What to Know Before Starting a Beehive Pt.1

How Bees Make Honey (there’s science to it)

Honey begins as nectar, a sugary liquid secreted by flowers. Worker bees use their tongue-like labellum to lap (not suck) up the nectar and then store it in what’s called the honey stomach or crop. This is different from the stomach used for normal digestion, the ventriculus. Bees use the honey stomach as a chamber to break down the nectar in a process called inversion. During inversion, an enzyme called invertase breaks sucrose down to its simple sugars: glucose and fructose. Another enzyme called glucose oxidase breaks down the glucose and slightly increases the honey’s pH. Back at the hive, the product is regurgitated from the honey stomach into the mouth of a house bee to continue the refining process. It is possible for this honey to be regurgitated by multiple bees and takes place over a twenty minute period. To speed up the evaporation process, the bees begin to fan the honey when it becomes about 20% water. After the water concentration is reduced to 17-18%, they finally move it to cells and cap them with wax for long-term storage. A single bee will only produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

Beeswax

Beeswax is produced from small glands on the underside of a bee’s abdomen. These glands form white flakes that bees soften by chewing before use for construction.

Wax scales
Source: How to Keep Bees & Sell Honey by Walter T. Kelley

How Bees Use Pollen

Honey provides energy, while pollen is a bee’s main source of nutrients. Ross Conrad claims that, “honey bees get all their vitamins, minerals, fats and protein from bee pollen”. Pollen is so vital for the health of larvae that bees store it in and around the brood nest. Fresh pollen has a high moisture content and excess must be stored in capped cells to prevent mold growth. This stored pollen is called bee bread. To prepare this pollen for storage, worker bees fill approximately three-quarters of a honey comb cell with pollen and then fill the rest with honey.

What is Royal Jelly?

In order to become a queen, a female larvae must be fed royal jelly exclusively. It is secreted by the hypopharyngeal gland of the young nurse bees and is made up of more than 50% water and contains proteins and sugars.

Propolis (Bee Glue)

Propolis is made from a resin-like coating found on the leaf buds and flowers of trees and other plants. The coating is used as a defensive barrier that protects those delicate plant parts from pathogens and insects. Honey bees simply scrape off the coating and carry it back to the hive just as they do with pollen. Actually, the propolis looks very similar to pollen when carried by a bee, except that it is usually chestnut brown in color and glistens in the sunlight.

Propolis is the glue that bees use as a cement for various purposes such as filling in holes or cracks, repairing combs, and making the hive entrance easier to defend. There have also been cases where bees have completely encased intruders like mice and snakes with propolis.

Honey Bee Life cycle and biology

There are three classes of bees in the hive:

Queen bee1
Center of photo: A queen bee

The queen is the mother of all the bees in the colony. Queen bees develop faster and live much longer than worker bees. Queens develop in 15.5 days while worker bees require 21 days. Queens live for several years as compared to a worker bee’s few months. She has a stinger that, because it is not barbed, allows her to sting multiple times without dying. She only develops reproductive organs, while the worker bees develop organs to produce all of the various chemical substances previously mentioned. She lays 1000 to 2000 eggs per day. Each egg is deposited on the bottom of a cell and a brood temperature of 97 degrees Fahrenheit must be maintained. Eggs usually hatch in 4 days. Fertilized eggs become females, the workers. Unfertilized eggs become males, the drones. Worker bees can lay unfertilized eggs. The food a larval female is fed determines whether or not she becomes a queen or a worker (as previously discussed).

honey-bees-335906_1280
Young bee emerging from cell

Workers are sterile females and all have stingers. Unlike the stinger of the queen, worker’s stingers are barbed. Worker bees only live about 6 weeks and change jobs as they age. The youngest bees clean the hive, feed larvae, build wax cells, and the make honey. House bees are typically between 12-18 days old. Bees responsible for foraging (nectar, pollen, water) are the oldest, around 2 – 6 weeks of age. By fanning their wings, workers also provide air conditioning and circulation for the hive to maintain correct conditions.

Drones are the males and are shorter, but heavier set than the queen. In my experience, the drones are easier to find in a hive than the queen. They do not have stingers and their only duty is to fertilize the queen and die in the act of mating. During a shortage of honey stores or at the end of a honey flow, drones are driven from the hive to starve. Drones are also the only bees that are allowed to enter any hive they wish without being attacked.

Sources

“Bee Pollen – An Overview.” Bee Culture, 29 Dec. 2016, http://www.beeculture.com/bee-pollen-overview/.

Conrad, Ross, and Ross Conrad. Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. Chelsea Green Pub., 2013.

Kelley, Walter T. How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey. Walter T. Kelley, 1993.

Pearson, Gwen. “Royal Jelly Isn’t What Makes a Queen Bee a Queen Bee.” Wired, Conde Nast, 29 June 2017, http://www.wired.com/2015/09/royal-jelly-isnt-makes-queen-bee-queen-bee/.

Triplehorn, Charles A., et al. Borror and DeLongs Introduction to the Study of Insects. Thompson Brooks/Cole, 2006.

Interested in starting a beehive? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts or ask a question!