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Strictly speaking, bees are insects of the family Apidae which incluedes the honeybees (some Apis spp.) and stingless bees. In this article, we discuss the entire superfamily Apoidea, which includes 9 families of bees and bee-like insects.[1]

All members of Apoidea are adapted to collect nectar and pollen from flowers. The nectar is regurgitated and made into honey, which the adults themselves eat and feed to the larvae (pollen supplies protein and honey carbohydrates). These insects display the full range from completely social to completely solitary.

Honeybees are social insects with important agricultural applications. In addition to acting as pollinators for a large variety of flowering plants, they produce a harvestable surplus of honey, a nutritious foodstuff which has been used since ancient times for its antibacterial and antifungal properties[1], making it a valuable candidate as a food part in a Martian colony. Many of the social stingless bees are also used for these purposes.

African honeybee

Criteria for selecting bees for a planetary colony

Special emphasis will need to be placed on identifying those varieties which have a good compromise between the following goals:

  • Efficient pollinator
    • Targets a broad spectrum of flowers
  • Ease of keeping
    • Low aggression or stingless
    • Ability to harvest honey (if applicable) without destroying hives
    • Simple habitat requirements
  • Ability to survive a long journey in microgravity
  • Resistance to disease
  • Low space requirements
  • High honey production (low priority)


  • Honeybees are sensitive to certain odours, including that of mowed grass, pulled weeds, harvested carrots and especially manure and compost. They may become irritable and prone to sting under such influences.[2]

The stingless bees are less dangerous, but despite the common name some species are capable of stinging.

Varieties of bee

  • Family Apidae
    • Honeybees (Apis spp.) Note that A. dorsata is also sometimes[1] referred to as the Eastern honeybee and there is some confusion as to how many distinct species the honeybees of East Asia should be divided into.
      • The Western honeybee, Apis mellifera, is quite possibly the most studied of all insects[1]. It has the following subspecies of interest:
        • The Italian honeybee, Apis mellifera lingustica, is large with golden yellow stripes and a very mild temper.[2] It is the honeybee most often kept in the USA.[3]
        • The Carniolan honeybee, Apis mellifera carnica, please describe . It is the second most widely kept bee in the USA.[3]
        • The Caucasian honeybee, Apis mellifera caucasica, please describe.
        • The dark European honeybee, Apis mellifera mellifera, is native to the British Isles and adapted to warmer winters and colder summers than the Carniolan, Caucasian and Italian bees. Except under such conditions, it will tend to produce less honey than those breeds.[3]
        • The African honeybee, Apis mellifera scutellata/Apis mellifera adansonii, has a brownish yellow striped abdomen. It is aggressive relative to the European honeybees.[2] The subspecies name A. m. adansonii appears to stem from a misclassification of what is actually A. m. scutellata.
        • The Cape honeybee, Apis mellifera capensis, has an almost completely black abdomen. It has a reputation for aggression, even relative to the African honeybee, although Beyleveld feels that this is unwaranted. Cape honeybees workers have the ability, unique amongst all honeybee workers, to lay eggs which will fully develop into other worker bees.[2]
      • The eastern honeybee, Apis cerana.
      • The giant honeybee, Apis dorsata
    • Meliponula spp. (sometimes known as mopani bees in South Africa) are smaller than honeybees and make their nests in the ground or in tree hollows.[1]
    • Dactylurina spp.
    • Plebeina spp.
    • Hypotrigona spp.
    • Cleptotrigona spp.
    • Melipona spp.
  • Family Halictidae vary from solitary to social.
  • Family Megachilidae are solitary bees with exceptionally large heads.[1]
  • Family Anthophoridae
    • Subfamily Xylocopinae are large (more than 20mm) and the only social bees amongst the Anthophoridae. The females dig communal tunnels and cooperate in protecting them, but each feed their own young.[1]
    • Subfamily Anthophorinae

Gravitational biology

The dance of the honeybee is oriented at the same angle to the vertical as the object of interest is relative to the sun.[1] For example, a food source 20 degrees left of the sun will cause the bee to perform her dance to an angle 20 degrees left of the vertical.

To further complicate matters, the bees keep track of the sun at all times, even when inside the hive or when the sun is hidden behind the earth (at night).[1] As no honeybees have flown in microgravity (to the extent I could determine, please expand if otherwise), there is no data on how they would adapt.


Bumblebees are believed to have the ability to detect, by electric fields, which flowers have recently been visited by other bees.[4] Whether this ability is present in other bees, and whether it is in any way affected by the magnetic fields and radiation involved in space travel, are yet to be determined.

Open issues

  • How large could a self-sustaining colony grow before the need for insect pollinators becomes critical for sufficient food production?
  • Can bees be transported from Earth to Mars, alive?
    • Can bees communicate effectively in microgravity? If not, is it possible to keep the colony alive long enough for interplanetary transport? Are there eusocial bees which are less dependant on this method of communication?
    • Since they must have some sort of internal clock to determine the movements of the sun at night,
      • can bees forage effectively under a different day length?
      • function under an infinite day length (stationary light source)?
    • Since they navigate by light and are attracted to artificial lights in much the same manner as moths (due to the invalid assumption that the distance to the source is infinite), what would be the implication of keeping bees indoors, with no natural light?
  • How great would the dangers to astronauts be if a colony of stinging honeybees were so transported? Or, would a stingless bee be suitable?


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 E. Holm - Inseklopedie van Suider-Afrika 2008. ISBN 978-0-7993-4272-7 pp. 25, 240, 355-356
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 G.P. Beyleveld - Byeboerdery ABC 1980. ISBN 0-627-00024-1 pp. 5, 51-53.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 P. Gregory & C. Waring - Green guides: Keeping bees 2011. ISBN 978-1-84786-985-2 pp. 83, 84
  4. D. Clarke, H. Whitney, G. Sutton & D. Robert - Detection and learning of floral electric fields by bumblebees in Science Express (pre-print). 2013.