This guide is being created in conjunction with the honeybee observation hive at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, created by the Harvard Undergraduate Beekeepers. Its purpose is to provide additional information for HMNH volunteers but also for people who are interested in honeybees, honey and beekeeping. Watch the installation of the observation hive here!
Apis mellifera is commonly known as the European or Western or Common honeybee. It is the most common domesticated species, and is not native to the Americas; rather, it was brought here by European settlers. There were native species that were cultivated by the indigenous peoples, but these have been largely displaced. "Wild" bees in the U.S. are usually A. mellifera that escaped and have moved throughout North America.
There are a number of subspecies, including the "killer" or Africanized honeybees, A. mellifera scutellata, which are more aggressive than their European counterparts. They also produce more surplus honey, but they do not overwinter well so are still confined to the southern parts of the U.S.
Apis is the only genus in the tribe Apini, in the family Apidae. Other members of the Apidae include the bumblebee (genus Bombus), carpenter bees and stingless bees (both in the tribe Meliponini). Altogether there are around 20,000 species of bees ranging in size from about 2 mm to almost 4 cm. They come in a variety of colors and have many different lifestyles. They may be highly social and live in well-organized hives, or solitary and live in underground burrows. Some can sting and some cannot (and only the females can sting as the stinger is a modified ovipositor); of those that can, some sting reluctantly and die after they do, other can sting with impunity. Some collect nectar and pollen and make honey; a few eat rotting flesh; and there is everything in between.