Honey Bees

Two honey bees. Wikimedia photo by Wausberg.

As you watch the insects that inspect your pollinator habitat, you will most likely see some honey bees. Honey bees pollinate many of our agricultural crops and they live all over North America. What many people don’t realize, however, is that honey bees are not native to either North or South America.

Honey bees were brought to the New World in the early 1600s by the colonists. When the colonists crossed the Atlantic Ocean on ships, they brought with them many of the fruits, vegetables, and grains they were accustomed to eating, as well as plants that provided cooking herbs, fiber, and animal feed. But the colonists didn’t know if North American bees would pollinate their crops or if they would provide a source of honey—so they brought their own.

Honey bee by Ken Thomas.

Remember, there was no refined sugar in those days and no electric light bulbs, so honey bees were very important to daily life. They not only provided honey but their beeswax was used to make candles. A famous quote by the writer Jonathan Swift spells out the value of honey bees back in those days. Speaking from the bee’s point of view, he writes, “We have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”

Once the honey bees arrived here, they found the Americas much to their liking. And since they had no natural enemies here, honey bees flourished, spreading out into the wilderness on their own. As it turned out, the colonists were partially justified in their concern. While there were plenty of North American bees to carry on with pollination, there were none that could supply the vast amounts of honey and wax the colonists were accustomed to having.

Honey bees building wax combs in a tree. Flickr photo by Danny Chapman.

So while honey bees are not native in our area, they are native to Europe, Asia and Africa. Honey bees are one of most studied creatures on the earth and their importance to mankind is unquestioned. But still, they are not native so we will not study them here. However, we’ve included pictures so you can learn to identify them when you see them.

You need not worry about honey bees moving into your native pollinator habitat. They won’t because it’s not right for them. Wild honey bees prefer a large hollow tree or a protected spot under the eaves of a building. Honey bees need lots of room because an average sized colony may have 40,000 to 70,000 members. If you see some honey bees around your structure, they are just looking for nectar and pollen—they will not move in.

Fly and bee side-by-side. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Don’t be fooled, however! There are a large group of native pollinators called “bee flies.” Bee flies mimic the appearance of other bees and it can be very hard to tell them apart—and some even look very much like honey bees. If you are unsure if you are seeing a bee or a fly, look at their eyes. Fly eyes nearly come together at the top of their heads, while bee eyes are separate. Also, bees have two sets of wings and bent antennae while flies have just one set of wings and straight or very short antennae. Look carefully at the photo: the bee fly is on the left, the honey bee is on the right.