Giant honey bees are the largest of the honey bee species. The Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) is very large (17–20 mm long) however their colour is quite similar to the European honey bee, with golden, black and pale bands on the abdomen and with a hairy thorax. Their forewing length can vary from between 12.5–14.5 mm. The Giant honey bee is widely distributed throughout south-east Asia, ranging from the Indian subcontinent, up to southern China and down throughout Indonesia and Malaysia.
There are two closely related species to A. dorsata. This includes the slightly larger Giant Himalayan honey bee (Apis laboriosa) which is only present in the mountainous regions, particularly the Himalayas above 1500 m. The other closely related species is the Giant Philippine honey bee (Apis breviligula) which is restricted to a small cluster of islands in the Philippines.
The nests of giant honey bees are large single combs which can measure up to 1.5 m in width and 1 m in depth. This large single comb can contain upwards of 60,000 bees. Unlike dwarf honey bees or cavity nesting honey bee species, colonies of giant honey bees can be highly clustered in a specific location, with some trees in Asia (termed ‘bee trees’) containing multiple nests in a single tree, sometimes up to 50 nests.
Giant honey bee nests are usually built in exposed places far off the ground, sometimes 20–40 m high on thick branches of tree limbs, overhanging rocks or cliffs, or on buildings or other man-made structures. The key difference between dwarf honey bees and giant honey bees, apart from their nest size, is that giant honey bee nests hang underneath a structure such as a branch, whereas dwarf honey bee nests are wrapped around a structure such as a branch. Giant honey bee colonies can be quite aggressive, and because of this, around three quarters of the population of a giant honey bee colony are engaged in colony defense, forming a protective curtain around the nest that is three to four bees thick.
Giant honey bees are mainly tropical and in most places they migrate seasonally. Colonies are capable of migrating great distances, sometimes up to 200 km, as they follow the wet and dry seasons. Colonies will travel for many months, resting in trees along the way, building combs and honey reserves and then moving on to new locations as the forage decreases, before setting up new nests for the mass flowering of the monsoon season. Some evidence suggests that the bees are capable of returning to the same nest sites as previous years, even though all of the original bees in the process may be replaced. This mechanism of memory retention within the honey bee colony remains a mystery.
One of the major risks if giant honey bees were to enter Australia is the exotic parasitic mites that nests or swarms may carry. All species of the giant honey bee are parasitised by Tropilaelaps mites (Tropilaelaps clareae, T. mercedesae, T. thaii and T. koenigerum). Not all of the Tropilaelaps mites can parasite all giant honey bee species as some of the mite and host relationships can be quite specific. However, both T. clareae and T. mercedesae are capable of parasitising European honey bees (Apis mellifera) as well, which can cause rapid colony decline and possible death. For these reasons, parasitic mites such as Tropilaelaps sp pose a constant threat to Australia’s honey bee population.
Giant honey bees, and parasitic mites such as Tropilaelaps sp, are currently not present in Australia and there are strict quarantine requirements in place to protect the Australian honey bee industry. Surveillance programs, such as the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program are also in place in high risk ports to detect these pests if they do enter Australia so there will be a better chance of eradicating them.
If you think you have seen Giant honey bees, call your local department of agriculture or the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline on 1800 084 881.
B Oldroyd and S Wongsiri (2006) Asian honey bees: biology, conservation and human interactions. Harvard University Press
HR Hepburn and SE Radloff (2011) Honeybees of Asia. Springer