infrequently asked questions

Classification of western honey bees


Below is the scientific classification of western honey bees as it now stands:

  • Kingdom:  Animalia
  • Phylum:  Arthropoda
  • Subphylum:  Uniramia
  • Class:  Insecta
  • Order:  Hymenoptera
  • Suborder:  Apocrita
  • Superfamily:  Apoidea
  • Family:  Apidae
  • Subfamily:  Apinae
  • Tribe:  Apini
  • Genus:  Apis
  • Subgenus: Apis
  • Species: A. mellifera

Subspecies: A. m. carnica (Carniolan)
Subspecies: A. m. caucasica (Caucasian)
Subspecies: A. m. ligustica (Italian)
Subspecies: A. m. mellifera (European dark)

I’ve listed the subspecies most often kept for commercial purposes, all four of which originated in Europe. However, there are many, many subspecies of Apis mellifera native to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Two that frequently make the news are A. m. scutellata, the African honey bee, and A. m. capensis, the cape honey bee also from Africa.

Subspecies are confusing

The subspecies are confusing and difficult to distinguish, partly due to the fact that mankind has been manipulating honey bee populations throughout human history. There are many crosses, lines, and strains with their own names, but which freely cross with other Apis mellifera bees. Examples of such lines are the Buckfast (a cross between European dark and Italian bees) and the Russian (a strain of Carniolan bees).

In recent times, the Caucasian bee has fallen out of favor because of its excessive (by human standards) use of propolis in the hive. The European black bee is known for stinging without provocation and so is less often kept than it used to be. Historically, the different subspecies and lines were evaluated for honey production and overwintering ability. Now, however, these different genetic pools are being evaluated for their ability to withstand diseases, parasites, and other environmental stressors. Every last strain is important because it may contain a gene that will save the species. You never know.

History of the name

Although the honey bee was named by Linnaeus, the father of the binomial system of nomenclature, after a time he realized the name was not accurate. The honey bee isn’t a honey carrier (mellifera) but a honey maker (mellifica). He tried to change it, but his own system, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, prevented him from doing so. The rules say the first name is the right name. Still, you will sometimes see older texts refer to the synonym, Apis mellifica.

Honey Bee Suite


  • I think the honey bee is in the subphylum of Hexapoda in stead of the Uniramia subfamily. Can you check this out?

    • Hi Bill,

      My source (Manton) confirms that the phylum Arthropoda is divided into three subphyla: Uniramia, Crustacea, and Chelicerata. The subphylum Uniramia is divided into three classes: Onychophora (velvet worms), Hexapoda (insects), and Myriapoda (‘pedes, both centi- and milli-). However, other sources list Hexapoda as a subphylum rather than a class. With the advent of DNA analysis, taxonomic classifications were thrown into a tizzy and I’m sure the confusion isn’t over. The animals are the same, only the words have changed.

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