The red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea) from Asia, often intercepted at Australia’s ports, will compete with native pollinating insects and birds.
Photo: Gideon Pisanty | CC BY 3.0
The red dwarf honeybee resembles the common honeybees found in Australia, but is noticeably smaller, with other differences.
- The upper third of the abdomen is reddish-brown.
- The rest of the abdomen has sharply defined black and white bands.
- The front of the body (the head and thorax) is black with white hairs.
- The hives are constructed in the open, suspended from a branch or building, not hidden in something hollow. The hives are small, usually less than 25 centimetres wide, consisting only of a single comb.
Close-up images of dwarf honeybees are available from the PaDIL website.
Red dwarf honey bee. Photo: Shyamal | CC0 1.0
Worker bees are 7–10 millimetres long. The forewing is 6-7 millimetres long.
Behaviour and location
Dwarf honeybees resemble European honeybees by visiting a wide range of flowers, including those of garden plants and weeds such as lantana.
The hive of A. florea is usually a single comb built around low tree branches and surrounded by shrubby vegetation. The bees are careful to select shaded nesting sites, hidden in dense thickets to minimize detection by predators. In Egypt they are known to use eucalypt trees.
The photo below shows a very young nest, as it might look if dwarf bees were newly established in Australia.
Dwarf honeybees hive. Photo: Oshadhi Jayasena | CC BY-SA 4.0
The common honeybee (shown below) can have black and whitish bands on the abdomen but these are not as neat and sharply defined. The thorax is pale or dark brown with hairs that are pale brown not white. Worker bees are 11.5-13 millimetres long, with forewings that are 8-10 millimetres long. The hive is inside a box, tree trunk or other cavity.
Common honeybee. Photo: Fir0002 | GNU Free Documentation License 1.2
Common honeybee. Photo: John Severns
If the bees are regularly attending flowers you may be able to take a photo of one that shows key diagnostic features such as the abdomen pattern. Or you may be able to capture one with a net, or in a jar or thick plastic bag lowered over a bee while it is probing a flower.
These bees are not highly aggressive at flowers but they can sting so be careful. 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 for identification.
Who to tell
Think you’ve found red dwarf honey bees?
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.
European honeybees have immense wild populations in Australia which are believed to compete with native insects and birds for nectar and pollen. They are often the dominant visitors to native flowers, greatly outnumbering all native floral visitors, suggesting their impacts are substantial. The red dwarf honeybee could become another abundant introduced bee that competes with native visitors to flowers. It has been intercepted at Australia’s borders on many occasions, including in November 2020 when a nest with a queen was found on a shipping container at Brisbane’s port.
This species could survive across much of Australia, given that it survives overseas in places as divergent as Arabia and Java. It is widespread in Asia, with a natural distribution thought to extend from eastern Iraq across to southern China and south to Sri Lanka and the Thai-Malaysian border. Because of human transportation it has become established in the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Java and Taiwan. The Sudan population has expanded into Egypt and Eritrea, and the Arabian population has spread to Yemen, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. The bees have also spread by themselves southwards into Malaysia, apparently benefiting from deforestation, reaching Singapore in 2012.
Australia’s beekeepers want Asian honeybee species kept out of Australia because these will compete with European honeybees, reducing hive yields. Red dwarf honeybees sometimes rob the hives of European honeybees. In India they have been seen entering the hives in very large numbers (200 per minute) to remove the contents. Although smaller than European honeybees they beat them in combat, killing large numbers during raids.
- Queensland Government alert: Red dwarf honeybee.
- BeeAware: Dwarf honey bees.
- ResearchGate: The territorial invasion of Apis florea in Africa.