The Power of the Colony
Honey bees are fascinating creatures. They collaborate in a way that is hard for us to comprehend, especially when we are initially learning beekeeping. The way they work together is so complete, in fact, that it really helps to think of a honey bee colony as a single organism.
Each individual bee plays a role, it is true. But that role is so small and that life so short that it can never really see the benefit of all it’s hard work. That’s something only the colony can realize.
Note: To avoid any confusion, it’s good to know from the start that “colony” refers to the group of bees, while “hive” or “beehive” refers to the structure in which the colony lives.
It’s not easy for us to relate to honey bee reproduction. Birth and death on a huge scale isn’t just a fact for honey bees – it’s an absolute necessity. It also involves some pretty freaky genetics. The best way to think of bee reproduction is to think of the colony as one big “animal”. When a colony is doing really well, it will send a chunk of itself (a swarm) off into the world to start up a new honey bee colony, essentially splitting in two.
It’s not exactly analogous to how we reproduce!
There’s so much to learn about honey bees, and while you don’t need to know all of this to get started with beekeeping, it’s good to know the unique interactions in and outside of the hive.
Honey bees are different from us in that they have three distinct types of bees – one male and two females. All male bees are drones but a female bee may be a worker or a queen. How many workers are normally in one hive? When it comes to numbers, a colony often contains one queen and tens of thousands of workers. So, if you’re a female bee, chances are very good you’re a worker.
The Life Cycle of the Bee
Honey bee colonies are finely-tuned machines where every bee has a job and where those jobs are strictly divided, by caste. Each caste also has biological differences, well suited to what it does.
While there are three castes in a hive, the most populous by far are worker bees. Workers make up at least 85% of the colony and do all the hard work, including collection of nectar and pollen. If you see a honey bee buzzing from flower to flower, it’s a worker.
Although they’re female, worker bees are infertile. This is affected by a pheromone released by the queen that suppresses the worker bee ability to develop the appropriate reproductive apparatus. Worker bees have the biological capabilities to lay eggs, but not to fertilize them. This means that when they do lay eggs, those eggs are destined to become drones.
In the summer, a worker bee has a life expectancy of about 5-6 weeks, spent working as they go through their various roles. There indeed are a lot of jobs to be done in the honey bee colony and virtually all are conducted by workers.
Rather than assigning specific tasks to specific bees, however, the colony divides it up efficiently by age. That means the job of a worker bee, at any one time, will largely depend upon her age. At some point during her month or so of life she is likely to participate in every job.
The Life of a Worker
Each worker bee begins as a single egg in the familiar hexagonal cell of honeycomb. It takes 21 days for a worker egg to develop into a fully-formed adult worker. Once she emerges into adulthood, a worker bee’s first order of business is to clean out the cell in which she grew. That cell will become the nursery for a new egg.
She will then function as a nurse bee, feeding larvae, keeping them warm and cleaning their cells.
During her next stage of life, from about 12 to 20 days old, the worker will move on to housekeeping jobs around the hive. There’s a lot to be done – producing wax, building comb, storing nectar and pollen, cooling the hive if it’s too hot, warming the hive if it’s too cold, guarding the entrance, removing dead bodies and much more. During the nurse and housekeeping phases, a worker may also spend her time tending to the queen.
At about 20 days old, the worker becomes a forager. A colony requires many resources from the outside world to function, and it is the forager’s job to bring those back home.
The main resources to collect are pollen – mainly for feeding the brood – and nectar, for making honey. She may also bring back water, for drinking and cooling, and tree resin for making propolis.
The worker will keep up her foraging until she dies, about ten days later, from burnout. She has about 500 miles of flight in her before her wings give out, and she’ll use up every one of them. This is why the phases of a worker’s life are in the order they are: cushy work inside the hive when young and healthy, then tiring work outside for as long as she can manage.
