In order to exploit the products of the hive it is important to have an understanding of the way bees organise themselves.
There are a number of things to remember when it comes to keeping bees. They make honey for themselves, not for people. You can look at a hive as a single super-being with lots of units (bees) that all live and work for the whole colony – not themselves. The queen isn’t the boss of the hive although she does control many processes in the hive. There are more ways of loosing a colony than you can imagine.
Beekeeping takes dedication, understanding, courage, perseverance and money. We can only help with the understanding bit. As a part of a ‘good life’ set up, a couple of hives are a must. In a good season you might get a hundred jars of honey and this will see you in cakes, jars of mead, medicines and sweet things, through the whole year. Though, personally, I don’t like honey in tea – but then I don’t take sugar either!
But this yield doesn’t come for nothing. You have to take time to understand your bees, provide the right environment for their various needs and prepare for the various seasons and treat the colony against various diseases.
So what goes on in the hive?
The castes of the bee are often described as being Queen, Worker and Drone. However, this puts the wrong emphasis. We often think that the queen is the most important bee in the hive, but this is not accurate. So we will start with the boss bee:
Depending on the time of the year there is between thousand and thirty thousand workers in the hive. The life of a worker bee is made up of three sections of 22 days. It is 22 days developing as an egg and grub, 22 days working inside the hive and then she wears herself out flying around collecting nectar and pollen for the final 22 days. The only workers to deviate from this are the ones that over winter in the hive.
Once they emerge from their cells they learn the layout of the hive and then start housekeeping duties. Their days are spent feeding the queen, cleaning cells, feeding grubs, cooling the hive, cleaning the hive, evaporating honey, making repairs, protecting the hive, gluing things up (they love to do this!), and learning the language of bees.
At around 22 days they start to fly. First they take an image of the hive and its geography. Once they understand this they make longer and longer flights and start collecting nectar and pollen. Honey bees are complete masters at pollinating plants and your crops will be much improved if you have a beehive nearby.
Bee decision making
Many people have heard about the waggle dance, the way bees communicate the direction and position of a good food supply. But they are more interesting still. When a number of bees return to the hive from two competing food sources, the workers decide which one is best to exploit first. Once this one is exhausted, the other is started on.
Some worker behaviour is dominated by the queen, who keeps her place in the hive by emitting hormones. The workers know her peculiar cocktail of chemicals and will attack any intruders that do not smell of her. For this reason amalgamating queen-less workers with a queened colony needs to be done slowly, so that the additional bees can accumulate their new queen’s smell.
However, if the queen is not able to lay eggs properly, perhaps because of injury, the workers will force new virgin queen cells and kill the injured queen by clustering round her and literally cooking her – she dies from heat exhaustion.
Workers wear themselves out. They travel many miles in hunt for honey, work every hour of daylight of the 22 days of their foraging and usually succumb to exhaustion somewhere away from the hive. Any that die overnight in the hive are thrown outside by workers the following morning.
Her majesty is far from bossing the hive. She is simply an egg-laying machine. If she dies the workers will rear a new queen, and if this fails the workers themselves will lay eggs. However, if this happens the colony is on its last legs indeed. (A queen-less colony is normally very angry and noisy.)
The queen’s job is to lay eggs and she will do so at an amazing rate, so long as there are clean cells to lay in and the temperature is high enough. She will lay fertilized eggs in ordinary cells and these will become workers. All the workers in the hive are sisters. She will lay unfertilized eggs in slightly larger cells made by the workers specifically for the purpose of raising males.
She will lay in a queen cell which is noticeable by the fact that it hangs from the bottom of a frame, or sticks out from the side of a honeycomb. This egg will be fed on a special substance, royal jelly, and this will cause the grub to develop into another queen.
Around May time the hive would naturally divide – something that beekeepers hate, and is called swarming. Often the old queen, who gets out of the way of a newcomer, causes the swarm. Usually a queen is good for around three year’s worth of eggs, except that by beginning of year 3 her egg supply is significantly reduced. You can almost guarantee that a three-year-old queen will be near her last days.
In order to tell how old, and indeed to help you spot the queen amongst a series of workers, beekeepers mark their queens with paint on the thorax. The colour code, which we will look into in more depth another time, is repeated every five years. No one is expected to have a queen that has lived this long.
These are male bees. They are larger than workers but smaller than the queen. They have only one function, but it is a very important one. They provide two things for the colony. Firstly they provide sperm to provide the queen with the ability to create new bees. Secondly they provide something given to them by their mother. This is genetic variation. When the queen produces drone eggs they are genetically slightly different to each other. This is the driving force of bee evolution, because at the end of the day the only hope bees have to overcome microbial advances against them is to be genetically diverse.
Over the years the actions of beekeepers have tended to be counter evolutionary, and this is reflected in the health status of honeybees – now under threat on all sides.
Drones fly with queens in pre determined sites. The queen knows where this is and will fly to where there are many drones, unseen above our heads at some considerable height. The queen will mate with ten or more drones and collect a large volume of sperm that will last her for the rest of her life. Inside the queen are many billions of sperms, all genetically different, and from many different drones – so it can easily be said that the worker bees in a colony are only half sisters.
It is the workers that decide how many drones are provided for in the colony at any one time. The queen will only lay a drone egg in a drone cell, and it is the workers who limit the numbers of drone cells in the hive. The queen herself has no say in the matter.
When the autumn comes, the bees are in decline and the colony prepares for winter. Since it takes a teaspoon of honey to keep a honeybee through the winter, the number of bees in the hive is drastically reduced. The drones are expelled from the hive and die outside of cold and hunger. The workers will not let them in no matter how desperately they fly around the entrance. Since drones have no sting they are powerless to resist, many an interested hour can be spent watching the workers expel drones again and again, with increasing ferocity. The entrance to a November hive is littered with dead bodies.
Among the first eggs to be laid in the spring are drones. They are likely as not needed for a new queen, if one is necessary, she will need plenty of fertilized eggs as soon as possible if the colony has a hope of increasing its numbers in time to take advantage of new nectar flow.