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Giant Honey Bee (Apis Dorsata)

The Giant Honey Bee species is the largest honeybee in the world, measuring up to 0.8 inches. These social insects build open hives in trees and can store up to 45 kgs of honey.

The sting from a giant honey bee can be excruciatingly painful because it has two lances on its stinger instead of one like most bees have. 

They do only use their stinger if they’re threatened.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the giant honey bee, what they look like, their unique characteristics, and their behavior.

Giant Honey Bee

Giant honey bees are huge compared to your typical honeybee because of the environmental conditions that they prefer to live in.

This giant honeybee gets its name from its vast size, are in fact the biggest species among honeybees.

Giant honey bees range between 17-20 mm (0.66-0.78 inches) in length. 

They mainly build their nests above ground, like regular honeybees, on tree limbs, under overhangs, and sometimes on buildings.

natural beehive on a tree

The size of the Apis Dorsata nest is also larger than that of the ordinary honeybee. They can store up to 45 kg of honey in their nests, whereas the ordinary honeybee can only store 15 to 25 kg.

The giant honey bee’s closest relatives are Apis mellifera (the western honey bee), Apis cerana, and Apis florea.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Apidae
Genus: Apis
Subgenus: Megapis
Species: A. dorsata

The giant honey bee, scientifically known as Apis dorsata, is native to Southeast Asia. They are also known for their nests in trees. Giant honey bees live in hives that can reside up to 100ft above the ground.

Subspecies

There are four subspecies of the giant honey bee, scientifically known as Apis dorsata. These subspecies are:

  • A. d. Binghami
  • A. d. Breviligula
  • A. d. Dorsata
  • A. d. Laboriosa

There are several morphological differences between the four subspecies:

Binghami: The Binghami looks much like the regular honeybee in terms of their body structure, with black and dark yellow colors.

Breviligula: The Breviligula has much more yellow to them, with slight black colors towards the end of their abdomen. Their underside can be white.

Dorsata: The dorsal side of Dorsata is black, while the bottom is white. 

Laboriosa: These giant honeybees are almost completely black, with a black abdomen. They may have slight yellow stripes.

Aside from these color differences, there are also other slight morphological differences, such as the Breviligula having a slightly larger thorax than that of Dorsata. There are also more minor differences compared to the Laboriosa.

Close up of bees and honeycomb in wooden beehive.

Appearance

In terms of structure, giant honeybees look much like other honeybees. They have three parts to their body: head, thorax, and abdomen, with 2 sets of wings (4 in total).

Depending on the subspecies, they vary from bright yellow colors to black, most often being a combination of the two.

Giant honey bees are similar to European and North American honey bees, except that they are much larger and can weigh more than their counterparts.

Related: Bee Anatomy: Understanding How Bees Are Built

giant bee

Behavior of the Giant Honey Bee

The behavior of the giant honey bee is much alike regular honeybees. They forage, mate, build hives, and produce honey.

A study shows how giant honey bees may migrate during wet seasons. Large congregations of giant honey bees were reported in northern Thailand, occasionally stopping to communicate approximate distance to their target location. [1]

Mating

Mating is the process of drones fertilizing virgin queens. New queens and drones will fly off from the nest to find suitable mates.

Giant honey bees show signs of polyandry, where multiple drones will mate with the same queen. [2]

This flight is called “nuptial flight”.

The Apis dorsata queens and drones will fly out around sunset, for an average of 13 minutes per flight. Queens may take several flights, often starting out with an orientation flight (with a duration of 3 minutes). [3]

Once they’re in flight, the male flies behind the female to ensure no other drone mounting her. If another drone does try to mount the queen, the virgin male will attempt to knock it off using his abdomen.

honeybees on flowers

Foraging

Giant honey bees go on foraging trips to collect pollen or nectar from flowers [4]. Most giant honey bees do this towards the end of the day, or even at night.

When returning from a foraging trip, giant honey bees will do the so-called “waggle dance” to communicate with nestmates about where they can find nectar. This dance is seen in most honey bees.

Once they’ve returned to the nest with nectar, they hand it off to other bees, responsible for honey production. Honey will be stored in cells, capped off with beeswax.

The giant honey bee exhibits nocturnal tendencies, meaning they forage at night. This is most likely due to the high temperatures in their local climates.

Related: Do Bees Come Out at Night?

Two Bees on a purple flower

Distribution & Habitat

The giant honey bee, Apis dorsata, is distributed throughout Southeast Asia and surrounding areas. The range of these bees extends from western Nepal to New Guinea.

The greatest populations of giant honey bees live in the tropical Terai region of Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and west China, where they feed on the nectar and pollen of Meranti, Melastoma, Lantana, and other plants. 

