Introduction to the Honey Bee


Honey bees, along with wasps and ants, live in highly structured colonies where the inhabitants are, in the case of Honey Bees, all sisters and brothers, from a single queen bee. Within the colony, the inhabitants have changing roles throughout their lifetime and the generations usually overlap. This is known as eusocial behaviour which enables the colony to survive and adapt as a complete functioning and highly complex unit or organism which is controlled by combinations of sound, vibrations, smells and touching.

Their natural nest is usually in a hollow such as a rotting tree or a house roof. Within it are combs hanging vertically made from thin wax secreted by the worker bees from glands between the abdominal sections. This is formed into hexagonal cells by the bees and is used to raise brood and store pollen and honey. The nest is lined and any cracks are sealed with a sticky substance called propolis made from tree resin, honey and bees wax. This not only seals the nest against rain and draughts but is anti fungal, anti bacterial and some types are antiviral, and is used to disinfect the nest cavity.

One commonly known fact about bees is that they are one of the best pollinators of plants. This is done when they are bringing in the pollen for food. You may ask which came first, the pollen or the bee? Two things are certain and that is both the plants and the bees have evolved over millions of years to provide these services to each other for the benefit of both, and we humans have merely taken advantage of it over the past 4.5 thousand years.

The Bees
Honey bees are all similar with the body comprising of three sections. The head, the body or thorax and abdomen. They have three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings on the thorax. The wings are held together with hooks to keep them together in flight. On the head are the eyes, antennae and the mouth parts which, on the workers, are specialised to take up nectar and water.

Bees hatch from the brood cells with the appearance of an adult bee but some further internal development takes place over time. There are three castes of bees in a colony, the queen, of which there is only one, develops from a fertilised egg in 16 days. The most common bees are the female workers, which can number in the ten’s of thousands are sterile. These also come from fertilised eggs and develop in 21 days. Finally, the drones which are male and develop from an unfertilized egg in 24 days. The drones comprise approximately 15–20% of the bees in the colony in the late spring and summer.

You can see the timing of their development in the table below. Note that they are all eggs for 3 days but the day when they are capped and the length of time it takes for the larvae to change into pupae varies from caste to caste.

Honey bee development

Generally the bees are dark brown or black on most parts with some lighter brown / orange colouration on the abdomen. The Native bees in Ireland are known as ‘Black bees’ and from a distance look totally black but have thin, light marks at ends of their abdominal sections.

The Queen

Generally, there is only one queen in a colony. She is raised from a fertilised egg, the same as a worker bee, but in a specially elongated queen cell which protrudes from and hangs down on the comb. This allows her to grow to about 25mm long and she becomes larger than the other bees due to her lengthened abdomen. In order for her to develop as a queen she is fed a special food called royal jelly for longer and in larger quantities, than the other fertilised eggs which develop into worker bees. As she develops her abdomen increases in length and her ovaries develop, her sting also develops differently to a worker as it is not barbed and the ovipositor through which she lays eggs becomes fully developed. When the queen is growing a sperm sac or spermatheca develops where the sperm from the drones that she mates with is stored.
Queen bees develop in just 16 days and will live for up to 5 years. Throughout her life the queen is fed an enriched food regurgitated by the workers called royal jelly.

Her physical jobs in the colony are to mate and to produce eggs. Mating can only take place a few days after she has hatched when she makes several flights to mate with up to 20 drones which are from different colonies to avoid inbreeding. Generally the more diverse the drones are the better the colony will fare over the life of the queen. Conversely, if she mates with only a few drones the colony will struggle to survive.

The queen is able to lay well over a thousand eggs per day depending on the food availability, the weather and the seasons. The queen can decide whether to use the sperm to fertilise an egg to produce a worker bee, or, to not fertilise the egg and create a drone which will then pass on her genes. Drones are most likely to be raised in the early spring, but this can go on until mid autumn.

Mating and egg laying are not her only roles in the colony, by giving off pheromones, touching other bees and issuing sound signals her presence stabilizes the colony into a fully functioning unit. In this situation all of the occupants know their roles in the colony and also source anything necessary from outside the colony that is needed to look after the brood and protect the colony.

If the queen dies the colony is able to raise a replacement queen provided there are eggs or 3 to 6 day old larva by using the different feeding regime that produced the original queen. If the queen becomes damaged or at the end of her useful life she is unable to lay sufficient eggs the bees will supercede her by raising another queen to replace her in which case the mother and daughter can live side by side for a while. Unfortunately, if the queen dies when there are no fertilised eggs or she has developed into a drone laying queen because she has run out of sperm, then the colony us unable to survive.

The Drones

The drones are all male and develop from unfertilized eggs. This means that they have no father but they do have a grandfather (the queen’s father). They are more bulky than the other bees in the colony and are conspicuous due to their round abdomen and large bulbous eyes. They have no sting but have genitalia instead. Their main role is fertilizing the queens which they do at ‘drone congregation areas’ where many drones from the area fly to and queens visit from further afield. The queen will mate with several drones in each flight over a period of 2-4 days. Unfortunately for the drones, if one is ‘lucky’ enough to mate and pass on his genes he will die as his genitals rip out or explode from his body in mid air.

