Beekeeping for Beginners: Honeybee Basics

Discover the basics of the honeybee, propolis, royal jelly benefits and more information on beekeeping for beginners.

Resting Bee

A bee at rest. Notice the head, thorax and abdomen.

Photo By Stockphoto/Antagain

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The lure of honey seems to have always been a strong incentive to people of all backgrounds across many cultures. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, Israelites and Romans are all known to have tended bees in locations as diverse as Africa, Europe and Asia. The ancient Maya also kept a variety of stingless (albeit less prolific) bees in Central America. But the bees we know and use today in North America are descendants of Western honeybees, which were developed in Europe and carried across the ocean by American colonists. Even prior to the 1700s, established beehives were already in place across New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

One problem that beekeepers faced throughout all these times was that there wasn’t a good way of harvesting the honey. Harvesting could involve the destruction of all or part of the hive depending on the type of hive used. Smoking the hives with sulfur was also sometimes used to kill the entire colony of bees, which would leave the physical hive intact but result in the destruction of all the bees.

All of this changed in the mid-1800s, when L.L. Langstroth of Pennsylvania developed a new style of beehive, which is still in use today. The Langstroth hive is special because it is made of individual components that can be easily taken apart and examined without upsetting the bees or destroying their work. The bees in this kind of hive build their combs and store their honey on a series of movable frames, which can be easily and nondestructively removed when it’s time to harvest honey. (For more on the Langstroth hive, see Reverend Langstroth and Beehive History.)

Today, beekeeping means different things to different people. For some it’s a business (of both honey collection and professional crop pollination services), but for many others it’s a lovely, enjoyable hobby that can give a lifetime of pleasure.

Members of the hive

A beehive is made up of three distinct types of bees:

1. Workers

2. Drones

3. The Queen

Let’s take a look at each type individually:

Worker bees are female bees that typically do not lay eggs. They do, however, tend to the queen, tend to the nursery of young bees, build comb, store food and fly miles and miles and miles from flower to flower collecting pollen and nectar. Wow! When people talk about “busy bees” they surely must mean the workers. Worker bees also have glands in their abdomen that produce wax, as well as glands in their heads that are capable of producing royal jelly, which is a nutrient-rich substance used to feed larvae (baby bees).

The queen bee is usually the only egg-laying female in the hive. For this reason, the queen is given special treatment from the rest of the workers. She is fed, tended, and protected by the workers. In exchange for their care, the queen supplies the hive with the eggs needed to sustain a healthy, working colony.

The queen is the largest bee in the hive, with a slender, elegant body — considerably larger than that of a worker bee. There are only two times when there might be more than one egg-laying female. One is when the main queen is aging and the hive is considering producing a replacement (known as supersedure). The other time is when the queen has died, and confused worker bees begin laying eggs. If you have laying worker bees (manifested by a sudden increase in the number of drones in the hive, or multiple eggs laid in one cell), then you have no queen and you’ll need to take action to replace her.

Before a queen can lay eggs, however, she must take to the skies and perform a mating flight with several drone bees, discussed next.

Drones are male bees. They have a slightly different build than the workers, with a generally larger body and significantly larger eyes to aid in the location of a flying queen. The drones fly with a new queen bee and mate with her, but do not contribute to the hive otherwise. You won’t see drones out collecting pollen, since their legs have no pollen baskets, and you won’t see them defending the hive — drones don’t have a stinger! They cannot produce wax for building, either. Still, they are essential to the lives of bees, and a healthy colony in mid-summer might be home to 1,000 drones.

The honeybee’s life cycle

Let’s take a moment to familiarize ourselves with the honeybee life cycle. It’s useful to you as the beekeeper to be able to locate, identify and understand the various stages of bees you’re looking at, because a healthy hive and a healthy queen will be producing strong brood (baby bees). Let’s take a look at this brood.

Eggs

All honeybees begin life as an egg laid by the queen in an empty hexagonal cell. On a busy summer day, a healthy queen might lay as many as 2,000 eggs!

Honeybee eggs are very tiny, and not always easy to find if you’re a beginner. Some people recommend using black plastic hive frames because the small white eggs will stand out more easily against the black and make them more visible.