Although they usually only lasts for a little over a month, worker bees can live much longer. They do just that during the winter. Then it is too cold to go out foraging and the main activity is keeping the hive warm enough to survive.
When they’re not wearing their wings out, worker bees born in the fall can live through to the spring. This is essential to the survival of the colony since brood production in the winter is basically nonexistent.
Just like in the human kingdom, there is only ever one queen bee in a honey bee hive (with some minor and generally brief exceptions). The queen isn’t a “ruler” in the decision-making sense and actually has a smaller brain than the workers. She does, however, influence the mood of the hive with her pheromones and give birth to every bee to be born in the colony.
The queen may be the central figure in the colony but the big brains are the workers. Literally.
For the beekeeper who installs a package of bees in the spring, it’s interesting to note that two months later virtually every one of the tens of thousands of bees will be a new bee and not part of the original package…except the queen.
A queen bee is, of course, a female. The egg from which she is born is no different from that of a worker. During her larval stage, however, she is fed royal jelly beyond the third day. Royal jelly is a creamy goop secreted by worker bees with an especially high sugar content. This special diet, as well as a larger birth cell, make for a much larger body and the ability to exude certain pheromones.
The queen is the only female among the tens of thousands in the colony who can mate and that is more or less her first order of business. A few days after being born, she takes an orienting flight, followed by a series of mating flights.
These mating flights are still something of a mystery to us. They occur as high as 100 feet in the air, in locations that the bees have somehow agreed upon. Drones gather in these seemingly random places, and the queen, who is around a week old, goes to meet them.
Just because the queen shows up doesn’t mean the work is over for the drones. To mate with the queen, they must join up with her mid-flight. It’s not easy. During her several flights, the queen usually mates with somewhere between 10 and 20 drones. That’s enough to last a lifetime for her.
When the queen mates, she will collect a million sperm. She’ll store them in her body and use them, one at a time, to lay fertilized eggs and they may last five years.
Once she’s mated, the queen goes back to the hive and, three days later, starts laying eggs. This then becomes her life.
In the spring, when the population is exploding, she lays all day and all night, averaging an egg every 20 seconds. A colony has an early population of 20,000 to 30,000 and 60,000 or more members later in the year, each with an optimistic lifespan of a little over a month. That is a whole lot of eggs, and it all comes down to one queen bee!
Sometimes, though, the laying can get out of hand and a swarm can occur. From a bee perspective, this is not a bad thing and if you consider a colony as a single organism you can think of this as how it reproduces. If the hive is starting to get too full, both for the workers to store resources and for the queen to lay, the workers will start raising a new queen. Though sometimes an inconvenience to humans, as swarm is the sign of a healthy, growing colony.
To raise a new queen, workers will build many queen cells, hanging off the comb, visually like peanuts. The queen lays a fertilized egg in each cell and workers raise the larvae on royal jelly.
When the swarm occurs the old queen leaves the hive (for the first time since mating) with ½ to ⅔ of the workers and a handful of drones to find a site for a new hive.
Back in the hive, eight days later, the first of the new queens emerges from her cell. But why raise 20 queens, to replace just one? The new queen is wondering too!
As her first order of business, the queen goes from queen cell to queen cell and stings her still-developing sisters to death. If more queens emerge before the first one can kill them all, they’ll fight it out until only one remains.
That is one way for new queens to be born, but it’s not the only way. Sometimes swarms will happen not because the colony is doing well, but because the queen is getting old or tired. If this happens, they go about the process just the same way. If the queen dies at any time, the workers can scramble to produce an emergency queen.
All larvae are fed royal jelly for the first three days. If there are any larvae under three days old, the workers have the opportunity to keep feeding them royal jelly and extend the length of their cells. If there are no larvae under three days old, there’s nothing the colony can do to produce a queen, since the larvae will have had their supply of royal jelly broken.
The final caste is the drone, the male in the colony. There are only a few hundred in the typical colony and their primary job is to mate. They have huge eyes to help them locate the queen on mating flights, but they have no stingers or foraging tools.
