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About Bees
Bees are winged insects, able to fly and feeding on pollen and nectar from flowers. Pollen serves as a protein source and nectar as their energy source.

Bees are commonly known for their important role in pollination.

Bees are found on every continent except Antarctica, in every habitat containing flowering plants pollinated by insects.

Nearly 20,000 known bee species are populating the world and over 1,600 species of native bees exist just here in Australia.

Bees range in size from tiny species with a body length of less than 2 mm to the largest bee measuring up to 38 mm in length.

Bees range in colour from black, brown, or gray, others are bright yellow, red, or metallic green or blue.

Most bee species are solitary, others live in colonies.

Out of this vast variety only a few species are producing honey and are commonly referred to as Honeybees.

Honeybees
What differentiates honeybees from all the other bee species is their capability to produce and store large amounts of honey. Storing significant amounts of honey can only be achieved by a large number of bees, i.e. colony forming bee species. The larger the colony the more honey can be produced and stored.  more in Wikipedia

The best known honeybee species is the European or Western honeybee Apis Mellifera, the type of bee people commonly have in mind when talking about bees.

For easier access to the bees' honey by humans, honeybees are kept in beehives and managed by beekeepers, i.e. Hive Bees.

Through selective breeding certain favourable characteristics are promoted, resulting in cultivated honeybees. Cultivated honeybees are docile (friendly bees, not so eager to sting), prolific (productive and fertile, forming strong colonies), without a strong urge to swarm.


The purpose of Honeybees
When thinking about bees, what first comes to mind is "Honey" and then "a little insect that can sting, I don't want to have them close to me or my children".

Honeybees produce honey for their own consumption and store it to survive through times when there is nothing to collect - and they only sting as a measure of last defense, mostly when soemone tries to steal their honey or is attacking their nest, or when they get tangled up in someone's hair by accident. If left in peace, bees have no desire to attack and sting.

For thousands of years beekeepers kept a relationship with honeybees solely for the benefit of obtaining some of their honey.

However, the most important role of bees, including our honeybees, is Pollination.

More than 40% of our food crops rely on pollination by bees. No bees, no food for us. Without bees we would not have the variety of food we enjoy. We could probably give up honey, but we cannot give up pollination.

Without managed pollination with Hive Bees our modern way of farming in concentrated areas would simply be impossible.

Beekeepers keep and manage honeybees in hives for pollination as well as honey production. In recent times other bee species, like Australian Stingless Bees and Bumblebees are kept in hives for pollination purposes only. To account for these applications, terms like Pollination Bees or simply Hive Bees would be appropriate.

European Honeybee at work, collecting pollen

Why certain bees are kept in hives
Most bee species are not suitable to be kept in beehives as they are not living in large colonies. Most bee species are solitary bees. Hiving bee colonies becomes economical only when they form large colonies.

The two main reasons for hiving bees are:

  • Pollination - As we grow our crops in concentrated areas we also need the pollinating bees in those areas when required. This can only bee achieved when larger bee colonies, kept in beehives, can be transported to the location where they are needed.

  • Honey - For thousands of years "milk and honey" have been treasured as one of our most valuable food source and still today honey has its place in our diet. Beekeepers hive large honeybee colonies for economical reasons, rather than collecting honey drop by drop from small bee colonies in the wild.


The Main Species of Hive Bees
Our modern way of farming in concentrated areas requires a high concentration of bees for pollination in those areas when needed. Before the pollination period starts, beehives are being relocated by beekeepers to those farming areas. When the job is finished, usually three to eight weeks later, the hives are relocated again, either for another pollination job or to an area where the bees can forage for nectar to produce some honey.

Managing such a pollination service is only possible with bee species who are living in large colonies.

The most commonly used bee species for managed pollination are:


  • Asian Honeybees Apis cerana, gaining popularity and distribution on the Asian continent.


