Apis laboriosa, the Himalayan giant honey bee, is the world’s largest honey bee; single adults can measure up to 3.0 cm (1.2 in) in length.

Before 1980, Apis laboriosa was considered to be a subspecies of the widespread Apis dorsata, the giant honey bee, but in 1980 and for almost 20 years thereafter it was elevated to the rank of a separate species.

It was classified once again as a subspecies of Apis dorsata by Engel in 1999, but was confirmed as a full species in 2020 on the basis of co-occurrence with Apis dorsata at many sites with no sign of interbreeding.

It is highly adapted to its highland habitat in behavior.

Taxonomy

Recent research has removed laboriosa from inclusion within A. dorsata, as a separate species, with supporting evidence including a significant region of sympatry.

A. laboriosa is hardly distinct morphologically from the nominate subspecies of dorsata (darker abdomen, longer thoracic hair) but has different housekeeping and swarming behavior, allowing it to survive at high altitudes.

In addition, little gene flow has occurred between A. dorsata and A. laboriosa for millions of years; accordingly, some authors have previously classified it as a distinct species.

Distribution

Limited largely to the Himalayas, it is the largest Apis. It is found in the mountainous regions of Bhutan, the Chinese province of Yunnan, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

It mostly nests at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,000 m (8,200 and 9,800 ft), building very large nests under overhangs on the southwestern faces of vertical cliffs.

One nest can contain as much as 60 kg (130 lb) of honey. The bees forage at altitudes of up to 4,100 m (13,500 ft). Due to its peculiar nesting behavior, the Himalayan giant honey bee is also referred to as the Himalayan cliff honey bee.

The term “Himalayan honey bee” is sometimes used more informally for any of the four types of honey bees that are found in the Himalayan region; Apis ceranaApis floreaApis dorsata and Apis laboriosa.

Cultural significance

There are three different types of Apis laboriosa honey: spring or red honey that is created from flowers at higher altitudes, spring honey created from flowers at mid and lower altitudes, and autumn honey is created from any site.

Red honey has an intoxicating effect and various relaxing qualities that decrease over storage. It is not consumed locally as it is valuable, and honey hunters prefer to sell it at a high price.

As hive bees are not kept at such high altitudes, Apis laboriosa is the only bee to produce this honey. The wholesale price of the red honey is about five times the price of regular honey from Apis mellifera or Apis cerana and large amounts of it are exported from Nepal to Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong.

The red honey is prized for its purported medicinal value and intoxicating qualities which are attributed to the grayanotoxin present in the nectar collected from white rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.).

The Gurung people in Nepal are renowned for their use of this mad honey, both for its medicinal and hallucinogenic properties.

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