British Beekeepers Association


British Beekeepers Association

Life in the Hive

Life in the hive is structured: at each stage of a honey bee's life it has a different job. There is an order to the way the colony is run to ensure its survival.

How many types of bee are in a honey bee colony?
Three  - a single queen, thousands of female workers and, in the summer, hundreds of male drones. The drone bees do no work and, in the early autumn, they are evicted by the workers and die.

What does the queen bee do?
The major purpose of the queen is to lay eggs. During April and May she lays day and night, each egg taking about 20 seconds. That’s over 2000 eggs a day, more than her own body weight. The queen mates only once and holds sufficient sperm from the male drones to lay eggs for 3-5 years. The drone bee dies in the process of fertilisation.

There are three types of wax cell used for eggs. In smaller cells (5 mm diameter) the queen lays fertilised eggs, which in 21 days develop into female worker bees. In larger cells (7 mm diameter) unfertilised eggs are laid, which in 24 days become the male drone bees. The production of offspring that does not require mating is known as parthenogenesis. A male drone bee has no father but does have a grandfather! The third type of cell is a very special cell that hangs vertically downwards, which is developed to produce new queens. A colony producing queen-type cells is a warning to the beekeeper of an impending swarm.

A healthy queen bee is continually emitting pheromones (a bee perfume) that only the bees in the hive can smell. These pheromone odours tell the bees in the colony that the queen is still with them and all is well in the hive. This chemical pheromone communication is quite sophisticated and the ‘personality’ of a beehive will change if the beekeeper changes an old queen for a young one. In this way a beekeeper has some control over the temper and other characteristics of a colony, e.g. honey production. 

Does the queen ‘rule’ the colony?
No, the queen is simply an egg-laying machine.
The queen bee has a smaller brain than a worker bee.

Queen making and swarming
1. Bees construct up to 20 wax queen cells, which are acorn-like and point downwards.
2. The queen lays fertilised eggs in each queen cell.
3. The young (nurse) bees feed the young queen larvae with a rich creamy food called royal jelly, and extend the cell downwards until it is about 25mm in length.
4. Nine days after the egg is laid, the first queen cell is sealed with a layer of wax capping.
5. This is the signal for a large swarm (called a prime swarm) of bees, including the queen, to leave the hive led by the older bees. The queen has been starved of food to make her lighter and able to fly. The older bees cajole the queen to join the swarm.
6. Eight days later the first virgin queen leaves her cell. Two things can now occur, either the first virgin queen leads a smaller swarm from the hive (called a cast swarm) or she locates the other queen cells and kills her sisters by stinging through the wax wall of their cells.
7. About one week later the young queen takes her first flight to orientate her to her new surroundings.
8. The queen will shortly take several mating flights in which she will mate with up to 20 drones.
9. Three days later the mated queen will begin to lay fertilised eggs.
10. This queen will stay with the colony until at least the following year when she too may lead a prime swarm.

How do bees make a queen?
The development of a new queen is normally triggered by a combination of conditions, such as congestion in the hive and lack of egg-laying space, which culminates in a swarm.



Why is there only one queen? 
It is not understood (by man) why bees will only tolerate one queen but any attempt to introduce a second queen results in her death. If a queen dies unexpectedly during the summer, the bees are able to make an emergency queen from eggs younger than 3 days old.

How long does a bee live?
In the summer a worker bee only lives for about 40 days. As no young are raised over the winter months, the workers born in the autumn will live until the following spring. A queen can live up to five years; however for the beekeeper a queen is past her prime in her third year.

How do bees share out all the jobs in the hive?
When a bee is born, its first job is to clean out the cell in which she was born. Jobs are then allocated on the basis of age.

Duties of Worker Bees
1-2 days - Cleans cells and keeps the brood warm
3-5 days - Feeds older larvae
6-11 days - Feeds youngest larvae
12-17 days - Produces wax, builds comb, carries food, undertaker duties
18-21 days - Guards the hive entrance
22+ days - Flying from hive begins, pollinates plants, collects pollen, nectar and water.

How many bees are in a beehive?
In high summer about 35,000, dropping to around 5,000 in the winter.

Why do honey bees swarm?
A swarm is the natural way for bees to multiply and to produce new colonies. It is normally the culmination of queen rearing.

What is bee ‘dancing’?
Bees need to communicate with each other to pass on the location of food sources. To do this bees have evolved a unique dance language that can be understood by us. A worker bee returning from a rich source of food will ‘dance’ on the vertical comb surface by running in a circle, on each revolution the bee will bisect the circle at an angle.

The angle with respect to 12 o’clock represents the angle to fly with respect to the sun. If the bee ran from 6 to 12 o‘clock, i.e. straight up, this would say 'fly directly towards the sun ‘. If 7 to 1 o’clock, it would mean 'fly just to the right of the sun' and 12 to 6 o’clock ‘fly directly away from the sun’. In other words the bees translate the angle to the sun as an angle to the vertical.

To represent the distance to the food source, the bee ‘wiggles’ its abdomen whist crossing the circle, the more wiggles indicate the greater the distance. So a bee will ‘say’ to its friends ‘fly over there for about a 1 mile and you will find something that tastes like this’. Pretty smart!