2. An Introduction to Beekeeping

In order to commence beekeeping and be able to sustain a healthy and productive colony of bees, it is important to be aware of the fundamental characteristics and properties of bees. This section of the guide will introduce you to the properties of the honey bees which you will keep, the hierarchical structure within a beehive and how these bees function as a colony.

Honey bees

Apis mellifera is the most widespread species of honey bee in the world. There are many different strains of this honey bee and Apis mellifera mellifera, the European dark bee, was domesticated and bred in modern times. They are predominantly dark brown and black in colour; these bees are docile and can survive throughout the winter in cool temperate zones by storing large amounts of honey, gathered during the summer months. However, much hybridisation has occurred with Italian and other bees making pure bred Apis mellifera mellifera largely a thing of the past and it is no longer the only significant commercial subspecies of the Western honey bee.

Beehives

The term 'beehive' loosely refers to a structure in which honey bees live and rear their young; examples of natural beehives include tree hollows and rock structures. However, the term 'beehive' in modern parlance usually refers to a manmade structure within which bees are kept with either fixed or movable frames. The bees in these manmade beehives are used to produce honey for food or medical use, to pollinate nearby crops and to preserve the local honey bee population. Within a beehive there exists a complex series of hexagonal cells. These 'honeycombs' are made of beeswax and are used by bees to store not only food, such as honey and pollen, but also to house the brood of eggs, larvae and pupae. In any common honey bee hive there are approximately 5,000 bees during the winter months – the queen bee and worker bees – and a large hive in the summer months can house 50,000 bees – the queen bee, worker bees and drone bees.

The hierarchical structure of bees

A bee hive colony functions according to a strict hierarchical structure. Within this hierarchy there are three types of honey bee: a queen bee, drone bees and worker bees. Each of these types of bee has different tasks to carry out within the hive:

The queen bee lays all of the eggs which populate the colony and is normally the only sexually mature female in the hive; all of the female worker bees and male drones in the hive are her offspring. Royal jelly, a creamy white secretion, produced in glands in the heads of worker bees is responsible for turning an egg into a queen bee rather than a worker bee or drone bee. Royal jelly typically contains about 60% - 70% water, 12% - 15% proteins, 10% - 16% sugars, 3% - 6% fats, and 2% - 3% various vitamins, salts, and amino acids. The queen bee is raised from a normal worker egg, laid in a special elongated ‘queen cell’, but is fed a large amount of royal jelly throughout her development and this results in a radically different growth rate and metamorphosis. All bee larvae are fed royal jelly but after three days the drone and worker larvae are no longer fed in this way and do not experience the rapid growth of the queen.

A queen bee is really just an egg-laying machine; she has a smaller brain than a worker bee and is incapable of even feeding herself. When one buys a new queen bee by post, she arrives in a small box accompanied by her retinue of worker bees without whom she would starve.

A virgin queen, a newly hatched queen, will remain in the hive for 3 – 7 days until making her first orientation flight to mark the position of the hive. During subsequent flights she may mate with a number of male drones on each flight and, during these mating flights, the queen receives and stores sufficient sperm to fertilise hundreds of thousands of eggs. If she does not manage to leave the hive to mate, possibly due to bad weather, she remains infertile and becomes a drone layer, incapable of producing female worker bees. Worker bees sometimes kill a non-performing queen and produce another as, without a properly performing queen, the colony is doomed. After her mating flights the queen will not leave her hive again unless she swarms with her worker bees.

