Blimey it looks like Chaos!
To a newcomer to beekeeping, looking at life inside a beehive for the first time it probably appears as if they are all just acting randomly. Admittedly individual bees do spend a lot of time ‘resting’ they are actually still helping while doing this by actually keeping the temperature of the colony at the right level, so they are all working together for the good of the whole colony. Think workers co-operative. Each individual is governed by the others, wether it is collecting and storing food or searching for a new nest site. Individual bees cannot survive for long on their own.
Building Beeswax Comb.
The Colony lives on a structure called comb, which is made from beeswax this is secreted from glands on the underside of workers abdomens. The workers then manipulate the tiny pieces into their jaws where they are softened before being added to the comb. The individual cells are built up on either side of a midrib, normally they are built from the top of the nest site downwards with the inner ends of the cells lower on the midrib. The hexagonal cell is one of the most efficient structures possible in the use of materials and strength.
Ok so let’s move on and have a closer look at the colony.
A colony only has one Queen, and as such she is the only bee that is able to lay fertilised eggs. It does sometimes happen that female worker bees will lay eggs, but because a worker be cannot mate, then these eggs are always unfertilised.
Genetics in bees is complicated, the only thing you need to understand about it though is that the Queen can lay either fertilised or unfertilised eggs. The will both hatch and develop into adults, the difference between the 2, is that a fertilised egg will develop into a female worker while an unfertilised egg will produce the male or drone bee.
The Queen will only mate once in her life, and she can live 4 or 5 years. She will lay upto 1500 eggs a day when the conditions are right and these are all produced from stored sperm from her mating flight. Her sole task in the colony is to produce the next generation of drones and workers. The cohesion within the colony is also controlled by the pheremones that she produces which are passed around the nest as the bees feed.
The only role of the drone is to mate with a virgin queen, which a colony will produce as a result of swarming, death or loss of the old queen. Virgin queens and drones from neighbouring colonies, fly to an area that is determined by the topography of the area, these areas are known as Drone Congregation Areas or DCA’s. Once there the drones will investigate anything that might be a virgin queen. They form an orderly queue, well probably not that orderly, behind the queen and actually mate in the air. The not so lucky drone that manages to mate with her then dies and falls away and his place is immediatly taken by another one, queens will mate with between 10 – 30 drones on this one flight. The queen then stores the sperm in an organ called the spermatheca, when laying an egg, she will decide either to fertilise or not fertilise the egg before it is laid.
The Drones are unable to collect nectar and pollen, their survival depends totally on what is brought back to the nest and stored by the workers. Towards the end of the summer and into autumn, as the colony prepares to cluster for the winter, the drones become a drain on the colony and will either be evicted from the hive or killed by the workers.
By far and away the majority of bees within a colony are the workers, who if you remember are all female. They are responsible for most of the tasks that are needed to ensure the colony survives and thrives.
Once the worker emerges from her cell she will go through diffent stages, cleaning cells for the queen to lay eggs in etc, then she will go on to feeding the larvae, she will also be tending and feeding the queen. When a workers wax glands become active she will use the wax to make or repair comb as it is needed. At around 2 weeks of age she will start receiving the nectar from foragers that return to the hive, the process of receiving the nectar creates enzymes which convert the nectar into honey, which she then stores in cells in the hive, she also packs down the pollen that is brought into the hive.
Before she becomes a forager herself she may become a guard bee for a while guarding the hive entrance to keep out robber bees or pests. She will start leaving the hive and hover outside the hive while facing the entrance, gradually moving further away, this is her learning the location of the hive, when she is ready she will head off and start foraging.
The main target when the workers are out foraging is Nectar, which is the source of carbohydrate, she carries this in her honey crop, she will also collect Pollen, which is packed into pollen baskets on her back legs. Pollen provides protein for the colony, when the colony starts to increase and there are large numbers of larvae that need feeding then more pollen is collected. Bees also need to collect water, for their own survival but also to dilute the stored honey so it can be fed to the larvae. Water is also used to help regulate the temperature of the nest.
The also collect Propolis, this is sticky resin that is secreted by various trees and it is taken back and used to fill cracks etc in the hive and just about everything else!!!
Foraging is incredibly demanding on the workers and they are so worn out that they will die after 2 -3 weeks, so her whole life is probably around 6 weeks long.
During the winter when the colony clusters to survive, the remaining workers physiology changes and they can then live 5 – 6 months, it is this coupled with the storage of honey and pollen that enables them to survive from year to year.
In the next article I will explain a little about the development of the different castes of bees.
I hope this has been of use to you, as always if you have any comments or questions please leave them below or give me a follow on Facebook and contact me there and I will answer them as soon as I can.
See you next time