Discover the Official South Dakota State Insect
HomeHome > Blog > Discover the Official South Dakota State Insect

Discover the Official South Dakota State Insect

Apr 26, 2023

Enter your email in the box below to get the most mind-blowing animal stories and videos delivered directly to your inbox every day.

The official South Dakota state insect is the European honeybee, Apis mellifera. State legislators formally adopted the animal into the list of official state symbols in 1978 to highlight its importance to South Dakota's agricultural economy. In the state alone, European honeybee colonies produce tens of millions of dollars worth of honey per year. That's tens of millions of pounds of honey — a massive contribution in addition to their role in pollination.

In this article, we’ll put the spotlight on the South Dakota state insect and talk about how these insects live, what they look like, and how they affect the environments they are reared in.


The South Dakota state insect is an incredible animal. These tiny, highly social insects are pollination powerhouses. They are reared by both amateur and commercial beekeepers and are sometimes transported across the country to aid in agricultural pollination efforts. On average, South Dakota normally ranks in the top five states in terms of total quantity of honeybee hives. There are nearly 200 registered beekeepers in the state, and over half of them operate on a commercial scale.

Below, we’ll talk a bit about what these fascinating insects look like, where they came from, and how their highly organized social structure is put together.

The European honeybees that exist in North America are quite diverse. However, they are not native to the continent. Several European subspecies of Apis mellifera such as A. mellifera mellifera and A. mellifera carnica, are present and readily interbreed with members of other subspecies. All of them, except for one, have been present on the continent since the early 1600s with the arrival of European colonists. In the late 1950s, scientists introduced an African subspecies of honeybee, A. mellifera scutellata, to the South American breeding pool in an attempt to improve the performance of European subspecies in the tropics. The African subspecies readily hybridizes with the European subspecies and hybrid feral colonies have since expanded throughout South America and into the southern United States.

Although there are some differences between the subspecies, the European honeybee is easy to identify. They have hairy bodies, two pairs of wings, and a characteristic black-and-yellow-striped abdomen. Their antennae are longer than their heads. Worker bees have specialized pollen baskets, called corbiculae, on their hind legs which they use to carry food back to the hive. Bees of this species are between a half-inch and three-quarters of an inch in length, but overall size varies depending on which role a bee is responsible for in the hive.

©Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/

The state of South Dakota is home to over 200,000 registered beehives. Within each hive, just like in the wild, the honeybee colony works in unison to expand, rear young, and forage food to keep itself going. These animals are so social and cooperative that the entire hive is often considered a single organism. If the hive itself is the organism, then each bee caste represents the organs.

Below, we’ll highlight the castes represented in the hive and describe the critical functions each one performs to keep the whole hive body operating smoothly.

Worker bees are all of the non-queen female bees that are born into the hive. Together, they are responsible for all of the hive's maintenance tasks. Which specific task each worker performs is entirely dependent upon the age of the bee. The youngest worker bees, the moment they emerge from their pupal cell, are responsible for rearing the next generation of bees. From egg to pupa to adult, these bees care for the hive's young until they are ready to join the worker ranks themselves.

As workers age, they transition from caring for the next generation to building the waxy comb structure of the hive. Workers gradually produce waxy scales on their undersides that they use to perform this duty. Workers of middle age also guard the entrance of the hive.

The oldest of all the workers are the ones that people encounter most frequently. They are the bees that leave the hive to forage for pollen and nectar. As these older bees gather pollen in their corbiculae, or pollen baskets, they transfer it from flower to flower, thus pollinating plants that they come into contact with. These elder bees perform the vast majority of the pollinating behavior that the European honeybee is famous for.


The hive's drones are the males of the species. Once per year, the queen lays eggs that will give rise to a group of drones. These drones do not have stingers and cannot even feed themselves without help from the worker caste. Their only role in the life cycle of the hive is to reproduce with newborn queens of neighboring hives. The interbreeding of hives ensures genetic diversity between generations and therefore resilience of future colonies. After mating with a queen, a drone quickly dies. If they do not find a mate, a drone may live, on average, about two months.

The queen bee performs a couple of roles as the head of the hive. She builds the very beginning stages of the hive itself before laying the eggs that will become her first workers. From that point on, she lays eggs and releases hormones that control the balance of the hive. She is the hive's only reproductive female — every worker bee in the hive is sterile.

Around the time that a queen begins to produce drones, she will also direct workers to help in the generation of future queens. New queens begin their life cycle exactly in the same way as workers. The difference in their development comes from their diet. Rather than the normal brood diet containing beebread and honey, workers feed future queens one that consists entirely of royal jelly. It's not entirely clear yet why the royal diet produces queens. Some researchers suspect that, rather than the royal jelly, it's the lack of phytochemicals present in brood feed that causes the change. Others believe that queenliness is driven by the quantity of food fed during development.

The European honeybee is an excellent and very efficient pollinator and aids in the reproduction of not only domesticated plant cultivars but of wild plant species as well.

Worker bees of the species become covered in pollen as they forage. As they travel from flower to flower, they deliver pollen to many plant recipients. Recipients that receive compatible pollen then become fertilized and their reproductive cycle advances.

©Brier Mitchell/

While the South Dakota state insect is a prolific pollinator, there are over 400 species of bees native to the state that perform the same ecological role. And although there are many populous, well-adapted native bee species, the need for commercially reared European honeybees is ever-increasing.

Because farming practices, including deep cultivation and widespread application of herbicides and pesticides, have become so widespread, native species have a harder time aiding in pollination. Decreased quantities of native wildflowers and other such "weeds" and competition for pollen with European bees leave native species at a disadvantage. In some locales in the United States, native ground-dwelling bees are decreasing in size and number due to a lack of food.

Aerial and ground-level application of pesticides affects not only the European honeybee but native bumblebees and ground-dwelling bees as well. Most North American native bees are solitary. However, bumblebees are social and live in colonies like the European honeybee. In instances where a social bee returns to the hive with tainted food, the effects can ripple through the entire colony.

In addition to dangers related to agriculture, the commercial rearing of the bees themselves can disrupt native bee species. Parasitic organisms like the Varroa destructor mite and the deformed wing virus that affect European bees may also infect native bees. Some studies report that native bees living in close proximity to native hives show higher infection rates of these diseases.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

The official South Dakota state insect is the European honeybee, Apis mellifera