Which Bees Make Honey?

Do All Bees Make Honey? No, but Here are the Species that Do.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

While not all bees make honey, there are many species that do—perhaps hundreds. Throughout history, humans have kept honey-making bees as a source of sweetener, medicine, and beeswax. Different cultures kept different bees, depending on which species were locally available. Many ways of keeping bees and harvesting honey evolved through the ages and, even today, some cultures continue the time-honored methods of bee culture practiced by their ancestors.

Do All Bees Make Honey?

The roughly 20,000 species of bees we know about are divided into just seven families. Of those seven families, only one contains honey-making bees, the Apidae.

This family is large and also contains many species that do not make honey, such as digger bees, carpenter bees, and oil-collectors.

The other thing all honey-makers have in common is a colony-wide social structure. All honey-makers are eusocial species, which means “truly social.” A eusocial nest contains one queen and many workers with a division of labor—different individuals doing different jobs. The colony also produces drones for reproductive purposes.

The Apis Bees

The most well-known of the honey-makers are in the genus Apis. Most of these bees are known simply as “honey bees” and all but one originated in southeast Asia. But even the bees within this small group are diverse. The genus is divided into three sub-groups: the cavity-nesting honey bees, the dwarf honey bees, and the giant honey bees.

The cavity-nesting group includes Apis mellifera—our very own European honey bee—and three other species, including the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. Among beekeepers, the Asian honey bee is the second most popular species worldwide. It is cultivated widely in East Asia, where it is raised in boxes much like the European honey bee. In recent years, it has also been found in Australia and the Solomon Islands.

The dwarf honey bees, Apis florea and Apis andreniformis, are small bees that nest in trees and shrubs, and store honey in small combs. Each colony builds only one comb, which is exposed to the open air and is usually wrapped around a tree branch. The females have tiny stingers that are barely able to penetrate human skin, but they produce so little honey that they are not managed by beekeepers.

The giant honey bee group comprises two species, Apis dorsata and Apis laboriosa. These bees nest high on limbs, cliffs, and buildings, especially in Nepal and northern India. The ancient practice of honey hunting developed around these bees, and Apis dorsata is the species depicted in the ancient cave paintings found in Valencia, Spain. Because they are large and fiercely defensive, they can be deadly to those not trained to handle them properly.

Bumble Honey

Another large group of honey-makers are found in the genus Bombus. Although bumble bees don’t make enough honey for humans to harvest, they certainly belong in any list of honey-producing bees.

If you’ve ever accidentally uncovered a bumble bee nest while gardening or turning your compost heap, you may have seen small waxen thimbles shimmering with golden liquid.

Bumble bee honey is thick and luscious with a flavor dependent on the flowers that produced it. In times gone by, when sweeteners such as sugarcane or sorghum were in short supply, children would roam the fields in spring looking for that most rarefied of treats, often getting stung in the process.

A bumble bee queen secretes wax scales from glands beneath her abdomen much like a honey bee worker. In spring, she takes these scales and molds them into thimble-like pots, and then fills the pots with a supply of honey which she prepares for brood rearing.

A bumble bee queen starts a nest by herself and sits on her first clutch of brood to keep it warm, much like a hen. Because spring weather can be cold and rainy, she must remain with the brood or lose it. The stockpile of honey provides enough energy for her to stay in the nest, vibrating her flight muscles to provide heat. Four days later, after the workers emerge, the queen can remain safely in the nest and lay eggs while the young workers forage and build.

In early spring, bumble bee queens must forage for both pollen and nectar in order to get their families started. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

The Stingless Bees

By far the largest group of honey-making bees belong to the tribe Meliponini.

Around 600 species of stingless bees are found in the tropical and subtropical regions of Australia, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Not all the stingless bees produce harvestable amounts of honey, but many species have been raised by humans since early recorded history. Today, we call the practice of stingless beekeeping “meliponiculture,” even though the particular methods used vary with the type of bee being raised.

Stingless bees are generally kept in vertical log hives with circular tops or rectangular wooden plank hives. The brood combs are stacked horizontally and the honey pots are constructed at the outer edges of the brood combs.

Traditionally, families raised eight or ten different species of stingless bees, depending on what was available locally. They harvested the honey two-to-four times per year using syringes to suck the honey out of individual waxen pots and squeezed it into a pitcher.

A bottle of Melipona honey from Brazil, most likely produced by Melipona beecheii. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Today, many families still keep their harvest for personal consumption or as a medicine and salve. If they have extra, it commands around $50 per liter and is much in demand on the world market.

The stingless bee species most often raised for honey production are in the genera Trigona, Frieseomelitta, Melipona, Tetragonisca, Nannotrigona, and Cephalotrigona. The most famous of these is Melipona beecheii, which has been cultivated for at least 3000 years in the rain forests of southern Mexico. This species, known informally as the “royal lady bee,” is nearly as big as a European honey bee, and a colony can produce about six liters of honey per year. Unfortunately, the species is threatened in large parts of its native range due to deforestation and habit fragmentation.

Another sought-after honey is produced by Tetragonisca angustula, prized for its medicinal properties. The bees are extremely small and produce very little, so the honey is both rare and expensive. It is so treasured among indigenous peoples, it is seldom seen outside of its homeland.

A Taste of Honey

If you get a chance, be sure to try a taste of honey from one of these other bee species. I’ve been able to sample both bumble bee honey and Melipona honey. To me, the flavor and texture of both were rich and smooth, but seemed to be a bit more acidic than Apis mellifera honey. How about you? Have you tried honey from any other bees?

One thought on “Which Bees Make Honey?”
  1. European honeybees are not the only bees that make honey. In fact, they are not the only species that are raised by humans for honey. In Guatemala, people raise one of several species of housefly-sized stingless bees for their honey.

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