When a queen lays an unfertilized egg, it becomes a drone. This means that drones have no fathers, but they do a grandfather – some far away and long dead drone whose stored up sperm produced their mother.
How do we know they’re long dead? Because drones that reproduce don’t live to tell the tale. During the mating flight way up in the air, any drone managing to engage with the queen doesn’t get to cleanly… disengage. After mating, a drone’s reproductive organs are ripped off and stay in the queen, killing him.
Even if a drone doesn’t reproduce, his life expectancy isn’t too long. If food is short, or if winter is approaching, drones are the first to go. Workers kick them out of the hive and refuse to let them back in. They don’t last very long on the outside.
Communication and Social Life
The Magic of Pheromones
How exactly does a colony of tens of thousands of individuals work so well together? A lot comes down to the pheromones that bees give off to affect the behavior of the bees around them.
Honey bee pheromones can be split into two main groups: primer and releaser.
- Primer pheromones are released mainly by the queen and brood and keep the social order in line
- Releaser pheromones tend to be released by workers in response to specific events
One of the main primer pheromones is the “queen signal”. It is a special blend of pheromones, without which the social order of the colony would fall apart. The queen signal encourages workers to do their jobs, prevents them raising new queens and stops them from laying eggs.
The queen signal also has a releaser effect that draws other bees around her. She uses this to gather workers to groom her, on mating flights to attract drones and during swarms to keep the group together. If a queen dies or becomes too weak, the queen signal is no longer evident and workers start to raise new queens.
Brood create their own primer pheromone that does double duty to keep the workers from laying eggs. Since workers don’t mate, they can only lay unfertilized male eggs, which is totally unsustainable.
The pheromones produced by workers are mostly releasers, given off in response to the things that happen to them. The best known are probably the alarm pheromones, which are released when a worker stings an intruder.
The alarm pheromone starts releasing as soon as the worker prepares to sting, alerting other bees there’s a need for defense. Even after the stinging, the pheromone keeps being released from the stinger stuck in the victim, attracting more bees. That’s one very good reason to walk away from the hive if you happen to be stung.
Workers also give off orientation pheromones at the entrance of the hive to guide other bees home and on first flights to guide themselves back home. They’ll release recruitment pheromones to mark a site to which they want to draw other workers. They tend to save this for water sources and extremely good nectar flows.
There’s another way that bees communicate – dancing! This dance is performed by a forager who’s found an excellent nectar supply and the dance is amazingly precise.
To share her good news, the forager walks a series of figure eights and straight lines, while shaking her wings. Every element of the dance holds important information that all the watching foragers understand.
The duration of the dance indicates how far the nectar is from the hive. Every 75 milliseconds adds about 330 feet to the distance.
The intensity of the dance indicates the richness of the nectar source. A strong waggle means there’s a serious amount of nectar.
The most amazing part is the angle of the dance. The forager shows the direction of the nectar by indicating where it is in relation to the sun. If the nectar is exactly in the direction of the sun’s current position, the bee will dance moving straight up the “dance floor”. If it’s 80 degrees to the left of the sun, she’ll dance 80 degrees to the left of straight up. The bees get it and they’ll fly off in the right direction to retrieve the nectar.
There are two other kinds of dances, but they’re more about rallying than providing lots of information. If a lot of nectar is found and more bees are needed to collect it, a worker will do a “shake” dance, moving around the hive and shaking her body in front of other workers, telling them they need to get out foraging right away.
If considerable nectar has already been brought back and needs to be ripened into honey, a worker will move through the hive doing a “tremble” dance, shaking her legs as she walks so her body trembles back and forth. This encourages the other workers to get processing and storing the excess nectar.
Honey bees can only survive if they’re warmer than 57 F, but they usually live in places where it gets much colder. How do they manage this? By working constantly through the warm months to build up stores for the cold months.