Larvae

Within a few days, the egg hatches (“dissolves” might be a better word for it) and out pops a small larva. The larvae are white and chubby and don’t really look at all like insects. They can’t feed themselves, so they are fed instead by the workers.

Worker bees produce royal jelly out of glands in their heads. The royal jelly is a rich substance, full of vitamins, and the workers feed this to the larvae for three days. After that, the rapidly growing larvae are switched to a diet of honey and pollen. (If, however, the hive is replacing a queen, they will continue to feed a handful of larvae straight royal jelly, which will spark the development of a new queen.) The larvae are fed more than 1,000 times a day!

After about six days (it can be slightly shorter or longer depending on if the individual larva is to become a drone, worker or queen), the larva has eaten its fill and has grown quite large. It is at this time that worker bees seal the larva’s cell over with a cap made of wax and perhaps a bit of propolis (a sticky substance collected by the bees).

Pupae

Now is when the action really gets interesting. You won’t be able to actually witness this part, but underneath the cap of the larva’s cell, the once-larva has now become a pupa. Over the next two weeks or so, the pupa undergoes a fabulous transformation, known as metamorphosis. The pupa grows legs, sprouts wings, and develops eyes, antennae, and the stripes that are characteristic of a full-grown honeybee. After about 12 days since being capped (for workers) or 14 days (for drones), a fully developed honeybee chews its way through the cap and is free to roam the hive. (A queen bee, however, develops rapidly and only stays in the pupa stage for about seven days. During this time, the growing queen bee is exclusively fed royal jelly. If it weren’t for this, she would simply develop into another worker bee.)

Adults

After a pupa becomes an adult worker bee, she performs many jobs. Young adult workers clean the hive, tend to larvae and take care of the queen. Slightly older workers also begin to produce wax from the wax glands on their abdomens, which they use to build comb. Older workers also act as hive guards. It is only after about three weeks of adult life that they begin to fly outside the hive, visiting flowers and collecting nectar and pollen.

How bees work

So just what is it that your bees do all day long? Everyone knows they fly around and visit flowers — and they somehow make honey in the process — but what really goes on in their lives? We’ve touched on a few things already, but we’ll try to run through a more thorough description of honeybee life.

Worker bees outside the hive

Outside the hive, foraging workers visit flowers to collect nectar, which they store in their special “honey-stomachs.” While on the flowers, the bees also collect pollen on their bodies and on the fuzzy hairs on their legs (there is a special cavity on the hind legs of worker bees called a pollen basket where a large amount of pollen is collected), and then they haul the pollen back to the hive along with the nectar. In the process, they inadvertently pollinate flowers. They also collect water.

One other item that bees collect outdoors is a resin-substance known as propolis, which they retrieve from tree buds and sap. Propolis is quite sticky.

Worker bees inside the hive

Inside the hive, the worker bees build hexagonal cells made of wax. These are for storage and for raising brood. The propolis is used as a sealant for cracks in the hive and also as a building material. Bees are very particular about the spacing of areas inside their home. This is known as “bee space” and is about 3/8-inch wide. If a particular area is deemed a bit too narrow for them (for instance, the area between frames inside the hive), they will not hesitate to use propolis to fill in the cracks. Likewise, if the bees decided that a certain area is too wide, they will make it smaller with “burr comb” (which is just a name for comb that is not where you want it). Propolis is something you will certainly run into as a beekeeper; it will often stick to your clothing.

After foraging, worker bees return to the hive with their honey-stomachs filled with nectar. This nectar is passed to “house” worker bees that hold the nectar for a time. Both the foragers and the house bees use special enzymes to break down the raw nectar into simpler sugars. This new substance is then placed into cells, and the bees begin fanning the air with their wings to help dry out any excess moisture in the honey. If the bees don’t plan on using this particular honey for a while, they will cap it with wax for safekeeping and storage.

Both honey and pollen are stored in cells near the larvae, down in the bottom of the hive in the deep brood chambers; when these areas begin to fill up, however, the bees begin to store excess honey higher up in the hive in the honey supers, which are supplied by the beekeeper when needed.

