Apis mellifera (The Honey Bee)


Wherever bees are spoken of inEast Africa, most people are referring to the honey bee Apis mellifera (a single species though there are sub-species). Honey bees are managed for both honey production and other hive products, such as wax and royal jelly. In most developed countries, the honey bee is managed for pollination of high value crops. This importance is slowly becoming known in East Africa with large growers keeping honey bee hives for the provision of pollination service. Crop pollination by the honey bee is currently responsible for many billions of shillings of pollination services every year. The sting of the honey bee can be painful and a single sting by one honey bee can cause other honey bee individuals to attack and they can be quite aggressive. The honey bee is about 12 mm long and usually yellow, with 3 or 5 dark brown abdominal bands. This fact sheet provides information about these bees to encourage farmers to understand and protect them to help ensure that their crops are effectively pollinated.

From a conservation and agricultural standpoint it is not necessary to recognise all the different bee genera. However, it is important to know that there is a large bee biodiversity. Different bee genera pollinate different plant species, although there is some overlap that acts as a buffer as bee populations wax and wane. For healthy ecosystems, including agro-ecosystems both diversity and abundance in the bee fauna is important.

Common Name (Language)

African honey bee, honey bee, bees (English), nyuki (Kiswahili), abeilles (French).

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Apidae

Subfamily: Apinae

Tribe: Apini

Genus: Apis Linnaeus, 1758

Species in the Genus

Worldwide, three subgenera have been recorded. These include: Subgenus Micrapis: Apis andreniformis, Apis florea, Subgenus Megapis: Apis breviligula, Apis dorsata, Subgenus Apis: Apis cerana, Apis indica, Apis koschevnikovi, Apis mellifera, Apis nigrocincta.

Species in Kenya, Tanzania & Uganda

The species Apis mellifera is the only representative of Apis in East Africa though several sub-species occur (Raina & Kimbu 2005, Anon 1984; Meixner et al. 1989), including Apis mellifera scutellata (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda), Apis mellifera nubica (Kenya), Apis mellifera litorea (Kenya), Apis mellifera monticola (Kenya, Tanzania) and Apis mellifera adansonii (Uganda, Tanzania).


The honey bee varies in colour depending on sub-species but they are generally amber to brown with alternating black stripes on the abdomen . Some sub-species are mostly black. They have short hairs and are generally gentle unless the hive is threatened. They are about 1.3 cm long. The honey bee is described by local people according to the subspecies characteristics, mainly using the colour (amber, brown or black), the size (e.g. small, big) and nesting sites used (e.g. nesting in the ground, in tree holes, hives, etc.).

Possible Causes of Confusion

Some insect species look like the honey bee. These include the bee genera Amegilla (banded bees), Anthophora, Tetralonia, and Tetraloniella (long horned bees). These other bees do not have colonies like the honey bee. While visiting crops, honey bees are known to mostly visit multiple flowers of the same plant species before going back to the nest. These other bees may not have this kind of behaviour. However, this needs to be confirmed scientifically. Some hoverflies (Syrphys species) also look like honey bees. Hoverflies can be distinguished from honey bees as they have only two wings while bees have four. In addition, hoverfly eyes are larger than those of the honey bee and its body shape tapers towards the end of abdomen .

Distribution in Kenya, Tanzania & Uganda

The honey bee is found in most districts/regions ofKenya, Tanzania and Uganda (Eardley et al. 2009).


The honey bee can be found in various habitats inEast Africa such as grasslands, forests, marshlands, protected areas, farmlands, and rangelands, woodlands, riparian areas and coastal areas (Eardley et al. 2009).


The honey bee is commonly found in traditional and modern hives, but can also be found in wild colonies in cavities of stumps, dead wood, living trees and underground. These different nesting sites can be found in any of the aforementioned habitats.

Crops Visited

The honey bee is known to collect nectar and pollen from most flowering crop species belonging to many different plant families which are all grown inEast Africa. It is an effective pollinator of plants such as cucurbits (this group includes crops like cucumbers, pumpkins and melons), sunflowers, apples, almonds and citrus trees. Though honey bees will visit most crop flowers, they may not efficiently pollinate them and in some cases they may not pollination them at all. Examples of these crops include passion fruits, solanaceous crops (e.g. capsicum, tomatoes and eggplant), legumes (e.g. beans, cowpeas, alfalfa and grams), nut trees (e.g. macadamia and cashew nuts) and some fruit trees (e.g. mango and avocado among others. Studies are urgently required to document the contribution of honey bee pollination to the wide range of crops that are grown in East Africa.

Other Plants Visited

In the wild the honey bee visits a large variety of plant species (trees, shrubs, herbs, weeds, lianas) found in different habitats (Eardley et al. 2009).

Economic / Ecological Importance

The honey bee is currently the most prized pollinator of high value crops worldwide, particularly among the managed pollinators. A recent study estimated that honey bees annually pollinate more than KES 1 trillion worth of seeds and crops in the United States (Morse and Calderone 2000). Some crops are almost entirely dependent on the honey bee for pollination. However, not all crops or wild plants are effectively pollinated by the honey bee and other species are essential for the pollination of a wide range of crops grown in the region as well as for the conservation of wild species.


