Are Honeybees Native to North America?

by Leslie Reason on September 21, 2022

Honeybees in the US and surrounding areas aren’t native to North America.

old map usa

So, just where did the honeybees that are here come from?

Let’s take a closer look...

So How Did an Extinct Honeybee Make a Comeback?

At one time it was thought the honeybee wasn’t native to North America at all, however, a discovery during an archaeological dig in Nevada’s Stewart Valley basin showed something different. Since the archologists found a 14-million-year-old fossilized honeybee worker in a paper shale deposit, we now know at least one species of honeybee (Apis nearctica) was indigenous to the US, and that the honeybee went extinct millions of years ago in North America.

When the first colonies were established, the honeybee was reintroduced by the Europeans in the 17th century, and although there was no mention of honeybees or beehives on the Mayflower manifest, there are records from very early on showing shipments & requests for bees from the Colonies.

In a letter written by the governor for the Council of Virginia Company in London stated that in December 1621, a shipment was bound for Jamestown with;

“sorte of seed and fruit trees, and also pidgeons, connies (rabbits), peacocks and beehives…”.

Later, we then have an acknowledgement that the ship arrived at the Jamestown colony in early 1622. There’s even further correspondence where Providence Rhode Island asked for honeybees to be sent from England in 1632, but for whatever reason, this request couldn’t be or wasn’t fulfilled. There are reports that by this time, 10 years had gone by, and feral bees (swarms) were so commonplace, bee hunting or ‘lining’ was a popular practice, and it was still popular up until the 20th century.

The Honeybee & Westward Expansion

You could say that the honeybee had its own westward journey; we know they made it all the way to Utah by 1848, as Mormons the arrived with honeybees secured in the back of their wagons.

Although I concede there could have been swarms, the honeybee didn’t officially make it to the West coast and on to California until 1853. They arrived by way of a shipping route along the East coast, crossing Panama, then up the West coast, and on to California. It only took 231 years after its first reappearance in North America, for the honeybee to complete its own version of manifest destiny.

Honeybee Species from Around the World

While there are thousands (over 20,000) of bee species, there are only 8 surviving honeybee species, 7 of the 8 can be found in Asia, and I’ve included a little information about each of them below:

honeybee species

Eastern or Asiatic honeybee, Western or German honeybee, Giant Honeybee. Pinned Apis spp. to show relative size of bees (A. florea not shown) (Photo by Walker. www.wiki.nus.edu.sg).

Red Dwarf honeybee (Apis florea) – common, open-air nesting, they are non-domesticated, small & red in color; found in South & Southeast Asia, measuring 7 - 10 mm in length, they build a nest with a single comb on a tree branch, using the foliage as cover. An interesting side note, Apis florea have been noted to reuse wax, if they’re moving a short distance (less than 200 meters) then they will reuse the wax from the previous nest.

Rock Honeybees (Apis laboriosa) – rare, open-air nesting, they’re a non-domesticated, giant from the Himalayas, that are known to produce “Mad Honey”; can measure up to 3.0 cm (1.2 in), as their location is usually limited to the Himalayas, plus they build very large nests under overhangs on southwestern vertical cliffs, usually around 8,200 to 9,800 ft up.

 

Why is it called “Mad Honey

The Apis laboriosa honeybee feed on rhododendron flowers, which then gives the honey psychoactive effects.

Black Dwarf honeybee (Apis andreniformis) – rare, open-air, they are non-domesticated, very similar to Apis florea; found in tropical and subtropical regions of Southeast Asia, they are usually found in locations with an elevation below 1,000 m; 6.5 -10 mm in length, they usually build a nest from a single comb, hanging from small branches. An interesting fact for Apis andreniformis is that they place resin from plants along the branch and the edges of the comb, which is thought to be a deterrent or barrier from insects (ants).

Giant honeybee (Apis dorsat) – common, open-air nesting, they are non-domesticated, giant; located in South & Southeast Asia, 17 – 20 mm in length, they’re known to build nests that hang from tree branches & sometimes buildings. While the Apis dorsat isn’t domesticated, beekeepers in the Melaleuca Forest of Southern Vietnam use ‘Rafter Beekeeping’ as an igenious way to collect wax & honey.

Rafter method: the beekeeper will take make a ‘rafter’ by placing a partially hollowed out pole or log (1.5 – 2.5 meters long) in a sloping or slanting position between two tree branches. These will be left permanently, all in the hopes some scout bees will find it and decide to make it their new home.

Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) – common, cavity-nesting, have been domesticated, are medium in size; they’re native to Europe, Africa, and Western Asia, 10 – 20 mm in length, they build nests with multiple combs in cavities & use a small entrance, mostly to deter predators.

Eastern honeybee a.k.a. Asian Cavity Nesting or Asiatic (Apis cerana) – common, cavity-nesting, they’ve been domesticated, medium in size; they’ve been found in Southern, Southeastern, and Eastern Asia. Similar in size to Apis mellifera and further similarities, they build nests with multiple combs in cavities and use a small entrance.

Koschevnikov’s honeybee (Apis koshevnicovi) – rare, cavity-nesting, they are non-domesticated, medium-sized and a coppery-red color; found only in the tropical evergreen forest of the Malay Peninsula, Borneo & Sumatra, 7.5 – 9 mm in length.

Philippine honeybee (Apis nigrocincta) – rare, cavity-nesting, they’re non-domesticated, medium in size and reddish colored; they’ve been found on Mindanao Island, Philippines & Sulawesi, Indonesia, they have a ruddy-tan color hair that covers much of the body.

mad bees in Nepal beekeeper

Honey hunting for “Mad Honey” in Nepal

Sources:

USGS: Are honey bees native to North America?: https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/are-honey-bees-native-north-america

Bees4Life: World’s 8 honeybee species: https://bees4life.org/blog/beekeeping/8-honey-bee-species

Native Beeology; Native North American Honey Bees?: https://nativebeeology.com/2018/01/26/native-honey-bees/#:~:text=The%2014%20million%20year%20old,other%20insects%20of%20the%20period

Revolutionary War Journal: Honey Bees in Early America: White Man’s Flies – Fact and Fiction: https://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/honey-bees-in-early-america-white-mans-flies-fact-and-fiction/#:~:text=They%20did%20so%20by%20a,appearance%20in%20California%20in%201853

Resorce Centre: Bees for Development: Rafter methodology for keeping Apis dorsata: https://resources.beesfordevelopment.org/rc/rafter-methodology-for-keeping-apis-dorsata/

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