Spring is an exciting time in the honey bee hive. The days get longer, the temperature rises and the flowers start to bloom. Everything is lined up for pollen and nectar collection and brood production. The queen may lay 2,000 eggs per day or more. More eggs mean more workers, which means more foraging, which means more eggs.
It’s now that the workers start raising new drones (none were brought through the winter) and new queens, if space becomes cramped or the old queen doesn’t seem to be laying as well as last year. Swarming is most likely in mid to late spring.
Early to mid-summer is when nectar and pollen availability is at the highest and since the population has finally caught up, foraging is at a peak too. In late summer, however, nectar and pollen flows start to slow down and brood production slows down with it.
Fall is a time for final preparations. Drones don’t actually contribute to the colony, but they do eat food. Unfortunately for drones, this is no secret and food can get very tight in the winter. If you watch a hive when temperatures are getting colder, you may see the drones being marched out the front door by the workers.
Rationing also means no new mouths to feed either and so brood production basically stops. Many of the workers alive in late fall will survive through to the spring – assuming sufficient resources are available – greatly outliving their sisters born when foraging was still an option.
In winter, the focus is on survival. The bees, with their population at its lowest, cluster around the queen to keep her and themselves warm. They produce heat by eating the honey collected all year. They cycle within the cluster, with warmer bees from the inside taking a turn on the colder outside extremes.
Ideally, they’ll keep the temperature in the center of the cluster at around 90F. If the temperature falls below 57F, however, they won’t be able to move, and will either starve or freeze to death, even if honey is close by.
In late winter, if the bees have made it this far, they’ll start raising some brood, with production steadily increasing into the spring. The colony wants a healthy worker population ready to collect new food supplies as soon as the weather warms.
Leaving the Hive
Life inside the hive is relatively comfortable to the harsh and dangerous environment beyond its boundaries. The bees don’t leave other than when necessary. But there are a number of reasons why they do need to do just that.
The queen, as we’ve already discussed, will take a few flights at the very beginning of her life to orient and mate and then again if it’s time to swarm. The drones, too, go out frequently on mating flights. Beyond those, there are two main reasons worker bees may leave the hive – foraging and absconding.
Foraging is the collection of materials outside the hive and is performed by worker bees late in life.
A bee may travel as far as 5 miles on a foraging run, but she’ll stay closer to the hive if she can. Foragers usually keep within two miles of the hive and 75% of flights are within half a mile.
Bees are very economical and they’ll weigh up whether it’s worthwhile to travel the extra distance to a good source. If a bee becomes too tired on a trip, she may be forced to eat some of the nectar she’s collected, which is not good for business!
Honey bees are foraging generalists, which means they can harvest nectar and pollen from a wide variety of flowers. This differs from some pollinators that have evolved to harvest from only one type or even only one species of flower.
Even though they’re not picky about what they eat, honey bees do tend to stick to the same species of flower on any particular flight. This is very important for the flowering plants, since this is how they are pollinated. A bee may visit up to 40 flowers per minute.
Honey bees use a wide variety of senses to locate resources. They can’t see visible light too well and, to them, red simply looks gray. They make up for it, though, by being able to see ultraviolet light. This lets them know the location of the sun, even on a cloudy day.
Honey bees have a sense of smell that is about 40 times better than humans and can taste tiny amounts of sugar. They also understand the passing of time. They locate food sources relative to the position of the sun and know how to compensate for the sun’s movement across the sky as time passes. Their eyes are spheres, helping them to easily determine the angle of the sun.
When a bee collects nectar, she sucks it up through her proboscis, like soda through a straw. Instead of drinking it though, she stores it in a pouch in the side of her throat called a nectar sac. When it’s full, this nectar sac can make up 90% of the bee’s weight. Then she’ll carry it back to the hive, where it is transferred from bee-to-bee and finally stored in a cell to make honey.
