The Burning Bee

Kelly’s Field Notes

Common Name: Japanese honey bee

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Apidae

Genus: Apis

Species: cerana (subspecies japonica)


The Japanese honey bee is a subspecies of the eastern honey bee Apis cerana. In Japanese they are called Nihon mitsubachi which translates to “Japanese honeybee” in English. These bees originally came from the Korean peninsula and are found everywhere in Japan except for Hokkaido, Okinawa, and smaller isolated islands.. Japanese honey bees look a lot like our western honeybee (Apis mellifera) but are more black and about 20% smaller (10-13mm in length or 0.4-0.5 in). They are less likely to sting than the western honeybee and are less productive in honey production. They are also more resistant to cold weather than their western cousins.

Japanese honeybees live in colonies that are about half as large as western honeybees, with one colony containing a few thousand to 20,000 bees. They nest in hollow trees, houses, and Japanese-style graves. Like western honeybees, they “waggle dance” to share the location of food sources with their colony mates, but dancing is also an alarm for intruders! Specifically as a warning for the Asian giant wasp (Vespa mandarinia japonica). Guard bees will dance a signal that workers need to collect Nepalese smartweed (Persicaria nepalensis). This weed is offensive to the hornet, so to keep them out workers will smear this sticky plant material all over the entrance of their nests.

If the wasps make it into the hive, the honeybees protect their colonies from the Asian giant hornet by forming bee balls and cooking their foe (see Super Powers), but do give the courtesy of a warning before attacking by waving their abdomens back and forth to let the hornet know it has been seen.

Life Cycle:

Honey bees in general belong to a caste system that consists of queens, workers, and drones. Hives will have one queen who is responsible for laying all of the eggs for the colony, though some colonies will have more than one queen. During a supersedure (the replacement of an old queen by a new queen) there will be two for a brief time. During that overlap period the old queen is killed. If a queen dies suddenly several larvae will be fed royal jelly (the food that makes queens) and the first to emerge will find the others and kill them. One queen to rule them all!

Once a queen is established it’s time to produce fertile eggs, this is where the drones come in. Drones are the males of the colony and their only purpose is to mate with a virgin queen of another hive. Drones make up about 20% of the hive and do nothing but eat and wait. The queen releases a pheromone called “the queen’s scent” which attracts the drones to swarm around her. They mate in mid flight, then the males die immediately after and the queen stores their sperm in her spermatheca. Because she can store the sperm she only needs to attend one mating flight during her lifetime. She will then be capable of laying millions of eggs. On average, queens lay around 2,000 eggs a day during warmer months, but this number can vary by temperature and food availability.

The queen lays her eggs within individual honeycomb cells; fertilized eggs become sterile female workers and unfertilized eggs become male drones. Honey Bee eggs are about half the size of a grain of rice. Egg laying generally happens within the center of the comb cells while royal jelly and food is stored in the cells on the periphery. It takes about 3 days for the eggs to hatch into larvae. Bees go through complete metamorphosis, as eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults. It takes around 16 days for a queen to go from egg to adult, 21 days for female workers, and 24 days for male drones. Japanese honeybee lifespan is dependent upon the season; Summer bees live for 6-10 weeks, mid-summer bees 5-7 weeks, 5-6 weeks during Spring though this is very dependent upon what part of Japan the bees are found in. For example in Sapporo, Spring bees live 4-5 weeks, Summer bees 3.5-4 weeks, and Autumn bees 7-8.5 weeks.

A note on worker bees, they shift jobs as specific hormones kick in, which is age related. For the first 3 days of a worker bee’s life she is responsible for cleaning cells and making sure they are ready for more eggs. After three days is up she moves on to tending to the larvae. She feeds them and keeps them clean. She will spend about a week doing these tasks, staying for a longer or shorter period of time if the nursery requires more or less attention. After her nursery duties are over she moves on to become a builder, creating new cells and storing food along the periphery. Again, she stays here for about a week before moving on to the most dangerous job a bee can have - forager. A foraging bee is exposed to predators, mites, and other dangers. She will make long flights (up to 4 miles) to secure food for the hive. This job is relegated to older bees who are less valuable overall to the hive. When a bee senses she will die soon she will not return to the hive.

