Photos by cottonmanifesto. Location: On a volunteer milkweed plant in a garden in Olmsted Park.
Urban species #194: Honeybee Apis mellifera
No other insect has had as significant and positive interaction with humans as the honeybee. This animal is thought to be native to Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. Now it is found on all continents except Antarctica, in both cultivated and wild forms. Like pigeons, bees are provided with homes without fences, cages with open doors. They are free to roam, and frequently new colonies are established in the wild. The bees must find a hollow tree, or similar substitute, which in the city is often a space within the walls of a building. Specialized exterminator businesses exist to remove bees and their hives (usually keeping the honey) from urban settings.
Honeybees are social insects, forming colonies with thousands of individuals. The honeybees seen gathering nectar from flowers are sterile female workers. They produce honey to provide a year round source of food for their developing larvae. The tremendous amount of sugar (a difficult commodity to come by in ancient times) honeybees produce is just the most obvious and immediate importance they have. Far more important is their service as pollinators for crop foods and wild plants. Most good farms have hives on site to ensure that flowers become fruit, a process that is impossible in many cases without the bees. The cultural significance of honeybees in ancient times is reflected in the repeated association of honey with the gods. Today it's a term of endearment so prevalent, most of us who use it rarely even think of the literal meaning of "my honey."
Reportedly up to 40 people in the United States die from bee stings each year, but most of these are probably stings from yellow jackets and other wasps. Honey bees are relatively docile insects; this investigator has handled them in the field without incident. Experiments in Brazil to develop more productive honeybees have famously resulted in a strain of bees that are far more aggressive. "Africanized" or "killer" bees are those descendants of these honeybees that exhibit the behavioral traits of being more likely to sting an intruder and much more likely to pursue an intruder. These traits seem to be spreading northward from the original Brazilian population, making apiarists and apiphobes in North America quite nervous. Apparently, adding insult to injury, Africanized bees produce much less honey than other honeybees.