Drones cannot feed themselves and so are fed by the worker bees, again unfortunately for them, in times of dearth or at the end of the summer/autumn the workers will not feed them and so they die or are ushered out of the colony never to return.

The drones take 24 days to hatch from the egg being laid, reach maturity at 14 days and usually live for a further 16-18 days however in the latter part of the year they may live for up to 3 months. There is very little research on drone bees but it is known that they are very efficient at producing heat from their flight muscles and are used in the colony as temperature regulators which is a reason for them to be retained into the winter.

The worker bees

These are the main population in the colony accounting for around 30,000 bees per colony in Ireland in the summer. This number will vary depending on the health of the colony, the weather and the available food. They are all female having developed from fertilised eggs and do not have developed ovaries and are therefore sterile. They do have a stinger which is barbed and will pull out of the body killing the bee if it is pushed into flesh, however if it stings an insect with a hard cuticle the barb will not engage and she will sting repeatedly to protect the colony.

The worker bees have wax glands on the underside of their abdomen which secrete flakes of wax for building the comb and making propolis and on their rear legs are pollen baskets or corbiculae. They also have various glands on their body to emit pheromones, for example, to alert the colony of an attack which smells like bananas and of well being which smells of lemons. Another gland at the end of the abdomen called the Nazanov is used to signal the bees to return to the nest and at times the bees can be seen to stand at the colony entrance and raise their tales while secreting the pheromone and fanning their wings.
Worker bees are genetically female but sterile however, in the event of a lack of brood caused by the failure of the queen to lay any eggs, some may develop ovaries and start to lay eggs. These of course are not fertilised and will therefore develop into drones. Alas, as with drone laying queens this will mean the demise of the colony.

The duties of the worker bees

The duties of the workers varies with their age and the requirements of the colony for, example, in the event of a sudden honey flow or increase of nectar production from the flowers, bees that are usually not considered old enough will be called upon to leave the colony to go out foraging. These duties are flexible and overlap so that one bee may do several jobs in the same period of its life. Likewise the bees that leave in a swarm are generally the older ones but can revert to wax production to establish a new colony which is usually a juvenile bee’s work. This may also happen within the colony if there is a sudden requirement for new comb for storing honey in a honey flow.

The following list is not exhaustive and is a generalisation of the tasks undertaken by the bees over their lifetimes.

Housekeeping – Days 1-3
Cleaning out and polishing cells from which young bees have recently hatched ready for the queen to lay eggs in.

Undertakers – Days 3-16
During this time they remove dead bees and brood swiftly away from the colony to maintain hygiene standards and prevent the spread of disease.

Nursery bees – Days 4-12
Feeding the larvae with royal jelly.

Queen’s attendants – Days 7-12
As the queen cannot feed herself properly the workers feed her royal jelly which also maintains her ability to continue laying eggs. At this time they also groom her which passes the queen’s pheromone around the colony, which helps regulate the bee’s behavior of the colony.

Storing Pollen and nectar -Days 12–18
During this period the workers collect nectar and honey from the foragers at the nest entrance area, which they place into designated cells. The pollen is stored with nectar and ferments into bee bread by enzyme action from their saliva and is later made into royal jelly. The nectar is stored and fanned by the bees to evaporate the water from it and this accompanied by enzyme action produces honey. Both are the food for the colony.

Ventilating the nest Days -12–18
Bees use their wings to regulate the temperature and humidity of the colony. This is especially important in very hot and cooler weather. It is very important to keep the brood area temperature controlled to between 32oc and 35oc degrees at all times.

Wax production – Days 12-35
After 12 days the wax glands which are between the abdominal plates on the underside of the bees become mature. This wax is then used to build comb and to cap the cells containing brood and honey.

Guard bees – Days 18-21
These bees remain at the entrance and check all of the returning bees for the familiar home scent. If they bees do not have this scent they are not allowed to pass.

Foraging – Days 22 till death.
At his point the bees leave the nest. They will circle the nest to orient themselves until they are satisfied they will find their way back and then leave on their journeys.
Over the next few weeks, until they work themselves to death, they will be out bringing home pollen, nectar, water and resin for propolis.

Scout bees – Days 22 till death
While the bees are foraging some will take on the role of scout bees. They will look for sources of food and propolis, and will return to the colony to communicate the location of these by performing the waggle dance. The other foragers will then follow the route given to the food source. Another job undertaken by scout bees is to notify of a new nest location when the bees swarm.

Communication in the colony

Communication within the colony is achieved by touching, ‘dancing’ and through smell. We have touched upon this earlier and will simply give an overview here as this is a most fascinating subject which is often studied by scientists.

