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Wild at heart: the Giant honey bee

The Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata), Doi Sutep-Pui NP, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand

The Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) is a large (17–20 mm long) bee, which occurs in India and S E Asia. (1) There are four subspecies; the one shown here from Thailand is Apis dorsata dorsata Fabricius. The colour is somewhat similar to the European honey bee, with golden, black and pale bands on the abdomen. Like A. mellifera, they use waggle dances to pass on to other bees in the colony the distance and direction of food sources which have been discovered.

The Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) workers collecting water

These bees have resisted attempts to domesticate them; they make very large, semicircular exposed combs which they typically hang high up in trees or on buildings. These combs can contain up to 60,000 bees which form a dense layer – a bee curtain with multiple layers of bees –  around the nest. (2, 3) They are highly aggressive and will defend the nests against attack from any predators, including Man!

Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) workers collecting water

During hot weather, they are often seen on or near wet places collecting water. I came across these at Mon Tha Than waterfall, halfway up Doi Sutep mountain near Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. It was particularly hot with temperatures approaching 40 deg C at the foot of the mountain. These worker bees were presumably collecting water to take back to the colony.

Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) worker hovering over water

Remarkably, these bees often migrate long distances – up to 200 km – and the colonies stop to rest and forage on the way, forming huge clusters of bees in bivouac sites. (4) Such swarming usually occurs in October or November. A queen bee flies away from the original nest and a swarm of workers follows her to found a new nest site. I recently came across some wonderful nests on the eaves of a temple – Wat Phra That Doi Saket – near Chiang Mai (below).

the giant honey bee (apis dorsata) nest on temple
The giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) nest on temple

The bees seemed to be budding off to form new colonies and they could be seen building new combs on the temple (below).

the giant honey bee (apis dorsata) nest on wat doi saket
The giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) nest  and new combs on temple

Although individual bees only live for a couple of months, the colony often migrates back to the original nesting site, often crossing over wide stretches of water. They must have some way of staying close together during these long migrations.

These wild bees are important pollinators, with many crops being dependent upon them for pollination, including: cotton, mango, coconut, coffee, pepper, star fruit, and macadamia. Despite not being domesticated, the honey is harvested – at great risk! – in many regions, with some of the larger colonies yielding up to 15 kg of honey. (5)

It is I think, a very attractive insect with an interesting biology.

  4. Robinson, W. S. (2012). Migrating giant honey bees (Apis dorsata) congregate annually at stopover site in Thailand. PloS one, 7(9), e44976.

rcannon992 View All

I am an entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

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