It’s believed honey bees originated in South and Southeast Asia. All but one (the common honey be found in Australia scientifically known as Apis mellifera) of the species are native to that region. Notably, living representatives of the earliest lineages to diverge (Apis florea and Apis andreniformis) have their centre of origin there.
Fossils found of the Apis bees are dated back to in the fossil record at the Eocene–Oligocene boundary (23–56 Mya), in European deposits. The origin of these prehistoric honey bees does not necessarily indicate Europe as the place of origin of the genus, only that it occurred there then. A few fossil deposits are known from South Asia, the suspected region of honey bee origin, and fewer still have been thoroughly studied.
No Apis species existed in the New World during human times before the introduction of A. mellifera by Europeans. Only one fossil species is documented from the New World, Apis nearctica, known from a single 14 million year old specimen from Nevada, USA.
The close relatives of modern honey bees, bumblebees and stingless bees, are also social to some degree, and social behaviour seems a n historic trait that predates the origin of the genus. Among the extant members of Apis, the more basal species make single, exposed combs, while the more recently evolved species nest in cavities and have multiple combs, which has greatly facilitated their domestication.
Most species have historically been cultured or at least exploited for honey and beeswax by humans indigenous to their native ranges. Only two of these species have been truly domesticated, one (A. mellifera) at least since the time of the building of the Egyptian pyramids, and only that species has been moved extensively beyond its native range.
A LITTLE BIT OF LOCAL BEE HISTORY, PUBLISHED MORE THAN 100 YEARS AGO IN SYDNEY
BEE CULTURE. (BY E. E. ABRAM.)
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 14 August 1914
Whilst the Apis Mellifira, that is the honey-gathering bee which is now distributed in all five continents, deserves our special attention, it may be instructive to know that there are several other species of bees, such as the large wasp-shaped South Asiatic bee, (Apis dorsota), the Indian bee (Apis Indica),which is considerably smaller than our common bee, and the still smaller South Indian bee.
Besides these there are the Apisincliphone, and the Apis trigone, but these are separate species and of no value commercially. Nor are the others of much value In that respect. Apis dorsota is un-doubtedly a good honey gatherer, but It appears to be impossible to domesticate them. No matter how often attempts have been made to do so they failed. They build usually one comb only, often five to six feet square, and of considerable thickness, and they fill it with honey—if honey is obtainable. They build either underneath a branch of a high tree or under a rock. Turning our attention to our domesticated honey bee we find a large variation as to colour and characteristics. The North European bee is undoubtedly the original kind. It is of a brown appearance, sometimes shading into dark and almost black.
But there is another standard race, namely, the yellow banded Egyptian bee, which is the most marked. Between those two there are a number of varieties, namely the heather bee, which is most inclined to swarm; the Carniolian bee, also a swarming bee, but very gentle; the Italian bee, often named the Ligurian; the Cyprian bee, which is yellow marked, but rather difficult to handle, even with much smoke. Besides, there are various varieties, such as the Cyprian, Caurasion, Palestine, Syrian,etc. But for the best qualities combined, there is none surpassing the Italians or Ligurians. Nothing was known of this bee outside its locality until in 1854, the Rev. Dr. Dzirzon imported a few colonies from Italy, not so much for the purpose of testing their good qualities, but as an experiment to prove his theories then in dispute. He soon discovered that the Italian bee possessed qualities superior to the German bee in the gathering of honey, and this brought about quite a revolution in the bee industry, and brought the Italian bee to the front, so much so, that now this bee is considered by all energetic beekeepers in all lands as the best.
The Italian bee shows three segments of its abdomen, from the thorax, yellow-banded, and if all bees have equal markings, it is considered a pure stock. The queens reared from these are fairly evenly marked, though a slight variation in colour will occur, some inclining to be darker than others; but, though less yellow than their sisters, if they meet with a pure drone in their marriage flight, their progeny will be pure. These characteristics are:—Gentleness in handling them carefully, the best honey gatherers; almost non swarmers; protectors of their home against robber bees; and defenders against the troublesome wax moth, which often plays havoc with the black bees. Is it then any wonder, therefore, that this bee has reached the high reputation it now holds? There is one serious drawback in rearing them pure in districts where the brown bee predominates, as the latter has a habit of rearing a large number of drones; where as the Italians rear few, and thus there is every chance of the virgin Italian queen meeting with a black drone on her marriage flight, which always takes place in the open. The progeny would not be pure, but a cross-hybrid between the two; some of the bees would be like the Italians, others like the brown bee. This first cross, however, prove generally excellent honey gatherers; the only disadvantage is that they often are rather vicious, and thus difficult to handle. The drones from such mismated queens are, however, considered pure, and thus an advantage is gained in this respect. Should, however, a virgin queen from a mismated one again meet with a black drone, the majority of bees will be black and show the characteristics of same. It is, therefore, not the easiest matter to breed pure stock under such circumstances, and fresh importation of pure blood is essential year by year, till the Italians pre-dominate.
To assist in this matter there are now, fortunately, beekeepers devoting almost their whole time to rearing pure stock and supplying them at a very reasonable price to those in need of pure blood. Queen rearing is an art that can only be acquired by years of careful study and practice, and, at the best, it is not a lucrative occupation, as there are many difficulties to contend with, such as failure of the honey flow, strong winds, etc. It is also necessary to obtain good stock to deal with those only who know their business thoroughly in the breeding of pure stocks. These do not constantly breed from their possessed strain, but, in order to refresh the blood, they import occasionally new queens from Italy, which is undoubtedly the home of the farmer’s bee. Thus the purchasers reap the benefit which otherwise could not be attained. With bees, as all else, continuous in-breeding proves disastrous.