Most people are aware of the waggle dance, whereby the returning scout bees inform the in house foragers of the direction and the distance to food, but there are several other physical methods that the bees use to inform or communicate with the rest of the colony. Shaking and bumping are two which are used. Shaking is used to rouse bees to inform them that they are needed for another job such as foraging if a honey flow suddenly starts, and bumping is used to stop bees from waggle dancing. The sounds and vibrations from these dances together with other colony sounds are transmitted through the combs to notify other bees.

The pheromone system of communication and organization in a bee colony is one of the most complex in the world of social insects. The pheromones are given off through various glands on the bee’s bodies and also from the brood. Possibly the most important scents come from the queen to let the colony know that she is well and to stay calm, which has a lemon smell. Other scents indicate that the colony is under attack which smells akin to bananas or that a bee has used its stinger. The bee’s antennae are the sense organ for detecting smells, taste, touch and vibration, and bees often look to be greeting each other by rubbing them together.

Communication in the colony is an amazing subject of which we can only touch the surface here.

Swarming and supercedure

Swarming and supercedure are how a colony reproduces itself or maintains its existence. The queen is responsible for reproduction in the colony but the colonies themselves reproduce by swarming.

Supercedure, as we have seen earlier, is a method whereby the colony maintains a queen and hence its survival if the old queen fails. At his time there may be several queen cells raised by the workers. After the first queen hatches she will emit a high pitch noise called piping. On hearing this any other queens still in the cells return the call and the first one kills the others. If the mother queen is still alive they may live side by side for a while until the elder one dies or the workers decide that she is no longer needed.

Swarming occurs for various reasons mainly in the summer but the timing of the swarming varies. One reason is when the colony is over crowded with either food or brood and the queen has nowhere to lay her eggs. The workers will raise several swarm cells in which new queens are raised.. The queen will have been slimmed down by the workers by withholding food from her so that she can fly and very often the colony will swarm when the first queen cell is capped, sometimes when the first virgin queen is hatched. The swarm comprises the queen, half of the foragers and a few drones who leave to find a new nesting place after gorging themselves on honey to keep them alive, and allows them to make an immediate start on nest building. They will fly and settle a short distance from the original site and the scout bees will look for a new home which is ultimately decided by a consensus from the bees in the cluster. At this point, which could be a few hours or a few days, they take off to the new site and set up home.

In the original nest the first virgin queen to hatch will either kill her sisters and lead the old colony which has a good supply of food, brood and young bees or she will lead another swarm out of the nest leaving just a quarter of the original population. This is called a cast swarm and as you may imagine could lead to the failure of the original colony as it will no longer be able to defend itself or to feed itself, and neither would the cast swarm have a great chance of survival unless conditions are favourable. It is also possible for the colony to send out enough cast swarms that neither they nor the original colony will survive

Life cycle of a colony

The size of the colony and the activities within are ruled by the seasons. Different breeds of honey bees are adapted to different climates so we will look at local bees and seasons in Ireland.

At this time of the year the days are lengthening and the weather is warming up. The queens would have been laying slowly for a few weeks limited by the weather and the available food, to build up the worker population waiting for the early nectar and pollen flows at which time the small colony will rapidly expand. The timing varies massively but by late spring the colonies will be strengthening and should have built up good stores. By now the drones who would not have been bred in the winter and very early spring will be present in large numbers.

Now that the weather is improved the colony is filing with stores and bees. At this time room in the nest is at a premium and in nature the bees will be looking to swarm. Depending on the seasonal weather and the available room this could go on for several weeks through into the early autumn.

During autumn the weather cools and the days shorten. Food becomes more and more scarce and accordingly the colony reduces in size due to the queen reducing her egg laying. The bees prepare for winter by sealing any cracks or gaps with propolis and as the cold sets in they begin to huddle into a cluster. Flights from the nest also begin to reduce as the food sources dry up.

By this time there is virtually no brood in the colony and in long winters there will be none at all. The bees are making flights mainly to defecate or take out dead bees and if all is well they will be clustering up tighter and tighter as the weather gets colder. They will be living off their stores until the early pollen on the hazel and sally willows begin to flower and collecting nectar from gorse and any late flowering Ivy and winter bulbs. On warm days now there will be more flights as the temperature gets above 90c and as the early spring flowers bloom the colony entrance should become busier.
Post script

Beekeeping is not only a hobby. As beekeepers we are custodians of the bees in a managed or unnatural situation. It is therefore our duty to look after them to the best of our ability. As a hobby it is most rewarding and our knowledge of nature is greatly enhanced while we look after them.
By joining an association of beekeepers, help and advice will always be close by and any problems can be worked round. It is advisable to have a mentor for the first few years who can guide you through and advise you on any problems that arise.

Bees are wild animals. However many books you read on the subject you will always find new and different information on the bees social interactions and habits.

Ending on a light note, despite all of the literature on the internet and in books there are a few points to note that do not change:

Make sure that the information you find is relative to your location. For example, the seasons vary in different countries, continents and hemispheres.

Ask ten beekeepers one question and you will receive eleven different answers (all of which are correct but probably not at the same time).

The bees do what they need to do and not what you want them to.

The bees did not write the books, that was done by humans.

The humans forgot that bees can’t read the books