  • Bumblebees, mainly for crop pollination in greenhouses or tunnels (existing in Australia only in Tasmania)


European or Western Honeybee Apis Mellifera
When we talk about Honeybees here in Australia, we are talking about the European or Western Honeybee Apis Mellifera. more in Wikipedia

Apis Mellifera Europe Map

The different climate zones and geographical regions of Europe have produced different subspecies of the European Honeybee, as illustrated on the map to the right, which can be found on  http://www.sicamm.org

Subspecies kept by beekeepers in Australia

Italian - Apis mellifera ligustica
The most commonly kept sub-species in Australia. They are usually very gentle, produce a large surplus of honey, hard workers and fairly prolific breeders. The Italian bee is light coloured and mostly leather coloured, some strains are golden. Queens vary in colour from leathery brown to orange, which makes them comparatively easy to find in the hive. They have few undesirable characteristics. Colonies tend to maintain larger populations through winter, so they require more winter stores (or feeding) than other subspecies.

Caucasian - Apis mellifera caucasia
This sub-species is regarded as being very gentle and fairly industrious. Some strains are excessive propolizers, in some cases building walls of propolis at the entrance to modify the size to their liking. It is a large honeybee of medium, sometimes greyish colour (Mountain Grey). Queens are black and are more difficult to find than the Italian queens. They keep a fairly strong colony.

Carniolan - Apis mellifera carnica
Most popular sub-species in Europe. Popular with beekeepers due to its extreme gentleness. The Carniolan tends to be quite dark in colour. They keep a moderate strength colony. The colonies are known to shrink to small populations over winter and build up very quickly in spring. It is a mountain bee in its native range (Carniola region of Slovenia, the southern part of the Austrian Alps, and northern Balkans) and is a good bee for colder climates. Workers have grey-white bands round the abdomen. Queens are black and so more difficult to find.

European Dark Bee - Apis mellifera mellifera
The European dark bee originates from the northern part of Europe. The European dark bee can be distinguished from other subspecies by their stocky body, abundant thoracal and sparse abdominal hair which is brown. Overall dark coloration of the wing veins are nowadays considered to be the only reliable distinguishing character. It is no longer a significant commercial subspecies of the Western honey bee, but there are a number of dedicated hobbyist beekeepers that keep these bees in Europe and other parts of the world. Dedicated breeders and research facilities are today working on preserving and spreading what could be saved from the original stocks. There are only a handful of colonies present in Germany, but larger numbers have survived in Norway, the Alps and Poland and Belgium.

Hybrids or Mongrels
Any of the abovementioned sub-species are hard to find in their pure form since the introduction of Australian quarantine regulations. Due to the mild climate and pockets of almost undisturbed nature, as well as plenty of nesting places in residential areas, the number of feral bee colonies in Australia is fairly high, especially in residential areas, offering the floral variety of residential gardens. Since European honeybees were introduced to Australia around 1822, those colonies that have escaped (swarmed) have multiplied and one might think that 190 years of cross-breeding in nature has resulted in a new sub-species, derived from the four introduced European honeybee species - The Australian Honeybee of European descent? - or simply Mongrels.


The Asian or Eastern Honeybee Apis Cerana
It needs to be pointed out that to date the presence of the Asian Honeybee Apis Cerana is not welcome in Australia and colonies found are getting destroyed.

When mentioning Apis Cerana in front of a group of commercial beekeepers and honey producers, it feels like poking a stick into a hornets nest - there seems to be a lack of sympathy for the Asian Honeybee here in Australia.

To date Australia is the only country in the world free of the varroa destructor mite, the mite that destroys European Honeybee colonies. However, in July 2016 varroa jacobsoni mites have been detected in an Asian Honeybee nest discovered in Townsville and it is most likely only a matter of time for varroa destructor to arrive in Australia as well.

Consider this: A remedy against varroa has not been found yet. If varroa destructor is going to destroy our European Honeybees, maybe the Asian Honeybee, resistant to both varroa mites, is the remaining alternative to ensure the much needed pollination of our crops.

Apis Cerana might not be the Honeybee of choice today - it could come to our rescue tomorrow though.

Apis cerana is one of the few bee species that can also be "cultivated". Like the European honeybee, apis cerana is kept by farmers for honey production and pollination. Traditionally the bees were kept in log hives, now being replace by wooden boxes with removable frames. The apis cerana bee size is similar or somewhat smaller than apis mellifera and they also have more prominent abdominal stripes.

