An Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) established around Cairns that will compete with native pollinating insects and birds if it spreads widely.
On this Asian honeybee the distinctive hindwing venation can be seen. Photo: Peter Chen | CC BY-SA 4.0
To the untrained eye the Asian honeybee is not easy to distinguish from the common European honeybees in Australia. It is slightly smaller and not as hairy.
The pale bands on the abdomen are pale yellow and regular and prominent. There are more than three of them.
One vein in the hindwing is different (see illustration). Put technically, the wing has a distal abscissa of vein M, which the European honeybee lacks.
The hindwings of a European and Asian honeybee. Photo: Ken Walker, Museums Victoria, PaDIL
Asian honeybees fly faster.
When swarming, they move in very tight clusters that vary from the size of a closed hand to that of a basketball. The swarms often land on fences, trees and other structures.
They nest in smaller cavities than European honeybees, and unlike the latter they readily nest in human-created spaces such as letter boxes, pot plants, weep holes in walls, compost bins and stationary vehicles. They readily nest near the ground.
When a bee approaches the nest it flies straight in rather than landing at the entrance and crawling in as European honeybees do.
To anyone very familiar with European honeybees the difference in size and banding are noticeable, and it is the difference in hindwing venation that serves as proof.
Asian honeybees might be confused with red dwarf honeybees, which are not (yet) established in Australia.
More close-up images of Asian honeybees can be found on the PaDIL website.
Asian honeybees showing the regular banding. Photo Denis Anderson, CSIRO | CC BY 3.0
An Asian honeybee alongside a European and giant honeybee. Photo: Ken Walker, Museums Victoria, PaDIL
Worker bees are about 10 millimetres long. Their forewings are 7.5-9 millimetres long.
European honeybees are 11.5-13 millimetres long, with forewings 8-10 millimetres long. The abdomen has pale bands but these are not neat or pale yellow and there are seldom more than three. The hind wings lack a distal abscissa of vein M.
European honeybee showing less regular abdomen banding. Photo by Fir0002
A European honeybee with only three pale bands, which are untidy along one edge. Photo: John Severns
Behaviour and location
Asian honeybees visit a wide range of flowers, including those of garden plants and weeds. Favoured flowers in north Queensland include those of sensitive weed (Mimosa pudica), golden cane palm (Dypsis lutescens), weeping teatree (Leptospermum brachyandrum), Singapore daisy (Sphagneticola trilobata), bottlebrush (Callistemon species), morning star (Turnera subulata), mad hatter (Cuphea sp.), coral vine (Antigonon species) and lychee (Litchi chinensis). They are more restless on blossoms than European honeybees, and unlike them they will visit flowers during rain.
Asian honeybees are especially noticeable when a swarm with a queen leaves an existing nest to found a new colony, or the existing colony relocates. Swarms may come to rest on the branches of shrubs and trees or on fences, machinery, letterboxes, light poles, rubbish bins, street signs, window sills, bridges, buildings and stationary vehicles. A swarm can contain anywhere between 100 and 8000 bees.
Asian honeybees could turn up anywhere in Australia, but especially near an international port. They are unlikely to survive in arid outback locations or in very cold regions. The occur naturally as far north as Japan, indicating more tolerance for cold than giant honeybees and red dwarf honeybees.
The bees devote themselves to particular flowering plants at which you may be able to capture one with a net, or by lowering a jar or thick plastic bag over one while it is probing a flower. These bees are not highly aggressive at flowers but they can sting, so be careful.
Do not try to capture one at a hive, because the risk of serious stinging is much higher (although Asian honeybees aren’t as aggressive at the hive as European honeybees).
A bee that is captured can be killed in the freezer and photographed. Alternatively, you may be able to kill one by spraying it with a knockdown aerosol insecticide. A photo from a smartphone should be good enough to rule out misidentification.
Who to tell
Think you’ve found Asian honeybees?
Asian honeybees are well established in north Queensland, so the appropriate response will depend on where in Australia you are. If you suspect you have found them, and you live in north Queensland between Cape Tribulation and Cardwell, or on the Atherton Tableland, you should heed the advice on this Queensland Government website.
Elsewhere in Australia you should phone the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline: 1800 084 881. You will be put in touch with the Department of Primary Industries or Agriculture in your state or territory. Do not contact us unless the response you receive is unsatisfactory, in which case you should email us via our contact form.
Asian honey bees have broad floral appetites and will compete for pollen and nectar with native birds, mammals and insects, and compete for nesting sites in tree crevices, as European honeybees do. In Asia they often exclude other pollinators by swamping flowers, and this has been seen in north Queensland. They are likely to suppress native pollinators, become pollen robbers, reduce seed production, and alter the genetic structure of plant populations. In north Queensland they have been observed robbing and destroying the nest of native stingless bees (Trigona species). A nest of sugar ants (Camponotus species) was also robbed.
Australia’s beekeepers don’t want Asian honeybees because these will compete with their bees for nectar, reducing hive yields, and spread diseases and parasites. Asian honeybees are renowned for robbing European honeybee hives of their nectar and pollen, sometimes leading to colony death. When they dominate a floral resource it is not visited by European honeybees. Asian honeybees carrying varroa mites dreaded by the honey industry were detected in Townsville in June 2016 and destroyed. Several million dollars have been spent controlling these bees in Queensland.
Honeybee stings can cause anaphylactic reactions in susceptible people. These bees are more likely to nest close to people than European honeybees because of their willingness to use letterboxes, bins and wall cavities.
Asian honeybees are frequently detected at Australia’s ports so there is a high risk of them establishing in Brisbane, Sydney and other temperate locations. They have become invasive in New Guinea and The Solomons as well as north Queensland.
- The Invasive Species Council has been critical of the poorly funded attempt to eradicate this bee: Biosecurity failures – Asian honey bees
- The failed eradication was subject to a senate inquiry.
- The Australian government is concerned about this species bringing pests of honeybees into Australia: Status of the Asian honey bee in mainland Australia.
- Queensland Government: Identifying Asian honey bees.