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, the original workers might be replaced in the process. The mechanism of memory retention remains a mystery.
Despite its aggressive nature, indigenous peoples have traditionally used this species as a source of honey and beeswax, a practice known as honey hunting.