Apis cerana, the indigenous Honeybee of Asia, is very similar to the European honeybee as far as comb building, dancing, and nesting behaviours are concerned. It has been reported to be an excellent pollinator of mountain crops that bloom in early spring, such as almonds, apples, pears, plums, and different vegetable seed crops. However, it produces less honey than apis mellifera and has some undesirable behavioural characteristics like frequent swarming, absconding, and robbing.

Their honey yield is smaller, because they form smaller colonies and partly because they have yet to benefit from selective breeding programs that have produced modern day apis mellifera.

Honey production of apis cerana is being increased through a focused queen breeding and selection programme. It has already been reported that honey production of bee colonies can be increased many times by adopting modern methods and selective breeding programme. Wongsiri has reported that due to adoption of modern management methods and selective breeding programme in Chonghua County, Guandong of China the colony number and honey yield increased year by year. By 1963, honeybee populations expanded from 2,000 to 6,000 colonies and honey yields increased from 5 kg/year to 50 kg/year (Wongsiri, 1992).

Apis cerana is found at altitudes from sea level up to 3,500 metres in areas with appropriate flora and climate. This bee species has adapted to adverse climatic conditions and can survive extreme fluctuations in temperature and long periods of rainfall. It is unique in its ability to survive temperatures as low as -0.1ºC, a temperature lethal for other bee species.

Apis cerana is a natural host to the varroa destructor mite and the parasite Nosema ceranae, both serious pests of the European honeybee. Having coevolved with these parasites, apis cerana exhibits more careful grooming than apis mellifera, and thus has an effective defence mechanism against varroa that keeps the mite from devastating colonies. Other than defensive behaviours such as these, much of their behaviour and biology (at least in the wild) is very similar to that of apis mellifera.

Workers do not re-use old wax as often as in other bee species and therefore their brood capping looks much lighter than those of apis mellifera; they usually tear down old combs and build new wax constantly.

When an apis cerana hive is invaded by the Japanese giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), about 500 Japanese honeybees Apis cerana japonica surround the hornet and vibrate their flight muscles until the temperature is raised to 47°C, heating the hornet to death, but keeping the temperature still under their own lethal limit (48-50°C). European honeybees lack this behaviour.

More about Apis Cerana in this book by Siriwat Wongsiri: Asian Honey Bees: Biology, Conservation, Human Interactions

Bumblebees
Bumblebees are social insects and form colonies with a single queen. Colonies are smaller than those of honeybees, growing to as few as 50 individuals in a nest. Over 250 species are known, found primarily in higher latitudes or at higher altitude in the Northern Hemisphere, although they also occur in South America. However, a few lowland tropical species are known. European bumblebees have been introduced to New Zealand and Tasmania.

Bumblebees have round bodies covered in soft hair. Like their relatives the honeybees, bumblebees feed on nectar, using their long hairy tongues to lap up the liquid. Bumblebees gather nectar to add to the stores in the nest, and pollen to feed their young.  more in Wikipedia

Bumblebees are important agricultural pollinators, so their decline in Europe, North America, and Asia is a cause for concern. The decline has been caused by habitat loss, the mechanisation of agriculture, and pesticides including neonicotinoids.

An application by horticulturalists to import European bumblebees into Australia for greenhouse tomato pollination was rejected by the Australian Government in 2008. The Environment Minister said these exotic bees "could have posed a serious risk to the Australian environment, native bee populations and native bird species." media release 26-Oct-2008

Greenhouse tomato growers will have to continue pollinating their tomatoes manually using vibrating wand tools.

Bumblebee on thistle; photo taken in NZ
Bumble Bee

Australian Native Bees
Despite the fact that there are over 1,600 species of native bees in Australia beekeepers had to import European Honeybees to Australia.

Although Australian Native Bees can be found in most of Australia's diverse habitats, not all of them are suitable for crop pollination as they are not living in large colonies, most native bees are solitary bees.

As we grow our crops in large concentrated areas we also need large numbers of pollinating bees in those areas when required, which can only bee achieved when larger bee colonies, kept in beehives, can be transported.



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