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Western Honey Bee

Common Name: Western Honey Bee.

Scientific Name: Apis Mellifera.

What to look for?  We all know what to look for: small buzzing bee; yellowish brown; with black bands! Western Honey Bees have yellow and black bands on each segment of their abdomen. The head is fully loaded: a set of antennae, two large compound eyes, three (3) smaller simple eyes and the mandible (mouth parts). The middle body part is the thorax, which connects the head to the abdomen. Wings and legs are attached to the body at the thorax. Western Honey Bees have two (2) pairs of transparent wings: the larger forewings and the smaller hindwings. These wings hitch together in flight for simultaneous movement. They have six (6) dark brown-black legs. The hind legs have transparent pollen baskets on them. Yes, baskets to store and transport pollen from flowers to hive.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? The Western Honey Bee is very active during summer. Look for them around the various wildflowers along the pathway next to Carillon Stonegate Pond. And, of course, look for these bees in your own lovely flower gardens!

How big are they? Small! The Western Honey Bee male and non-fertile female average one-half inch in length. The Western Honey Bee queen is larger at three-fourths of one inch in length. Wingspans range from three-fourths of one inch to one inch.

What are their flight patterns? Western Honey Bees – like most bees – are not aerodynamically built, having a wingspan only slightly longer than their bodies. They fly at low speeds (up to fifteen miles per hour) and must work very had to overcome drag. They flap their wings back and forth, not up and down, at a rapid wing beat of 230 times per second.

How else do they behave? Western Honey Bees – like all Honey Bees - are social insects that live in colonies. There are three castes of bees: queens, which produce eggs; drones or males, which mate with the queen; and, workers, which are all non reproducing females. In the honey bee colony, labor is divided among individuals based on caste and age. A male drone’s only purpose is to mate with a queen from another colony. The queen is the sole egg layer in the colony and is responsible for producing all of the colony’s offspring. Worker honey bees perform all colony maintenance tasks. The youngest workers tend the brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae) while older workers build wax comb, handle food stores within the colony, and guard the colony entrance. The oldest workers are foragers. These are the honeybees that we will encounter most.

What’s for dinner? The Western Honey Bee feeds on the pollen and nectar of flowers. Pollen is most important in feeding the larvae.

Where do they take up residence? Although not native, the Western Honey Bee is one of the most widespread and abundant species in North America. They are found across Illinois. Western Honey Bees prefer habitats that have an abundant supply of suitable flowering plants, such as meadows, open wooded areas, and gardens.

When and where do they breed and nest? The Western Honey Bee usually nests in the cavity of a tree, building a hive out of wax secretions from their bodies. Eggs are laid by the queen in honeycomb cells. The wormlike larvae are fed by workers. Males grow up to be drones, but females can become either workers or queens. Queens are the only reproductive females. Queens mate with the drones in flight, but only once. She will lay eggs continuously for the rest of her life without mating again. The reproductive process of new queens creating their own colony is called swarming. Western Honey Bees typically swarm in the spring and early summer when pollen and nectar resources are plentiful.

Where do they migrate? Western Honey Bees do not migrate. The hive has adults present year-round. Honeybee workers heat the hive with their body heat during cold weather. And, in cold weather, they stay in their hives and live off their honey reserves – just like many of us do here in northern Illinois! In the summer, they cool the hive with their wings.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Western Honey Bees generate sound and vibrations not only through movement of their wings but also with their thoracic muscles. This vibrating movement causes pollen grains to be released from the flower’s stamen and results in the buzzing sound. Honey bee foragers use a “waggle dance” to inform nestmates about directions and distance to locations of attractive food.

Interesting Facts About the Western Honey Bee (and honey bees in general):

  • Western Honey Bees move their wings quite rapidly at approximately 230 beats per second.

  • Western Honey Bee queens have a lifespan of approximately three years.

  • During the night, honeybees do not sleep, but remain motionless, reserving their energies for the next day.

  • Since honeybees breathe through spiracles or holes in their thorax, honeybees in the field will rush back to the hive when they sense rain coming.

  • Honeybees are the highest form of insect life, living in a well-organized colony.

  • The process called “Swarming” is where new colonies are formed when newly mated queens leave their old colony with worker bees.

  • Honeybees have a second set of eyes - three eyes called ocelli located at the top of their head - that are used to triangulate the bee's position related to the sun and act as a sort of navigation system.

  • Honeybees are the only kind of bee or wasp with a barbed stinger that stays embedded in the object it stings. Wasps and other bees have smooth stingers that do not embed and allow for multiple stings.

For more information on the Western Honey Bee and sources of information used in this blog (these are the several of the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit Iowa State University Bug Guide, University of Michigan Animal Diversity, University of Florida Featured Creatures, Texas A & M Field Guide to Insects and Nature Mapping Foundation.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, insects and plants. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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