Smell and communication

Smell is an important function in the life of the colony. There are special bee scents, known as pheromones, which are used by the bees as a kind of communication system. The queen bee produces her own particular pheromones, with which she can say encouraging things to the hive like, “I’m here, everything is OK,” and motivational things like, “Keep up the good work! Build that comb! Tend that brood!”

If a queen becomes elderly or dies, her encouraging messages become faint and disappear, and the worker bees sense this and go about the business of crowning a new queen (by feeding extra royal jelly to a few special larvae). When a young queen is on her mating flight, she releases another smell aimed at communicating her location to any nearby drone bees.

Worker bees have their own slew of pheromones. One is produced by the Nassanoff gland on their abdomens. You can sometimes observe a worker bee standing around outside the hive, with her abdomen pointed upwards. She is releasing a pheromone into the air to help guide her fellow foraging workers back to the hive. She’s saying, “C’mon — here’s the hive! Down here!” It’s not unlike a lighthouse beacon, calling in ships on the sea.

Worker bees can also warn each other of danger with their smells. If a bee stings something, it releases a “Danger! Caution! Warning!” signal throughout the hive, which just might make other workers consider stinging as well.

Even the brood gets into the pheromone act, which helps the worker bees properly tend to the needs of the brood. The brood may signal something like “We’re 3 days old — time to change our diet to honey and pollen!” The sense of smell is truly important to the socialization and productivity of the colony.

Dancing

And, of course, there are the famous bee dances, which workers use to help communicate the location of productive food sources (flowers) to their fellow workers. Workers perform two variations of the dance: a “round” dance and a “waggle” dance. The round dance is used to share information about a food source that is fairly close to the hive, while the waggle dance, which is a figure-eight, is used for food sources that are farther away. When performed, the two dances are able to convey information about the size of the alleged food source, its distance from the hive, the quality of the food source, and its direction relative to the sun. Bees use the sun in much the same way that a person on a hike might use a compass.

Bee breeds

There are a few different varieties/strains — “breeds,” if you will — of honeybees. We’ll discuss a few common varieties here:

Italian (Apis mellifera ligustica) honeybees are very popular. They’re good honey producers, they’re quite gentle (not aggressive), and they rapidly produce a large quantity of brood. However, they also maintain this brood over the winter, which means they need a lot of food to see them through; you may be needed to help supply some of that food.

Carniolan (Apis mellifera carnica) honeybees are another common breed. Like the Italian bees, Carniolan bees are gentle and easy to work with. They keep their numbers smaller over the winter, so they require less food in storage. They are also quite adaptable to variations in environment; they’re quick to take advantage of an early spring, for instance, but also just as quick to back off in hard times, such as a drought. They are, however, a bit more prone to swarming.

Russian honeybees are gaining popularity. The Russian honeybee, although technically a hybrid, shares some traits (and genes) with both the Italian and Carniolan honeybees. One of the Russian bee’s most appealing traits is its natural resistance to Varroa mites, a parasite that can cause serious problems for other breeds. Russian bees are also quite hardy and overwinter well, even in harsh northern climates. They maintain a very small colony over the winter, and this tendency helps them to make their stores of honey last longer. One potential problem with Russian bees is that they can reproduce very rapidly under bountiful spring conditions, and if the beekeeper is not careful, the Russian bees may outgrow their hive too quickly and decide to swarm.

There are other hybrid subdivisions within these categories.

Experienced breeders will sometimes create crossbreds aimed at surviving well in a particular geographical location, for instance.

Before making any decision on which breed to start your hive, it’s a good idea to talk to local beekeepers and get their opinions and suggestions before making your final selection. (For more on bee breeds, see Types of Bees for Backyard Honey.)

Excerpted from The Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping: Everything You Need to Know, by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson, with permission from Voyageur Press.


Honeybee Anatomy

As an up-and-coming beekeeper, it might do you good to take a closer look at the anatomy of our buzzing buddies. Honeybees are insects, of course, and like all insects, they have bodies that can be classified into three broad regions:

1. The head, which contains the bee’s mouth, eyes, brain and antennae.

2. The thorax, a middle section with three pairs of legs.

3. The abdomen, which contains some of the bee’s internal organs and the stinger if the bee is a female.