InEast Africa , the honey bee and other bee taxa are threatened by factors such as habitat degradation, agricultural intensification (e.g. replacing hedges with barbed wire fences, and increased use of herbicides which can affect wild flower numbers) and the misuse of insecticides. Honey bee populations in East Africa are affected by pests and diseases. The current severity of global colony collapse disorder (CCD) has captured the attention of many scientists and governments throughout the world. Varroa mites which feed off the body fluids of honey bees and have been implicated in CCD are now recorded in East Africa (Kajobe et al. 2010; Lossini personal observation) but there have been no reports on the possible negative effects on honey bee colonies. The relative lack of knowledge of about these bees and their economic importance by people (de facto custodians of nature) is significant as their conservation and management practices implemented at the farm level will depend to a large extent upon the value that people attach to them.

Conservation and Management Practices

There are now concerted research efforts in the region to develop best practices for conservation and management of bees that are compatible with other good farm practices, to enhance crop production. Theoretically, bee conservation and management is inexpensive and adopted activities can also improve the aesthetic value of the landscape.

During flowering, farmers should manage pesticide usage carefully to avoid poisoning flower-visiting bees. Farmers should also minimise pesticide drift from the field to adjacent areas. Honey bee colonies can be removed from an area before applying pesticides.

Forage management can help to ensure the bees have nectar and pollen all year round. This includes sustaining the diversity of different plants to ensure the presence of flowers all year round, particularly when crops are not flowering. Areas with such plants could provide sites for resting and nesting of these bees. Practices such as setting land aside (e.g. a 1-metre strip) in the farmland to host all year round food resources for the bees are likely to be beneficial. Additional measures to enhance honey bee numbers include the provision of water, the provision of sugar water during times when there is insufficient nectar (but this must be done according to specific guidelines otherwise it will cause the death of the bees), the provision of good nesting sites and the management of bee pests and diseases.

Awareness-raising among local people to increase their understanding of the value of conserving the honey bee is a crucial component of conservation. This will include understanding which crops they pollinate and ensuring these crops are well pollinated by the honey bee. In addition it is important to increase awareness of the value of honey bees as a source of hive products.

Note that these management options are also likely to favour the conservation of other kinds of bees that are pollinating crop flowers.

Legislation (National and International)

Tanzania has a national policy on utilization of the honey bee for hive products while Kenya is in the process of developing a national policy. There is no known policy on utilisation of the honey bee for crop pollination in East Africa. Other laws and policies that may play important role in conservation of the honey bee are the national environmental management policies as well as those governing protected areas. In addition, laws governing registration and use of plant protection products also indirectly play a major role in the protection of pollinators. These policy frameworks do not capture specific issues related to the conservation of the honey bee. Special issues exist around moving subspecies into areas occupied by other subspecies, as this may result in hybridisation of subspecies and the loss of their unique qualities for the environment they inhabit.

Laws governing registration and use of plant protection products also indirectly play a major role in the protection of pollinators Such legislation, together with market-based mechanisms such as the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) codes and practices may help to protect bees albeit incidentally. At the international level, the Conservation on Biological Diversity (CBD) is spearheading strategies to enforce bee management for pollination purposes within the member countries, which include Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Farmers should lobby their governments to develop Integrated Pest Management policies that would protect bees and other insects of importance in agriculture.


1. Eardley CD, Gikungu M and Schwarz MP (2009) Bee conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar : diversity, status and threats. Apidologie, 40: 355–366.

2. Morse RA and Calderone NW (2000) The Value of Honey Bees as Pollinators of U.S. Crops in 2000. Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

3. Meixner M, Ruttner F and Koeniger G (1989) The Mountain Bees o the Kilimanjaro region and their relation to neighbouring bee population. Apidologie, 201:165-174.

4. Kajobe R, Marris G, Budge G, Laurenson L, Cordoni G, Jones , Wilkins S, Cuthbertson AGS and Brown AM (2010) First molecular detection of a viral pathogen in Ugandan honeybees. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 104: 153–156.

5. Michener CD (2007) The Bees of the world, the John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London , pp 913.

6. Raina SK, Kimbu DM (2005) Variations in races of the honeybee Apis mellifera (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in Kenya . International Journal of Tropical Insect Science Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 281–291.


Théodore Munyuli, Busitema University - Uganda; Muo Kasina, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) - Kenya; Juma Lossini, Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (TPRI) – Tanzania; John Mauremootoo, BioNET-INTERNATIONAL Secretariat – UK; Connal Eardley, Plant Protection Research Institute (PPRI) – South Africa.


We recognise the support from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Tropical Pesticide Research Institute (TPRI)Tanzania and Busitema University (Faculty of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences) - Eastern Uganda. This activity was undertaken as part of the BioNET-EAFRINET UVIMA Project (Taxonomy for Development in East Africa).


BioNET-EAFRINET regional coordinator: [email protected]