The European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) arrived in the Americas aboard European ships around 1622. In a way this was a homecoming, America had regained her long lost honey bees. It has always been assumed that honey bees are not native to North America until a recent discovery found a single fossil of a native North American honey bee in the Stewart Valley basin in west-central Nevada. The 14 million year old fossil was a female worker of the extinct honey bee (Apis nearctica) that lived in North America during the middle Miocene epoch and was found in a paper shale deposit along with other insects of the period. The fossil record proved honey bees lived in North America but for how long? And when did they go extinct? These questions remain unanswered.
Honey bees belong to the family Apidae which includes bumblebees, carpenter bees, long horn bees and many other species. The genus Apis has been around for 60 million years and today contains seven recognized species of honey bees including the giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) , the little honey bee (Apis florea), the eastern honey bee (Apis cerana) and the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is now found around the world. More recent discoveries include Koschevnikov’s bee (Apis koschevnikovi), Philippine honey bee (Apis nigrocincta) and the black dwarf honeybee (Apis andreniformis). All the species of honey bees described are native to south and southeast Asia with the exception of the western or European honey bee (Apis Mellifera) that is now commonly found around the globe.
Apis mellifera is the beloved domesticated honey bee known to beekeepers around the world and contains 24 distinct “geographic races” or subspecies which are akin to different “breeds” of dogs. Some familiar races known to beekeepers include Italian, Russian, Cordovan, Carniolan and Africanized honey bees. The Italian bees are known to be the most docile while the Africanized bees are known to be the most aggressive.
Honey production is not unique to honey bees. The Mayan bee god, Ah Muzen Cab, was revered for his gift of honey. If the North American honey bee went extinct and the European honey bee didn’t arrive until 1622 where did the Mayan’s get honey? Honey was harvested from social Melipona bees commonly called stingless bees. Represented by over 500 species this genus of bees is very diverse and live only within the equatorial regions around the earth. Species vary in size from smaller than fruit flies to those larger than the honey bee. Colony sizes also vary from a few hundred to thousands of bees. Melipona are uniquely adapted to the flowers of their local environment and don’t survive outside their native habitat. Vanilla orchids are an example of a familiar flower reliant on melipona bees for pollination.
Melipona beecheii was the Mayans favorite species they called kolil kab which means “royal lady”. These native bees of the Yucatan Peninsula produce only about two liters of honey per hive or about a half gallon compared to nearly five gallons of honey produced by a typical honey bee hive. Traditionally, most Mayan families keep a hive in hollow logs near their homes to produce honey for their own use. Due to the introduction of Africanized honey bees the tradition of stingless bee keeping is in peril.
The honey bee is the only honey producing bee that is adapted to living outside of the tropics. Its arrival back to North America was simply a homecoming returning to the homeland of their ancestors. Ironically, the horse shares a similar evolutionary tale, evolving here, extinction and later a return via European ships. The next time someone says honey bees are not native to North America, remind them of Apis nearctica, Apis millifera’s ancient ancestor that once pollinated flowers in the Great Plains of America were wild dinohippus and pliohippus ran free!
The Hive and the Honey Bee. Dadant & Sons, 2010. Pages 23-71.
S Engel, Michael & Hinojosa, Ismael & Rasnitsyn, Alexandr. (2009). A honey bee from the Miocene of Nevada and the biogeography of Apis (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Apini). Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences. 60.
Michael Hrncir, Stefan Jarau, Friedrich G. Barth. Stingless bees (Meliponini): senses and behavior. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 2016, Volume 202, Number 9-10, Page 597