Understanding the Differences between Wild Bees and Domestic Bees

April 24, 2023

By Beth Rigby

Have you ever heard of the term ‘domestic bee’? Maybe you have asked yourself one of the following questions: How are domestic bees different from wild bees? Is it really as simple as ‘wild bees live in the wild’? How long have bees been domesticated? How do they impact American farms? Find out what all the buzz is about below.

Apis mellifera

Apis mellifera. Photo by Ivar Leidus.

Apis mellifera; the Domestic Honeybee

The genus Apis encompasses all honeybees, many of which are confined to southern and southeastern Asia. The earliest bees of the Apis genus constructed single combed nests. Eventually, bees of the Apis genus advanced and established nests with multiple parallel combs. Examples include Apis dorsata– a giant honeybee that can build nests up to nine feet in diameter, and Apis florea– a dwarf honeybee that builds nests in shrubs and trees. These advanced, insulated hives allowed the bees to efficiently store honey and survive the cold winters within their hive, which drew the attention of early beekeepers. The domesticated honeybee, Apis mellifera is also known as the western honeybee, or the European honeybee. Apis mellifera organically resides in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and has been naturalized on all continents except Antarctica. European settlers introduced the European honeybee to the Americas in the 17 th century. Apis mellifera spans approximately 1.2 centimeters in length. They have two large compound eyes and three simple eyes. They are usually have red or brown colorations with black and yellow bands on their abdomen. There are 26 subspecies of Apis mellifera; the classification is based on various physical and behavioral traits: wingspan, tongue length, coloration, and defense mechanisms.

Apis mellifera

Apis mellifera. Photo by Hans Hillewaert.

So, when exactly did Apis mellifera become domesticated? It’s a difficult question that archaeologists have been toying with for decades. Most estimates range from 7,000 to 10,000 years. Websters Dictionary defines ‘domestication’ as “the adaptation of a plant or animal from a wild or natural state to live in close association with humans; [or] the adaptation of something to meet the expectations or tastes of ordinary people.” Ergo, the domesticated bee lives within the proximity of human civilizations, likely in an artificial nest, in such a fashion that humans can exploit the resources produced by the colony. Additionally, Apis Mellifera has adapted over time to better suit the needs of honey collectors. For example, beekeepers favored bees that survive when honey flow is poor, resist disease, and were easily pacified by smoke. Over hundreds, or thousands of years, the preferences of beekeepers affected the adaptations of Apis mellifera to fit the needs of humans. Archaeological evidence includes cave and tomb paintings, honey residue on pottery and weaponry, and ancient artificial hives. Humans have long enjoyed honey as a food source, a medicinal ingredient, a sticky glue for pottery and weapons, and a component of religious rituals.


Long-horned bee

Long-horned bee. Photo by TJ Gehling.

Wild Bees

Contrarily, a wild bee is essentially any bee that is not domesticated. A wild bee has not adapted over time to survive within the sphere of humankind. There are a multitude of wild bees native to North America: including but not limited to bumble bees, carpenter bees, long horned bees, digger bees, squash bees, cactus bees, and cuckoo bees. Wild bees create their own nests in the ground, traditional hives, trees, wood, and pre-existing holes. These are wild insects that do not depend on humans for nests or other resources. Wild bees are just one of the many creatures that contribute to the pollination of flowers and vegetation. Beetles, butterflies, moths, flies, bats, birds, and wasps are all extremely important pollinators that provide stability for all terrestrial ecosystems.



Call of the Wild (Pollinators)

The domestication of bees in America has been catalyzed by monocultures and monopolized farms. As massive, single crop farms have become increasingly common in the United States, the populations of wild pollinators have decreased. To compensate for this loss, farmers and corporations import domesticated bees in accordance to crop season. 2.9 million bee colonies are transported for agricultural purposes annually. Unfortunately, the forced migration has caused rapid decline in colony numbers due to stress, poor nutrition, and increased exposure to harmful pesticides.

Wild pollinators are an extremely important part of the pollination of crop systems. Domesticated honeybees cannot carry the load of mass pollination on their own. Several varieties of vegetation have adapted to only be pollinated by specific fauna- like beetles and hummingbirds. Even with an abundance of Apis Mellifera, crop yields are boosted when wild pollinators like bumblebees and carpenter bees contribute. Wild pollinators are extremely efficient when pollinating, but in order for them to survive, they need an environment with biodiversity. The ‘monoculture carpet’ that rolls across the American Midwest is a main contributing factor to the decrease in wild pollinators. Massive single crop farms decrease the quality of soil and eliminate the native vegetation that can support the variety of wild pollinators needed to properly distribute pollen. Over than 250,000 wild flowering plants require native pollinators to exist!

Bumble bee

Bumble bee, bombus sp, on coreopsis

A great way to combat the effects of monocultures and monocropping is to stay educated and maintain a biodiversity in your community. There are many simple ways to invite pollinators to an open space; try reducing your lawn, planting keystone species, removing invasives, and avoiding both pesticides and insecticides. WVLT is one of many organizations supporting and creating Pollinator Pathways; join the Pollinator Pathway here: https://wallkillvalleylt.org/pp/join-pollinator-pathway/. For more information about Wallkill Valley Land Trust’s efforts regarding pollinator pathways, check out our website: https://wallkillvalleylt.org/pp/.