bee biology

Honey bee mandibles have many uses


If hamburgers were designed for honey bees, they would need to be served like coins standing on edge. A burger on edge would roll off the table and fall apart—the reason bees seldom order them. While most animals have a jaw that moves up and down, honey bee mandibles (like those of many insects) move from side to side.

The mandibles are found on either side of the honey bee mouth and can be extended or folded close to the body, depending on what the bee is doing.

Bees sting and they bite

Whether honey bee mandibles are scary depends on who you are. While we seldom think of honey bees biting, their mandibles are sharp and flexible. To a human, the bite of the honey bee pales in comparison to its sting, but if they latch onto an area of sensitive skin, you can definitely feel it.

On the other hand, if you are an insect, the bite of the honey bee can be fierce. They can clamp on with enough force to kill or maim an enemy. Honey bees have been known to bite wasps, mites, moths, beetles, spiders, and even other honey bees.

Honey bee mandibles are all-in-one tools

Like one of those fold-up multipurpose pocket tools, honey bee mandibles are used for anything that requires cutting, grasping, or squeezing. For example:

  •  Cutting itself out of the brood cell
  •  Working wax scales into honeycomb
  •  Carrying dead bees from inside the hive
  •  Removing detritus from the hive, including wood chips, paper, or cardboard left by the beekeeper
  •  Fighting
  •  Carving pieces of bee bread from storage inside the hive
  •  Delivering food to larvae
  •  Grooming themselves and the queen
  •  Cutting drones from their cells and helping them emerge
  •  Tearing down unused queen cells
  •  Moving wax from one area of the hive to another
  •  Working propolis into hive cracks and crevices
  •  Biting flower petals, if possible, to access pollen or nectar*
  •  Chewing wood to enlarge an entrance*

*It should be noted that the mandibles of workers have sharp edges, but the muscles attached to the mandibles have limited strength. Biting through tough objects—such as flower petals or fruit skin—is not something honey bee workers normally do. However, if the petal is delicate or the fruit is very ripe, workers will occasionally penetrate these with their mandibles. Likewise, chewing an entrance opening is the long and arduous work of many bees over a long period. It is not something they do with ease.

The mandibles of drones and queens are different from those of the workers. Each type of bee has a set of mandibles designed to perform specific tasks, but the worker mandibles are the largest and and most adaptable.

Honey Bee Suite


Here you can see the honey bee proboscis emerging between her two mandibles while she gathers water from the surface of a bellflower. The mandibles help to guide and stabilize the extended proboscis while the honey bee gathers nectar or water. © Rusty Burlew.

Edges of reducer chewed and rounded.

The honey bees decided to modify this entrance reducer which had sharp clean edges when I installed it. By spring, it was significantly worn—carved by strong mandibles. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Rusty, that first photo of the bee with proboscis extended is fantastic! What a shot! (oh, and thanks for increasing my knowledge of honey bees, as your articles always do.)

  • In the spring where I have my hives, red ants bother the bee hives. I am not sure what they do to the bees but I think they like the honey. I know they go to the sugar water. What is the best way kill red ants safely or somehow keep them away from the beehives?

    Jeff D

  • Before hive check last week, we watched 2 workers on the landing board trying to pull a yellowjacket in two by their mandibles. If it had not gotten intimidated and left, it appears they would have succeeded.

    One beekeeper friend is blessed with a huge old catalpa tree. She informed me the bees can’t get into the complex folded blossom from the top, so they chew a hole at the base to reach the nectar.

    I plan to find a dead bee and get a closer look at the mandibles under the microscope.

    Thanks for a fascinating piece.
    Corinth, Northern Kentucky

  • Great info and photos,
    Did you know? Mandibila in Italian means; Jaw, and proboscida, means/used for an Elephant’s trunk.
    Thanks much
    Ciao from Italy

  • Very interesting informative information, thanks for sharing. Yesterday observed a bee trying to break flower tube with jaws and was searching for bee information.

    What is the best book for bees?

    Narendra Bhagwat

    • Narendra,

      I can’t tell from your question if you mean bees in general or honey bees in particular. The best book depends on what you’re trying to learn.

  • I have a bird feeder pole. One of my feeders is a tray that contains raisins. I took it down to add more raisins and found two honey bees. I was able to get a picture of one. The other bee flew off.

  • I was in the garden taking pictures a few days ago and I saw a honeybee fly into the foliage of my mulberry bush. I thought too myself: “A little late! The fruit is already starting to ripen.” Then, I zoomed in and saw a honeybee doing … what?! I’ve never read about this kind of behavior. It seems to be licking the stem of the mulberry? I wondered if there were a pest or some pollen trapped on the stem, but I could find no evidence of either. Anyone know what’s going on here?

    • John,

      Honey bees collect waxes and resins from the leaves, stems, and bark of plants to make propolis. They chew the resins and add saliva. Since plant resins are often antibacterial, this substance protects the colony from some types of disease.

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