It was first identified by German scientist Friedrich Ruttner in 1988.

These bees synchronise very well with the growth of vegetation in the area they are located, which means that they can time their breeding and pollen collecting cycles so as not to waste energy and resources.

Apis mellifera cecropia
Originally from Greece, this bee is known as the 'Greek' honeybee. It is also similar in look to the Italian honeybee, and is gentle in temperament.

However, because it forms large colonies very quickly at the beginning of spring, it is prone to swarm. As well as this, it does not survive well in damper and cooler climates, such as those in northern Europe.

Apis mellifera iberiensis
Originating in Spain, this bee is sometimes called the 'Spanish', 'Iberian', or 'Gibraltar' honeybee. This is a small bee (3-9mm) and is unusual in that the males tend to only breed with queens of their own species. Whereas other species have become hybridised, this one has remained relatively pure, although it remains very genetically diverse.

They are great users of propolis and are not particularly aggressive, but they have gained a bad reputation because, following a disruption to the hive, sentry bees will patrol the area for around 24 hours and attack anything that enters their patrol zone which they deem a threat.

Apis mellifera caucasica
Known as the 'Caucasian' honeybee, this insect is mild-tempered, and can be an excessive collector of pollen. It is similar in appearance to the Apis mellifera carnica.

They fly well in cool weather, when many other species will stop flying as the temperature outside their hive drops because they struggle to stay warm and maintain flight. Generally bees need temperatures to reach at least 12 degrees Celsius before they can leave the hive and collect food and other resources.

Help the honeybees

There are thousands of honeybee species all over the world, but their numbers are in decline. No single reason for this has been found, but it is thought that some of the contributing factors include the use of pesticides and insecticides, and the spread of the Varroa Mite (a bee parasite native to South East Asia).

A decrease in bee numbers won't just affect the insect world; it will impact human beings too. Without bees, which are some of the most effective pollinators of plants, flowers and trees could suffer, food supplies might dwindle, honey will become scarcer, and production of propolis will reduce.

If you would like to help the honeybee increase its numbers, The British Bee Keepers' Association has some tips, and Greenpeace has a petition you might be interested in signing.