Honey bees (or honeybees) are a subset of bees in the genus Apis, primarily distinguished by the production and storage of honey and the construction of perennial, colonial nests out of wax. Honey bees are the only extant members of the tribe Apini, all in the genus Apis. Currently, there are only seven recognized species of honey bee with a total of 44 subspecies, though historically, anywhere from six to eleven species have been recognized.
Honey bees represent only a small fraction of the approximately 20,000 known species of bees. Some other types of related bees produce and store honey, but only members of the genus Apis are true honey bees.
There are no honey bees native to the Americas. In 1622, European colonists brought the dark bee to the Americas, followed later by Italian bees and others. Many of the crops that depend on honey bees for pollination have also been imported since colonial times. Escaped swarms (known as “wild” bees, but actually feral) spread rapidly as far as the Great Plains, usually preceding the colonists. Honey bees did not naturally cross the Rocky Mountains; they were carried by ship to California in the early 1850s.
All honey bees live in colonies where the worker bees will sting intruders as a form of defense, and alarmed bees will release a pheromone that stimulates the attack response in other bees. The different species of honey bees are distinguished from all other bee species (and virtually all other Hymenoptera) by the possession of small barbs on the sting, but these barbs are found only in the worker bees. The sting and associated venom sac are also modified so as to pull free of the body once lodged (autotomy), and the sting apparatus has its own musculature and ganglion which allow it to keep delivering venom once detached. The worker bee dies after the stinger is torn out of its bodyIt is presumed that this complex apparatus, including the barbs on the sting, evolved specifically in response to predation by vertebrates, as the barbs do not usually function (and the sting apparatus does not detach) unless the sting is embedded in fleshy tissue.
Species of Apis are generalist floral visitors, and will pollinate a large variety of plants, but by no means all plants. Of all the honey bee species, only Apis mellifera has been used extensively for commercial pollination of crops and other plants. The value of these pollination services is commonly measured in the billions of dollars.
Honey is the complex substance made when the nectar and sweet deposits from plants and trees are gathered, modified and stored in the honeycomb by honey bees as a food source for the colony. All living species of Apis have had their honey gathered by indigenous peoples for consumption, though for commercial purposes only Apis mellifera and Apis cerana have been exploited to any degree. Honey is sometimes also gathered by humans from the nests of various stingless bees.
Worker bees of a certain age will secrete beeswax from a series of glands on their abdomens. They use the wax to form the walls and caps of the comb. As with honey, beeswax is gathered for various purposes.
Bees collect pollen in the pollen basket and carry it back to the hive. In the hive, pollen is used as a protein source necessary during brood-rearing. In certain environments, excess pollen can be collected from the hives of A. mellifera and A. cerana. It is often eaten as a health supplement.
Propolis (or bee glue) is created from resins, balsams and tree saps. Those species of honey bees which nest in tree cavities use propolis to seal cracks in the hive. Dwarf honey bees use propolis to defend against ants by coating the branch from which their nest is suspended to create a sticky moat. Propolis is consumed by humans as a health supplement in various ways and also used in some cosmetics.