The queen bee is the largest of the bees in a honey bee colony, measuring around 2 cm – which is about twice the length of a worker bee. She walks with a distinctive gait as she proceeds from cell to cell to lay her eggs which can aid in her identification. A queen bee can live for three to five years, during which time she continues to lay eggs, and can lay up to half a million eggs in her lifetime although she will normally lay most eggs in the first season and her laying rate will decrease throughout her life. In April and May a queen bee will lay eggs all day and night, the interior of a hive is dark so day and night do not exist for the queen. This process can result in approximately 2000 eggs being laid each day during her peak laying period. Fertilised eggs become female worker bees and those which remain unfertilised become male bees - drones. In the winter the rate of eggs laid by the queen decreases dramatically as food supplies of pollen and nectar reduce and the colony must survive on the food stores which have been collected by the worker bees during the summer. This reduced food supply results in the reduction of the number of bees in the hive. In winter the number of worker bees drops from 50,000 to about 5,000; there are no drone bees in the hive as they have been evicted from the hive by the worker bees at the end of the queen-raising season when their use has passed and they are a drain on the colony’s resources.

A healthy queen bee will emit pheromones which inform all other bees in the colony that she is present and in good health. As a result of these pheromones, the bees in the colony are aware if an old queen is removed and a new queen introduced by a beekeeper. New queens must be introduced with great care, after the removal of the old queen, particularly if it is a difficult colony who might attempt to kill the interloper. It is the temperament of the queen that dictates the temperament of the whole colony so beekeepers always aim to have a placid, non-swarming strain of queen.

Drone bees are raised in wax cells which are bigger than those constructed by the worker bees for the worker eggs. When the queen lays an egg, she measures the cell and realises that is it larger than a worker cell and lays an unfertilised egg – amazingly she can actually control whether she lays a fertilised egg, which becomes a worker, or an unfertilised egg, which develops into a male bee. Drones are almost twice the size of worker bees and have no sting; they exist within the hive solely in order to mate with the virgin queen. They do not work, do not forage for pollen and cannot collect nectar as they do not have a long enough proboscis to reach the nectar in a flower. They have no other known function than to mate with and fertilise new queens on their mating flights. However, once they have mated with the queen, they will die as a result of this mating. At the end of the summer any remaining drones are evicted from the hive by the worker bees and this eviction is often quite brutal. All through the summer the worker bees have fed and cared for the drones who play no part in the maintenance of the hive; however, in winter they would be too much of a liability on the colony and they will be replaced the following spring. The worker bees stop feeding the drones and the weakened drones are forced from the hive, often having their wings chewed off by the aggressive workers. They are left to die outside the hive while the worker bees continue to prepare the hive for winter.

Worker bees represent nearly all the bees in a hive. They are all female but are not able to reproduce and are all daughters of the single queen bee who rules the colony. Worker bees are smaller than drones but do have a sting. However, having stung once they will die which means that, after defending their hive against intruders, you will often see their bodies lying just outside the hive. They are the general workforce of the hive and carry out all the necessary tasks which enable the hive to function efficiently. They perform different tasks throughout their life, largely dictated by their age.

During the summer months, when activity in the hive is at its peak, worker bees may only live for about 6 weeks. Worker bees start their working life cleaning cells in the hive and caring for and feeding the larvae. It is important for the youngest workers to remain in the hive, as they are still soft bodied and their wings are too delicate for them to fly well. They will then progress to receiving nectar and pollen from incoming foraging bees and then, when they are a little older, they make wax cells – this is a task that is undertaken in teams, as the temperature for wax-building needs to be quite high at 33-35°C. Only when the worker is about three weeks old does she leave the hive to forage for nectar, pollen, propolis and water. The bee colony always has older worker bees, which are designated as dedicated guard bees, on duty. When the hive is under threat, the guard bees release a pheromone scent which alerts the other workers, so that reinforcements can quickly arrive on the scene to protect the hive.

Between winter and early spring worker bees can live for several months as they rarely leave the hive. When external temperatures fall to about 15°C they gather to form a well-defined rugby-ball shaped cluster within the hive; at the heart of the cluster is the queen. The cluster expands and contracts as the weather warms and cools and, as the temperature decreases, the cluster becomes tighter and more compact as the bees cling tightly together on the combs in the hive. The worker bees constantly vibrate their wing muscles in order to generate heat to keep each other and their all-important queen warm and they maintain the temperature at the core of the cluster at about 30°C.