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Back to Basics: The Bees!

So in this post I’m going to cover probably the most important aspect of beekeeping… the bees! Now bees are very complex so I’m not going to go into full detail because otherwise you would be sat here reading this for an extremely long time! My plan is to cover a bit about the roles within a hive and try and give you some informative, fascinating and downright extraordinary facts about bees.

Her Majesty, The Queen

The queen marked with red to show she was born in 2018, queens born in 2019 will be marked green

So I’m going to start this section off by expelling a beekeeping myth. The queen has no more control over the hive than the workers, she can’t tell them what to do and in many cases it’s the workers telling the queen what to do!

The queen is the only bee in a ‘normal’ hive capable of laying eggs and reproducing. The reason I say normal hive is because if a hive is without a queen for too long for any reason the workers can attempt to lay eggs, it doesn’t work but its a last ditch attempt to save the colony. The queen lays around 2000 eggs per day during the summer months, to give that some perspective the queen is laying her own body weight in eggs, every single day!

To make sure the queen is able to lay at that rate the workers look after her, feeding, grooming and even guiding the queen around the hive to areas on comb they need her to lay in. Amazingly the queen can choose to lay an egg that becomes a male (drone) which is unfertilised or a female (worker) which is fertilised depending on the needs of the colony.

When the queen runs out of space to lay eggs it signals the on set of swarming, this is where the workers start to produce a second queen so that the hive can split in two. When this happens the old queen stops laying and the workers restrict food and keep her moving to lose weight, she loses 1/3rd of her weight which allows her to fly with the assistance of the workers to their new hive!

Did you know that in the first few days of hatching a worker bee larvae can be changed into a queen bee by feeding it large amounts of royal jelly a natural substance made by the bees, amazingly just the change in food during the first few days of its life means that unlike a worker who’s lifespan is about 6 weeks a queen can live up to 7 years!!

Drones

A good overview of the different castes on honey bee (Apis Melifera)

Drones are male bees, they’re bigger than workers but despite that don’t actually have a stinger which is part of the female bees reproductive system. Films like ‘Bee Movie’ show all of the males working as worker bees, in reality the males are solely there for reproduction after which they die. The drones are looked after by the workers and fly out to drone congregation areas… scientists still don’t really understand how they pick these spots but all the drones from hives in the area somehow know where to go.

Bees are notoriously hard working and as the saying goes there’s no such thing as a free meal. In late September when the bees know the winter is coming the drones are kicked out of the hive because it gets too cold for them to go out on mating flights and they eat food without providing anything in return, bees really are very efficient! In the spring when the weather starts to warm up the bees start to rear drones which then reproduce with queens from other hives.

Time For The Real Work To Begin, Workers

Worker bees with larvae (white) and bright pollen probably from Snowdrops or Crocus

So there’s an awful lot I could write about workers as they make up over 95% of hive population but I’ll try and keep it short and sweet. So, as you will know from the section on drones and the queen, workers are all female but unlike the queen can’t lay fertile eggs that become other workers.

The role of a worker changes throughout its life depending on it’s age and the needs of a colony. Below you can see what jobs they do throughout their usual 6 week lives, notice there is some overlap and that is just them responding to needs of the hive.

Days OldJob In The Hive
1-3 Housekeeping – These bees clean the wax cells ready for the queen to lay in.
3-16 Rubbish Disposal – These bees remove rubbish including bees and larvae that have died in the hive.
4-12 Nurse Bees – They check on  and feed the larvae, on average a single larvae is checked 1,300 times per day.
7-12 Attending to the Queen – Feeding and cleaning the queen.
12-18 Fanning the hive, controlling the temperature and humidity of the hive
12-35 Building the hive – Bees from 12 days old can start producing wax.
18-21 Guarding the hive – Standing a the hive entrance stopping intruder bees, wasps or other predators.
22 -42 Collecting resources – Collecting honey, water and propolis (tree resin) for the hive

Workers hatched in late September onward are ‘winter bees’ their bodies are actually subtly different from the workers hatched in the summer. The winter bees have slightly higher fat bodies in their abdomen that allows them to reserve more energy. This small difference means the workers born just before winter live for several month until the next spring, that’s necessary because during the winter it gets too cold for brood to be reared in the hive.

This Week’s Update

So the weather this week has been unseasonably good, it’s given me a chance to go around my hives and have a little look inside, I’m pleased to report that all of them are looking healthy and growing fast! This could be good or bad news depending on the weather to come, but we will keep a close eye on them and make sure everything goes alright no matter what the weather!

I hope you have found this post interesting and now know a little more about life inside a hive, as I said this is a very quick look at honey bees. If you want to learn even more about bees and get hands on why not take a look at our beekeeping experiences.

Thank you for reading our blog and supporting our business. If you have any questions about this or beekeeping in general ‘id love to know, leave a comment below and I will look at doing a post answering some of your questions.

Matthew Ingram


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1 thought on “Back to Basics: The Bees!

  1. Another fascinating blog on your bees Matthew. So interesting. Thankyou.

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