Some insects hibernate (go into diapause) for the winter months, as adults, larvae, pupae, or eggs. Honey bees do not and remain awake and active all winter long within their hives. They must produce about 41kgs (90lbs) of honey during the Summer months to make it through the Winter. They also need to keep the hive warm at around 36°C (97°F). In order to keep their food supplies up all drones are kicked out of the hive and their wings are chewed so they cannot fly back in. Workers will also work themselves to death, significantly shortening their lifespans to keep the hive warm by beating their wings. They only leave the hive to relieve themselves of waste and stay tightly clustered together the colder it gets.

Super Powers:

  • Mite resistant - The Japanese honeybee is resistant to the species of mite commonly found in A. cerana. Mites are a dangerous issue for honeybees in general and have been suggested as one of the many causes of colony collapse disorder.

  • Sick dance moves - Japanese honey bees, like western honey bees, do a “waggle dance” to communicate to their colony mates where to find flowers. Dance moves are also used to alert the colony to invaders.

  • Wing Shimmer - eastern honeybees (A. cerana) coordinate wing moves to cause a shimmering effect, which is very confusing to attacking wasps.

  • Stinger - stingers are one time use for bees because they are barbed and will kill the bee upon attempted removal. But if pushed, Japanese honeybees will sting!

  • Bee Ball - to protect their colony against the very dangerous predator the Asian giant hornet Japanese honey bees form a “bee ball.” They swarm over the hornet’s body covering it (at the expense of some of their lives) and rapidly beat their wings. This movement heats up their flight muscles, just like our own muscles when we exercise. The wing beats heat the hornet to 45.9 °C (114.6 °F). The wing beating also increases the carbon dioxide in the bee ball, which lowers the hornet’s heat tolerance. Between the high levels of CO2 and sweltering heat the hornet doesn’t stand a chance.

  • Wax Creation - honeybees have 8 glands in their abdomen that secrete beeswax, which is converted into carbohydrates from the honey they consume. It takes about 2.72kg (6lb) of honey to make 0.45kg (1lb) of wax.

Japanese honeybees in Culture:

  • Bee keeping is not a large industry in Japan, but the most famous area for beekeeping is the island of Tsushima. The Japanese people have been harvesting honey from wild bees since at least the 600s. Now nearly 95% of Japan's honey is imported.

  • Since the introduction of the western honey bee in 1877 most of Japan’s locally produced honey comes from them and not the Japanese honeybee.

  • In the 1990’s there was a resurgence of hobbyist beekeepers in Japan due to the publication of a few practical manuals, a general interest in biodiversity, and a pop idol group on television keeping bees.

Book Recommendations:

Wilson, Joseph S., and Olivia Messinger Carril. The Bees in Your Backyard. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Documentary recommendations:

  • Buddha, Bees and the Giant Hornet Queen, The BBC Natural World Collection


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Hertzberg, Richie. “Honeybees All Have Different Jobs to Accomplish—Here’s How They Decide Who Is Doing What.” Animals, 4 May 2021,

“How Do Bees Make Wax.” Galway Beekeepers, 29 Jan. 2013,

Kohsaka, Ryo, Mi Sun Park, and Yuta Uchiyama. "Beekeeping and honey production in Japan and South Korea: past and present." Journal of Ethnic Foods 4.2 (2017): 72-79.

Miller, Written By Dylan. “The Butt-Waving of the Japanese Honeybee, and the Dark Promise Contained Within.” Dalhousie University - Open Think, 15 Mar. 2021,

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“The Japanese Honey Bee.” Japan Natural Beekeeping,