Pollen is handled a little differently. To gather pollen, a bee brushes against and bites the anther of a flower (the powdery part), collecting the powder on the hairs of her body and in her mouth. Then, using all three pairs of legs, she brushes the pollen back along her body, mixing it with a little nectar to hold it together.
Finally, she brushes it down into special pouches on both of her back legs, called pollen baskets. If you see a bee foraging in the wild, you can usually see them bulging yellow.
The bee carries the pollen back to the hive, where it is stored in cells and mixed with honey to make bee bread, which is used to feed the brood.
Foraging occurs when bees leave the hive to collect essential resources. You can’t have a working hive without it. Swarming is when around half of the colony leaves to live somewhere else, but still leaving many bees at the original location.
Absconding is very different and a scary prospect for beekeepers. It happens when not one, not some, but all of the bees leave, with no intention of coming back. Unlike swarming, no new queen is born and no workers stay behind.
It’s rare, but if bees are unhappy with their situation, they’ll move away to find a better one. They are working for themselves, not for you, and if they determine that the hive you’ve set up isn’t good enough, they are off!
This means it’s up to the beekeeper to make sure they’re comfortable in the artificial environment of the honey bee hive. There are a few problems that are likely to make bees abscond, and avoiding them is likely to save you a lot of hassle.
Newly established colonies are at the biggest risk of absconding. The bees are still getting familiar with their new home and might decide that it simply isn’t going to work. One objection bees might have is that the hive itself is too new. New wood can have a strong smell, as can new plastic and especially new paint. Bees prefer old, used hives that smell like home. The use of Tung Oil is a tried and tested treatment that bees accept readily (and has many other advantages too).
When installing new equipment, prepare in advance. Let all the components sit out in the open for a few days to let that new smell drift away. And don’t paint the inside of the hive. It’s just another overwhelming smell right under the bees’ noses. By the way, this is a key advantage of cedar bee hives (as compared to more traditional, but perfectly effective, pine beehives) – cedar does not require painting and is stronger, lighter and insulates better. Cedar is considered a premium wood for beehives.
Another complaint bees have is with disturbance, especially in the beginning. An older colony might feel more confident, but a young one doesn’t have all its defenses up yet. It also doesn’t have much of anything stored in the hive, so if it feels under threat, it doesn’t have anything invested in the location to make it stay.
This is why, tempting as it may be, you should be cautious about opening the hive in the first few days after your bees are installed.
Similarly, try to keep loud noises down, especially soon after setting up a hive. If you run a lawnmower or weed-whacker near the hive on the first day, the bees might think that’s the norm and decide it’s just not worth staying.
Giving your bees a leg up in the beginning can convince them to stay. Putting in a frame or two of established comb can get them laying and storing sooner. It also adds some of that homey bee smell they love. Supplementing their natural food with sugar syrup in the beginning can also get them working faster and sooner. If the food is plentiful and the building is started, they’ll feel like they’re already home.
There are also some location problems that can potentially make your colony unhappy. Bees like to be cool in the summer and a hive that gets hit with full afternoon sun every day might heat up more than the bees like.
Objects directly in front of the hive may cause confusion too. Bees like a clear flight path out their front door and even a fence in front of the entrance might be too much (though there are some scenarios where something placed in front of the hive to encourage the bees to attain altitude quickly as they leave has its advantages).
Animals sniffing around can make bees feel very unsafe. Put your hive on a raised platform to discourage critters. Even established colonies can be upset by changes in their environment, so think twice before putting up that fence or cutting down that shade tree near your hive.
There are three major materials that spring to mind when thinking of the products of bees: honey, wax, and propolis. You may not know the third one immediately, but it’s a very important part of the hive in terms of structure and sanitation. First, though, let’s look at the better-known materials our bees make.
Wax is everywhere in a hive. In some ways, it IS the hive. Your store-bought equipment has lots of wooden components, but in the wild a colony will likely set up shop in the hollow of a tree, meaning all that structure is bee-made.
