You might think you know all you need to know about the honey bee. After all, they’re simple creatures with a simple purpose, right? Honey bees live in hives, collecting pollen that will eventually be made into honey, with a side bonus of super-functional beeswax. But there’s so much more to know.
Here are a few of our favorite honey bee facts:
1. Honey bees are just one of many important species in their family
Did you know there are over 20,000 known species of bees in the world? Four thousand of these species are native to the United States, and they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
What you may not know is that the honey bee common to the US, Apis mellifera, is actually not a native bee at all. Honey bees were brought to the Americas by European colonists in the 17th century, although they didn’t reach the west coast until the 19th century. And since then they’ve become one of our most important pollinators.
2. Humans and honey bees have been working together for thousands of years
The western honey bee is considered one of the only bee species to be domesticated. Humans have been harvesting honey from and transporting honey bees for millennia. The oldest known art to depict a honey harvest comes from 9,000-year-old cave art in Araña, Spain.
Hieroglyphics of bees and honey are also present in ancient Egyptian tombs, and archaeologists believe that the Egyptians were very deliberate in their beekeeping, building special hives from river mud and transporting their bee colonies up and down the Nile River to encourage bees to pollinate whatever was in season near each section of the river.
3. Honey never truly expires
Ancient honey has been found near several known ancient settlements. Until recently, the oldest honey found was in an Egyptian tomb, at around 3,000 years old. In 2012, ceramic jars containing even more ancient honey—about 5,500 years old—were found in the country of Georgia. Why, exactly, can honey be preserved indefinitely without spoiling? Most bacteria needs two conditions to thrive: a neutral pH environment, and water.
Despite its sweet taste, honey is actually an acidic substance. And although it’s thick, smooth, and runny, honey actually doesn’t contain that much water. One more reason honey won’t grow bacteria…
4. Honey has antimicrobial properties
Honey has been used in medicine, particularly to treat wounds topically, for thousands of years. Scientists discovered that honey bees create a protein, named defensin-1, that kills bacteria. This compound is transferred to the honey as bees make it, and it acts as an inhibitor to bacteria that might otherwise grow in the honey.
Scientific researchers are studying honey to determine if there might be some new antibiotic medicines that could be created based on these discoveries, but so far scientists agree that no studies have shown sufficient efficacy of using honey in wound-healing to recommend it as an official treatment option.
5. Honey bees are complex communicators
The primary method of communication that bees was first identified nearly 100 years ago, and is known as the “waggle dance.” Essentially, this is an airborne “dance” a bee does to convey information, such as the location of a food source.
Researchers have long been interested in learning more about the differences in how individual bees communicate, and in 2019 a team of researchers at Virginia Tech cracked the code. The team spent several years following a specific group of honey bees and recording their movements, their waggle dances, and the physical conditions in the environment in order to create what’s being called a “Rosetta Stone” for bee communication.
6. Honey bees play “Telephone,” too
Bees can communicate with more than just physical movement. There are certain situations in which the “waggle dance” method of communication wouldn’t work—such as when the queen leaves the hive in order to establish a new colony elsewhere. Honey bees use a scent-based communication system when they swarm, to ensure that even worker bees far away will be able to find their way to the colony wherever they go.
When the queen emits pheromones—communication chemicals—the bees near her begin to produce similar pheromones as a way of “amplifying” her communication.
7. Colonies make a lot of honey—but it takes a lot of bees
Walk into any supermarket and you’ll see jars upon jars of the amber-colored nectar we love to put in our tea and drizzle on toast. A single bee colony can produce anywhere from 10 to 200 pounds of honey in a season—yet a typical worker bee will only make 1/12 teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime, which is usually five to six weeks.
To put this in perspective, that 16 oz. jar of honey on your supermarket shelf represents the life’s work of 750 worker bees, and may represent as much as one-tenth of an entire colony’s yield for the year. More commonly, your jar will be 1 in 100—think of it like a limited edition work of art!
8. Bees probably recognize their keepers
Researchers have found that the honey bee and some species of wasps can differentiate between different images of human faces. In a series of experiments involving training the bees to expect rewards from certain types of facial features, scientists determined that the bees did, in fact, demonstrate facial recognition ability. Ongoing studies involving bees and wasps will be used to refine facial recognition technology for our personal devices.
9. Honey bees might be able to help reverse the aging process
Studies show that where there is a lack of younger nursing bees in a colony, older bees retain, or even improve their brain plasticity—essentially, their ability to learn new information and adapt more readily to their environment. In the brains of older bees encouraged to perform the tasks younger bees would ordinarily do, scientists observed the presence of a protein, called Prx6, that is known to help protect against dementia in humans. Studies are ongoing to determine whether new medications for treating Alzheimer’s can be developed—as well as whether there are implications for how social behavior might naturally improve brain function in aging humans.
10. Bees have surprisingly robust defense mechanisms for their hives
Two aspects of bee biology vital to their daily survival are also important for defending their hives against intruders. We already know that bees use special scented chemicals called pheromones to communicate with other members of their colony. Honey bees also have two special “alarm” pheromones. One of these is released when a bee stings in defense, and this pheromone (which smells like bananas!) alerts other bees in the vicinity to potential danger. Another pheromone is used to neutralize intruders to the hive—like invading bees from rival colonies or wasps.
What about intruders that can’t be neutralized by honey bee stingers—such as giant hornets? Honey bees can handle those, too: by roasting them. Scientists have long known that honey bees cluster together and vibrate their bodies to create sufficient warmth to survive the winter. Bees can also use this same technique as a defense mechanism, surrounding an intruder and vibrating until the heat kills the hornet.