The risk of extinction of the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

The Changing Climate is impacting biodiversity and extinction rates at an increasingly and alarmingly rapid rate (Foden et al,2013).The Apis mellifera isn’t on the IUCN Red List, but this species is still at risk from becoming an endangered species from the multiple threats it faces such as pesticides and diseases. The Apis mellifera is a common species in the UK but may decline rapidly due to increasing pressures and recent increases in colony collapse.


The Apis mellifera is one of four species of honey bees on Earth, it is native to Europe and Africa but has been transported across the planet by the exploits of man (Jong et al, 1982). The Apis mellifera is currently distributed across: Africa, Australia, Caribbean, Europe and Northern Asia (excluding China), Middle America, North America, South America, Oceania and Southern Asia (Interagency Taxonomic Information System, 2013). They have a large distribution but do not inhabit tropical Asia where mites that prey on some of the three Asian species of honey bee are most likely responsible for their demise (Jong,1982). The wide and varied distribution of the species indicates a high adaptive capacity, but this does not mean the species is not at risk.


Although Apis mellifera are adaptive and have a large distribution, they are still a sensitive species. The Neonicotinoid pesticides, or Neonics, pose a long term toxic risk to honey bees such as Apis mellifera (Levitt,2010). Neonicotinoid pesticides are a comparatively new group of synthetic chemicals which are used as a coating for agricultural seeds and in pot plants to combat pests, the chemicals spread through the plant and into the pollen and nectar to kill insects which are attacking the plant, but his also affects honey bees feeding on the plant (Levitt,2010). The Neonicotinoid pesticides weaken the insects immune systems and affect honey bees ability to forage and breed, so a hive whose colony have ingested Neonicotinoid pesticides cannot function properly and is most likely to die off (Levitt,2010). In October, 2013 37 million honey bees were discovered dead on a single Canadian farm as a result of poisoning from Neonicotinoid pesticides (TLB Staff,2013). The pesticide poses a large risk and the pesticides can easily be replaced by other chemicals which won’t affect the bees in such a devastating way, but companies like Bayer insist on selling the Neonicotinoid pesticides as it is one of their main products(TLB Staff,2013). The nitro-substituted compounds in the Neonicotinoid pesticides were the most toxic to the honey bees, the Cyano-substituted Neonicotinoids exhibit a much lower toxicity in bees so would be preferable to use (Iwasa et al, 2004).


Apis mellifera is also an exposed species, it faces many threats such as pesticides from farming, and due to its expansive distribution it is likely to experience changes in climate across the globe. An example of its exposure would be its risk from parasites such as mites. There are three groups of mites which are a potential risk to bee colonies: parasites, phoretic mites, and house guests (Jong,1982). There are very few parasitic mite species e.g. Varroa jacobsoni, Acarapis woodi and Topilaelaps clareae but they can cause serious diseases in honey bees such as the deformed wing virus, so they pose a large potential threat to the species. Mites have a large distribution across the globe so pose a large threat to Apis mellifera (Jong, 1982).The species of mite, Varroa jacobsoniwere, is a highly effective transmitter of the deformed wing virus in bees. Adult female mites obtained from honey bee pupae naturally infected with the deformed wing virus have much higher levels of deformed wing virus titers than in their hosts, so the virus potentially can replicate within the Varroa jacobsoniwere adult mites (Bowen-walker et al,1999). For the deformed wing virus to show symptoms in the honey bees it must be present in the pupae above a certain concentration and the level of infection depends if the mites have been feeding on dead or deformed bees with the virus (Bowen-walker et al,1999).

Honey bees posses only one-third as many genes in 17 gene families in insect immunity. Bees have a tendency to be attacked by a limited set of highly coevolved pathogens and has strength of social barriers to disease (Evans et al,2006). Samples of adult honey bees and pupae taken from 36 apiaries in the spring, summer and autumn during 2002 showed that honey bee virus infections occur persistently in the populations despite any symptoms showing, suggesting that the honey bee colony disease outbreaks could be due to environmental factors leading to viral replication in the honey bees (Tentcheva et al,2004).


With the rapidly changing climate, potential sea level rise and increasing temperatures wouldn’t pose a huge threat to the Apis mellifera due to their wide distribution across the planet. Although they may be negatively affected in one area, it is unlikely that in all regions they will face the same threats. Increasing temperatures poses the largest threat from climate change as it threatens to push boundaries of species and potentially will cause an increase in desertification which is a habitat which the honey bee isn’t suited for. Also changes in water tables will cause potential threats as this will cause changes in habitat which may not suit the honey bee. It is hard to predict the affects of climate change on honey bee’s such as the Apis mellifera as there isn’t very much past environmental data to predict future population change, but due to the high adaptive capacity of Apis mellifera it is most likely that the affects to the species would be minimal since they cover such a huge area of land.

Apis mellifera are very exposed to threats, briefly described e.g. parasitic mites (Varroa jacobsoni), disease and pesticides. The species is also very sensitive and are negatively affected by the many threats and pressures they face. Apis mellifera are not highly vulnerable as they have a high adaptive capacity, which can be observed through their wide distribution and adaptive capacity to forest fragmentation. Apis mellifera are at risk, but aren’t likely to go extinct in the near future. The best method of conservation would be to monitor the species and support adaptive responses. The threats will be hard to counter as many are global threats such as the mites, also the threats of disease to the bee colonies will be hard to counter due to the long ranges honey bees travel, so transmission of diseases is hard to stop. A potential risk of losses of colonies would be genetic variability of the species.