The vast majority of the hive is comb – a series of interlocking hexagonal cells made of wax. It is in these hexagons that brood is raised and honey and pollen are stored. Bees make it all!
Worker bees have glands on their bodies that produce little flecks of wax. These glands work best when the bees are 16 to 18 days old, then degrade as they age. It may sound like a short window of time, but when you only live for a month, three days is no small commitment!
To make wax, a bee eats honey and converts the sugar inside her body. It comes out clear through pores on her sides and then either she or a nearby bee will chew it, mixing it with saliva to make it workable. She adds this little mouthful of wax to the comb, then starts the process all over again.
It takes about six pounds of honey to produce a single pound of wax.
If you are a beekeeper, your end goal may be honey. If you’re a bee it’s your end goal, too, but for very different reasons.
Honey bee colonies need to overwinter and thus need to stockpile a huge amount of food for when it’s too cold to go outside. Not only is it too cold to go outside, they also need to move their bodies enough to keep the inside temperature around 90 F. That takes a lot of energy and all of it comes from honey.
A colony needs about 25 to 30lbs of honey to make it through an average winter, but this number goes up considerably in colder locations. If the bees have space, though, they’ll keep stockpiling, and a good colony can make 100lbs in a season. Bees are tiny and a pound is a lot of honey. It takes about 55,000 miles of flight to produce a single pound of honey. There really is strength in numbers.
To produce honey, a worker bee sucks nectar from a flower through her proboscis and stores it in a nectar sac inside her throat. She carries it back to the hive, mixing it with enzymes in her saliva along the way. Back home, she opens her mouth and a housekeeping worker bee sucks the nectar into her own proboscis and mixes it with her own enzymes.
She also starts a process called ripening, which is basically the removal of water from the honey. She moves the honey back and forth between her nectar sac and her proboscis for 15-20 minutes. Every time it reaches her proboscis it’s exposed to the air and loses a little water. She then passes the honey onto another bee, who repeats the process. With every bee it gets a little richer.
If the nectar flow outside is low, bees concentrate more on what they have and will pass the honey around quite a few times. If the nectar flow is high, they’ll only pass it a couple of times before storing it in a cell.
Once in the cell, the honey stays there for a few days to allow more water to evaporate. If nectar flow is low, the bees will only fill the cell up ¼ to ⅓ of the way, which makes for better evaporation. If nectar flow is high or space is tight, they’ll fill it ½ to ¾ of the way. During this time, it drops from around 50% water to about 18%.
The bees then move it to another cell, which they fill ¾ of the way. After 1-4 days, the honey should be ripe, with its water content around 18%. The bees cap it with a layer of wax to prevent further evaporation.
Propolis is less well-known than honey and wax, but it’s still very important to the colony. Also called ‘bee glue’, it’s a kind of filler the bees use to patch small holes and insulate the hive. It is super sticky and never hardens completely because it is 50% tree resin.
When bees are out foraging, instead of visiting flowers they’ll sometimes visit trees that are weeping resin or sap. They collect it on their back legs, just like pollen, and carry it back to the hive to be mixed with wax, pollen, oils, and over a hundred other compounds. The result is propolis and it’s used in all kinds of ways around the hive.
If it’s not made out of wax in the hive, it’s probably made out of propolis. If a space is smaller than a centimeter, bees consider it too small for comb and fill it in with propolis. It creates an almost solid barrier that keeps the cold out. They’ll also use it to change the shape of the hive, for example to close off a wide entrance or to smooth over rough surfaces. Bees may also store up to a pound of propolis for emergency patch jobs.
There’s another use for propolis and it’s pretty amazing.
A mouse is small enough to climb inside a beehive. He might be looking for food or warmth but instead he meets with thousands of territorial bees. It only takes five stings to kill him. At this point, the bees have protected their hive but now they have a decomposing corpse that is way too heavy to move. There’s only one thing for it: the bees encase the mouse in propolis, essentially mummifying it and keeping it from contaminating their home.