Part 2 ‘Introduction to beekeeping’

Part 2   ‘Introduction to beekeeping’

To commence beekeeping, and being able to sustain a healthy and productive colony of bees, it is vital to be aware of the characteristics, behavior, and properties of bees.

Apis Mellifera Mellifera the western honey bee, is the most widespread species of the honey bee in the world, and so Apis Mellifera Mellifera the European dark bee, was and is the bee that is domesticated and bred in modern times.  They are mainly dark brown and black in colour and have a docile nature, and are able to survive throughout the winter in cool temperate zones by storing large quantities of honey gathered during the summer months.

The result of hybridisation has occurred with other bee species, which means that a purebred Apis Mellifera Mellifera is largely a thing of the past.


Beehive is a term that refers to a structure where honey bees live and rear their young.

Natural beehives may form in and around rock structures and tree hollows.   Modern-day usage of the word beehive usually refers to manmade structures where bees are kept, and these structures can have either fixed or movable frames.

The bees are used to produce honey for food consumption or medicinal use, to pollinate local crops, and to preserve the local bee population.  Within each beehive sits a complex series of cells each with a hexagonal shape.  These honeycomb structures are made of beeswax and are used by the bees to store honey and pollen along with housing eggs, larvae, and pupae.  A typical beehive might house around 5000 bees during the winter months, which would include the queen and the workers.  The hive in the summer months can house around 50,000 bees with the addition of drone bees.

A beehive colony functions according to a strict hierarchical structure.  Within the hierarchy, there are three types of the honey bee:

Queen Bee

a queen, drones, and workers.  Each of these types has a particular task to carry out within the hive colony.

The queen lays all the eggs which populate the colony and is usually the only sexually mature female in the entire hive.  The female worker bees and the male drones in the hive are her offspring.  Royal jelly, produced in glands in the heads of worker bees is responsible for turning an egg into a queen bee rather than a drone or worker bee.  The queen bee is nurtured from a normal worker egg that has been laid in a specially constructed queen cell.  They are fed greater amounts of royal jelly throughout their development, which results in a much different rate of growth and metamorphosis.  All bee larvae are fed royal jelly, but this ceases after 3 days and so drones and worker larvae never experience the rapid growth of the queen.

The purpose of a queen bee is to lay eggs.  She has a smaller brain than a worker bee and is not capable of feeding herself.

A virgin queen, (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, and this action 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 her 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, these are known as 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 now a drain on the colony’s resources.

A healthy queen bee will emit pheromones that 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 made aware of an old queen, and she 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 that 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 larger than those constructed by the worker bees for the worker eggs.   When the queen lays an egg, she measures the cell and realises that a larger cell is required than a worker cell, and she lays an unfertilised egg.   Amazingly she can actually control whether she lays a fertilised egg that becomes a worker, or an unfertilised egg that 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 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 Bee

Worker bees represent nearly all the bees in a hive.  They are all female and are all daughters of the single queen bee who runs the colony but are not able to reproduce.   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.   Worker bees 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 busiest, worker bees may only live for around 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.   When the hive is under threat, the guard bees release a pheromone scent which alerts other workers, so that reinforcements can quickly arrive 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 15°C, they gather to form a well-defined oval-shaped cluster within the hive; at the heart of this cluster is the queen.   The cluster expands and contracts as the weather warms and cools and, as the temperature lowers, 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.

Link to part three