Apis dorsata, the giant honey bee, is a honey bee of southern and southeastern Asia mainly in forested areas like the Terai of Nepal. The subspecies with the largest individuals is the Himalayan cliff honey bee — Apis dorsata laboriosa — but typical Apis dorsata workers from other subspecies are around 17–20 millimetres (0.7–0.8 in) long.
Nests are mainly built in exposed places far off the ground, on tree limbs and under cliff overhangs, and sometimes on buildings. Apis dorsata is a defensive bee and has never been domesticated (as it does not use enclosed cavities for nesting). Each colony consists of a single vertical comb (sometimes approaching a square metre) suspended from above, and the comb is typically covered by a dense mass of bees in several layers. When disturbed, the workers may exhibit a defensive behavior known as defense waving. Bees in the outer layer thrust their abdomens ninety degrees in an upward direction and shake them in a synchronous way. This may be accompanied by stroking of the wings. The signal is transmitted to nearby workers that also adopt the posture, thus creating a visible — and audible — "ripple" effect across the face of the comb, in an almost identical manner to an audience wave at a crowded stadium.
These bees are tropical and in most places they migrate seasonally. Some recent evidence indicates that the bees return to the same nest site, even though most, if not all, of the original workers might be replaced in the process. The mechanism of memory retention remains a mystery.
- Apis dorsata dorsata; primarily from India
- Apis dorsata binghami Cockerell; from Malaysia and Indonesia
- Apis dorsata breviligula Maa; from the Philippines
- Apis dorsata laboriosa Fabricius; (Himalayan cliff honey bee), also in Myanmar, Laos, and southern China
The latter is not distinct morphologically from the nominate, but has different housekeeping and swarming behavior, allowing it to survive at high altitudes. In addition, there has been little gene flow between it and A. dorsata for millions of years; accordingly, some argue that it should be classified as a species. Likewise, the southeastern taxon binghami seems also to be distinct. The limits of their ranges in Indochina and the possible distinctness of the geographically distant Philippines population require more study. However, the use of the taxonomic rank of "subspecies" is typical for geographically discrete populations, so the difference in opinion here is whether or not to recognize the rank of subspecies or not (i.e., no one is disputing that they are distinct lineages, the dispute is over whether to call them "species").
In some Melaleuca forests of southern Vietnam, people use a traditional method of collecting honey and wax from Apis dorsata colonies. This method of “rafter beekeeping” was first reported in 1902 by Fougères
According to Vietnamese sociologists, in the early 19th century honey hunting or raftering was the most important occupation of the people who lived in the Melaleuca forest swamp. At that time people paid taxes to the government in exchange for living in the forest. Beeswax was used to pay tax and for making candles and was sold to visiting ships from Hainan, China.
Between 1945 and 1975 the forests were devastated first by wars, and then by forest clearing for wood and agricultural purposes. As a consequence rafter beekeeping dramatically decreased in the area. The technique is still used today at the state farm of Song Trem in Uminh forest, South Vietnam. According to a survey, there are about 96 beekeepers in the area. In 1991, they harvested 16,608 litres of honey and 747 kilograms of wax.
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- Maria C. Arias & Walter S. Sheppard (2005). "Phylogenetic relationships of honey bees (Hymenoptera:Apinae:Apini) inferred from nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence data". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37 (1): 25–35. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2005.02.017. PMID 16182149.
Maria C. Arias & Walter S. Sheppard (2005). "Corrigendum to "Phylogenetic relationships of honey bees (Hymenoptera:Apinae:Apini) inferred from nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence data" [Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 37 (2005) 25–35]". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 40 (1): 315. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2006.02.002.
- Fougères, M. (1902). Rapport sur l’apiculture coloniale. III Congrès Internationale l’apiculture pp. 53-58.
- Dau, Nguyen Dinh. 1992. Personal communication.
- Son Nam. 1993. (reprint) Dat Gia dinh xua (The ancient Southern part). Ho Chi Minh City Publishing House, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
- Phung Huu Chinh, Nguyen Hung Minh, Pham Hong Thai and Nguyen Quang Tan (1995). Rafter Beekeeping in Melaleuca Forests in Vietnam. Bees for Development Journal 36 pp. 8-9.