How you can help
If you see honey bees living anywhere other than a beehive please let us know by recording.
We’re aiming to capture both where free-living honeybee colonies currently exist and where they like living. Honey bees typically like nesting in elevated (ca. > 1.5 m or 5 ft high) cavities like hollows in trees, walls and roofs of buildings and can be particularly noticeable when workers are seen frequently flying to and from the nest entrance on warm sunny days. If you find a free-living colony ideally take a photo and note the following:
- Location and date
- How high off the ground it is
- How long has it been there (if known)
- What direction the entrance is facing
- Are the honey bees behaving aggressively
- Has a beekeeper taken a swarm from the colony (if known)
If you find what you suspect to be a honey bee colony at or below ground-level then it is probably not a honey bee colony but that of a bumblebee or wasp. Therefore, it’s important to know how to identify a honey bee.
How to recognise a honeybee
Honey bees are a relatively small bee compared to many bumble bees and carder bees. From a distance they look much less “furry” although they do have many fine hairs, especially on the thorax. The picture above shows only one type of bumble bee for comparison however there are many bumble species and over 98 other types of bee species. For Ireland, there is only one native honey bee, a sub-species called Apis mellifera mellifera or the Northern dark bee.
Honey bees tend to be seen on flowering plants including trees but may also be observed taking up water from shallow pools or spills. Their abdomen can range in colour from very dark brown (almost black) to light orange with various shades and colour banding in between such as in the comparison pictures below. We are interested in colonies of all colour morphs.
Different types of honey bees
It is generally considered that the darker honey bee the is the native form, Apis mellifera mellifera. Lighter coloured honey bees tend to be thought of as either a different introduced sub-species such as Apis mellifera ligustica or a hybrid form between the two types. Wasps, like the Common Wasp Vespula vulgaris, can also be confused for honey bees however they have conspicuous yellow and black banding as seen in the picture above.
Honey bee colony
Honey bees are cavity dwellers and their colonies are usually found by observing the activity and noise of a large number of honey bees at a small entrance, particularly on warm sunny days. Colonies are usually seen in elevated positions, in trees, walls and roofs of buildings although entrances have been found in unlikely places such as hollow statues, compost bins, bird boxes and graveyard crypts, so rule nothing out.
From a distance, the colony can sometimes be confused with those of wasps, in cases where the wasps are very active. Some bumble bees are also cavity dwellers and will nest in small ground cavities which can also look like honey bee colony entrances however the bees are larger and there is a relative lack of numbers.
Background information on honey bees
Of the 99 species of bee in Ireland there is only one native honey bee species, in fact it’s a sub-species, Apis mellifera mellifera, the dark northern Western honey bee. Moreover, because this sub-species inhabits much of Northern Europe with its wide variation in climate, the honey-bees in Ireland and each individual country or region could be more accurately referred to as ecotypes, with characteristics finely adapted to their specific environment.
Honey bees are included in the pollinators that pollinate wild plants and crops. The importance of the honey bee lies not only in the sheer numbers of potential pollinators, up to 60,000 bees can make up a colony, but also in their management as a semi-domesticated animal. The ability to manage colonies means they can be moved to where they are of greatest use to us as crop pollinators.