Apis dorsata, the giant honey bee is among the largest species of bees found mainly in forested areas of South and Southeast Asia ranging from Indian subcontinent up to southern China. Their coloration is highly variable depending on the geographic location and race, but quite similar to the European true honey bee. These giant honey bees are well known for their organized mass aggressive defense reaction when disturbed. Apis dorsata is one of the most important bee species for agricultural producers and honey collectors in Asia because they produce substantial amount of honey and pollinate many of the economically important crops.
Giant honey bees are eusocial insects with the characteristics like cooperative brood care, overlapping generations within a colony of adults and reproductive caste system. Every giant honey bee colony usually contains one queen, few drones and thousands of workers. In most honey bee species including Apis mellifera, queens and drones are larger than the female worker bees, but there’s only a slight difference in body size between the worker bees and reproductive bees in giant honey bees.
In a giant honey bee colony, the queen lays all of the eggs and she’s the mother of all drones and worker bees within the colony. Queens are generally darker and have larger abdomens compared to the worker bees. The male bees are called drones. They have easily identifiable short abdomens and large eyes. In a giant honey bee colony, drones are produced only during the reproductive season to mate with queens. Majority of the time, they leave their own colony to mate with queens from other nearby colonies. Drones gather neither pollen nor nectar and they don’t have stingers.
Pollination and Honey Production
Apis dorsata is an important wild pollinator in agricultural lands and tropical rainforests across Asia. Some economically important crops including coffee, coconut, cotton and mango heavily depend upon giant honey bee pollination. Unlike the other true honey bee species, giant honey bee colonies can’t be transported for pollination purposes. Because of that, people are mainly interested in harvesting honey from their colonies.
Giant honey bee colonies are typically large and they are efficient honey producers. Some colonies can produce as much as 70 Kg of honey per year. Compared to the other honey bee species, Apis dorsata honey contains high moisture and low sugar content. In addition to the honey, harvested organic beeswax from giant honey bee colonies is used to make hand creams, lip balms, skin moisturizers, candles, etc.
Association with Exotic Mites
Tropilaelaps mites are originally parasites of the all giant honey bee species including Apis dorsata, Apis breviligula and Apis laboriosa. The true honey bee species including Apis mellifera and Apis cerana indica aren’t natural hosts of Tropilaelaps mites, but easily can be parasitized by the mites in areas where both giant honey bees and true honey bees are present. This poses a serious threat to beekeepers around the world as Tropilaelaps can cause rapid colony loss, which negatively affects the beekeeping industry.
Giant Honeybees generally establish their single comb colonies high up in tall trees and these colonies are accessible only to honey hunters who risk their lives. Rafter beekeeping is where beekeepers place tree poles rafters mimicking large tree branches at a slight angle and low to the ground to encourage migrating giant honeybees to settle on them. It’s a dry season activity works particularly well in degraded forest areas where the only suitable nesting sites for these bees are the rafters which placed conveniently at eye level provide easy access to the combs. It also allows beekeepers to remove only the honey head to get multiple harvests from a single colony for months.
The migratory open air nesting giant honey bees are the largest of the honey bee species. Because of their defensiveness, seasonal migration and open nesting behavior, domestication of this species has been thought to be impossible. But some beekeepers use a traditional method called rafter beekeeping to attract giant honey bees. This technique allows beekeepers to collect honey from giant honeybee colonies without destroying the bees and bee combs.
Giant honey bees prefer tall trees to build their nests. They build a single large comb up to 5 feet in length and 2 feet tall. At any given time, the comb is covered by a curtain of up to 100,000 worker bees. This curtain consists of multiple layers of bees and it protects the vulnerable brood and the nest from invaders and bad weather conditions. In some countries, there are strict quarantine requirements for giant honey bees as they may carry parasitic mites which will affect badly for the local honey bee industry.
Giant Honey Bee Facts
- Giant honey bees are the largest of the honey bee species.
- They are originally from Asia and also known as rock bees.
- Giant honey bees can produce large amount of honey compared to the other honey bee species.
- Due to their aggressive and defensive behavior, giant honey bees have been described as one of the most dangerous animals in most Asian forests.
- Giant honey bees are an open nesting species and migrate at least twice a year.
- They are extremely important insect pollinators for many cash crops in Asia.
- All species of the giant honey bee are parasitized by Tropilaelaps mites.
- Giant honey bees are considered as pests in Australia.
- A large single giant honey bee comb can contain upwards of 60,000 bees.
- Giant honey bee colonies are capable of migrating great distances, sometimes up to 200 km.