Individual colonies are known to migrate between nesting sites. They most often do this due to a change in climate, as their local habitats switch between dry and wet seasons.

Related: Bee Temperature Tolerance

Nesting Behavior

Giant honey bees are known for their fascinating nesting behavior. They build open nests, and multiple colonies often nest next to each other.

The Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata) builds nests in solid branches of trees near waterways. Colonies can make huge nests, containing more than 100,000 individuals. 

This species is capable of making large combs, each containing up to 45 kg of honey. Their huge nests are made up of a single vertical comb, reaching up to 3.3 feet (1 meter) in height. The comb is then made up of cells to store honey or rear larvae.

After the colony has made its nest, it can occur that it becomes overcrowded. When this happens, a group of bees will fly off.

Related: How Many Bees Are in a Beehive?

honeybee hive swarming colonies

Giant honey bees use two different methods for changing colonies: swarming and budding. 

  • Swarming occurs when a queen flies away from the nest, with a swarm of workers, to start a new colony elsewhere.
  • For budding, a group of workers will leave their nest to form a new colony, usually not that far away from the original nest.

Giant honey bees will often nest directly next to other colonies. They make use of good nesting sites. Up to 200 nests can be found in the same tree. This is known as colony aggregation.

Open-Nesting Species

When bees make an open nest, they don’t live inside the nest, but rather on the outside. This way, you can see everything that’s going on, without having to look through the opening.

Giant honey bees make use of this nesting behavior, where each nest is made up of a single comb. This is then covered by the bees in several layers.

Open nesting is often due to extreme environmental conditions which no longer support closed-nesting behavior. These include: 

  • Locations with too few resources (food, nesting materials)
  • Severe weather (too hot)
  • An area where the population has reached critical levels.
bumblebees making honey in the hive

Nesting & Colony Cycle

While building a nest takes a lot of effort, it can also become too crowded. When this happens for giant honey bees, they may either swarm or bud.

Swarming is seen in almost all bee species, where the queen bee will first lay eggs for new queens, and then fly away. A swarm of worker bees (hence the name), follows her to a new nesting site.

This nesting site will often be within 1 mile of the previous nest.

Budding is when a big amount of workers leave their nest. They’ll similarly look for a new nesting site, but most often they settle down just a few feet from the old nest.

How Much Honey Is Stored in Giant Honeybee Nests

Giant honey bees make larger nests, and can hence store more honey in them. They’ve been known to store up to 45 kg’s of honey in a single nest, 2-3 times the normal amount for regular honey bees.

Related: How Long Does It Take Bees to Make Honey?

Life Cycle of Giant Honey Bee

The life cycle of the giant honey bee looks very similar to that of the ordinary honey bee. They go through four stages in their life:

  • Egg
  • Larva
  • Pupa
  • Adult

Eggs

Honey bee eggs are about 1mm long and white. They’re found in modified wax cells, which the bees construct within the brood area of the hive. 

The eggs will slowly develop into larvae, the next step in their life. As eggs. They can’t do much. It’s not before the larva stage, that they begin to do something.

bumblee bee eggs

Larva

Bee larvae look like small maggots, white and oblong. They eat honey and bee bread for nutritional value, so they can grow into pupae. 

The larva hatches from an egg after three days, then matures to the pupa stage within six days.

bee pupae

Pupa

During the pupa stage, the organism inside the capped cell starts to look like a bee. It’s at this stage that bees develop their legs, wings, and the rest of their external organs.

This stage takes about 7 to 14 days.

bumblee bee workers

Adult Bee

As the bee hatches from its pupa, it’ll break out of the cell as an adult bee. Depending on their gender and their upbringing, it’ll either be a worker, drone, or queen bee.

Queen bees are made by feeding eggs, larva, and pupa royal jelly. While born regular worker bees, queens develop due to the royal jelly they’re fed.

bee workers on beehive

Economic Impact

The economic impact of honey bees is considerable. 

There are estimated to be 2.4 million colonies in the United States, which are responsible for $14 billion worth of crops each year, due to their direct impact through pollination. 

When it comes to giant honey bees, many locals live off of their honey. Because of colony aggregation (colonizing within the same area), locals can easily harvest a lot of honey at a time, providing an important source of income.

Due to deforestation, use of pesticides, urbanization, and honey hunting, these local populations of bees are threatened.

About Teodoro Pittman

Teodoro is a nature and animal lover. He specifically focuses on insects, such as ants, bees, and the like. In his free time, he takes care of his own ant farm, where he analyzes their behavior. Teodoro has spent the last 7 years studying the intricate behavior of these small creatures.