Baker,J.. (2009). Apis mellifera photo. Available: Last accessed 17th Dec 2014.

Bowen-Walker,P.,Martin,S., and Gunn,A. (1999). The Transmission of Deformed Wing Virus between Honeybees (Apis melliferaL.) by the Ectoparasitic MiteVarroa jacobsoniOud. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology. 73 (1), 101–106.

Evans, J., Aronstein, K., Chen, Y., Hetru, C.,Imler, J., Jiang,H.,Kanonst,M.,Thompson,G.,Zou,Z. and Hultmark,D. (2006). Immune pathways and defence mechanisms in honey bees Apis mellifera. Insect Molecular Biology. 15 (5), 645–656.

Feinsinger,P. and Aizen,M.. (1994). Habitat Fragmentation, Native Insect Pollinators, and Feral Honey Bees in Argentine ‘Chaco Serrano’ Read More: Applications. 4 (2), 378-392.

Foden WB, Butchart SHM, Stuart SN, Vié J-C, Akçakaya HR, et al. (2013) Identifying the World’s Most Climate Change Vulnerable Species: A Systematic Trait-Based Assessment of all Birds, Amphibians and Corals. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65427. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065427

Hadel. (2014). Apis mellifera photo. Available: Last accessed 17th Dec 2014.

Interagency Taxonomic Information System. (2013). Apis mellifera Linnaeus, 1758. Available: Last accessed 26/11/13.

Iwasa,T.,Motoyama,N., Ambrose,J.and Roe,R. (2004). Mechanism for the differential toxicity of neonicotinoid insecticides in the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Crop protection. 23 (5), 371–378.

Jong,D.,Morse,R. and Eickwort,G. (1982). Mite Pests of Honey Bees.Annual Reviews. 27 (0), 229-252.

Levitt,T.. (2010). Leaked document exposes risks to bees and insects from Bayer pesticide. Available: Last accessed 26/11/1

Schimming, L. (2010). Apis mellifera photo. Available: Last accessed 17th Dec 2014.
Tentcheva,D.,Gauthier,L.,Zappulla,N., Dainat,B.,Cousserans,F.,Colin,M. and Bergoing,M. (2004). Prevalence and Seasonal Variations of Six Bee Viruses in Apis mellifera L. and Varroa destructor Mite Populations in France. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 70 (12), 7185-7191.

TLB Staff. (2013). Don’t Let Bayer Overturn The Ban on Bee-Killing Pesticides. Available: Last accessed 16/11/13.

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  1. Mark Patterson says:

    This article is misinformed and dangerous. Some of your information is incorrect and dangerously misinformed. You are painting the wrong picture of the state of Honey bee survival in the UK and adding to the scaremongering.

    For starters there are no records of colony collapse disorder CCD occurring in the UK. It just does not happen to bees in the UK. America yes but not here. Much of this can be put down to husbandry methods, lack of migratory beekeeping here in the UK and differences in agricultural practices.

    Secondly whilst honey bee colonies are down on pre 1940s numbers they are actually rising in numbers again thanks largely to the resurgence in beekeeping as a hobby. There are some 25000 hobbyist keepers in the UK and growing. Numbers of keepers have actually grown substantially in recent years with demand for training courses exceeding what can be taught by associations.

    Thirdly there are 7 live species of Apis honey bees recognised globally not 4 as you have stated. They are: Apis mellifera, Apis Cerana, Apis dorsata, Apis florea, Apis andreniformis, Apis koshnevinikovi, Apis nigrocincta.

    Your image of the honey bee as an endangered species is not justified, Western Honey bees are the most robust of all the bee species on the planet and are in no way in danger of going extinct. Many of the other wild 20,000+ species of wild bee are however seriously at risk and it is these bees which need to be given attention. Honey bees get all the media attention when they really are not at risk of extinction.

    Mark Patterson

    Forage officer for LBKA and professional ecologist

  2. Guest says:

    Mark Patterson, Thankyou for your enthusiastic response, it is great to see that a keen ecologist has read my article.

    I would dispute the statement that my article is “misinformed and dangerous”, the article may not be as succinct as it should be but it is my first article and in the conclusion I clearly state that Apis mellifera is in fact not going to go extinct “Apis mellifera are at risk, but aren’t likely to go extinct in the near future”.

    It seems your qualms aren’t actually with the article itself but with the fact that honey bee’s are getting more attention in the media than other lesser known species.

    I will admit that I was wrong in stating that there were only four honey bee species, my reference was fairly outdated- Jong et al (1982) and this was my mistake.

    However I feel some of your comments are rather invalid, CCD may not have occurred in the UK but it should still be something we are aware of, especially as this article is focusing on determining whether the species is at risk of extinction, so to merely ignore CCD would seem careless.

    On the same note, the surge in hobbyists is rather irrelevant to determining the risk of extinction so didn’t really factor into my article (although the surge in interest is great!)

    To conclude, I pointed out that Apis mellifera is a sensitive species and faces many pressures but nowhere do I state they will be going extinct, on the contrary I convey that there is a risk of decline as of anything in the biosphere but they are not likely to go extinct.

    In the future I advise a less aggressive approach to responding to articles, we should be nourishing interest in ecology not pushing people away as aggression tends to do.

    Yours Sincerely

    James Hayman

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