Looking at life inside a beehive, it can be difficult to make sense of what is going on. What are the bees doing? Why are they doing it? How do they organise themselves? Life inside a beehive might be difficult to grasp at a first look but, in fact, the activity is surprisingly simple…

Who lives in the hive?
There are three main types of bee which occupy a hive. At the “top of the tree” is the Queen. The queen is identified by her abdomen, which is significantly larger than any other bee in the hive.  Central to the hive, the queen is supported by thousands of female workers – the “worker bee” and, in the summer, hundreds of male drones. The function of the drone bee is to compete for mating with the queen and only about 20 or so will succeed. Drones do no work and in the early autumn they are evicted by the workers and die.

What is the purpose of the Queen Bee?
The queen is central to the survival of every colony and her main purpose is to lay eggs. Although she may be central to the hive, she does not “rule” it and, in fact, has a smaller brain than the worker bees; she is, in fact, an egg-laying machine. During April and May she lays day and night, each egg taking about 20 seconds. Put another way, that’s over 2000 eggs a day, more than her own body weight!

The queen mates only once and holds sufficient sperm from the male drones to lay eggs for 3-5 years. Sadly for the drone bee, he dies in the process! This creates the curious fact that A male drone bee has no father but does have a grandfather!

A healthy queen bee is continually emitting pheromones (a bee perfume) that only the bees in the hive can smell. These pheromone odours tell the bees in the colony that the queen is still with them and all is well in the hive. This chemical pheromone communication is quite sophisticated and the ‘personality’ of a beehive will change if the beekeeper changes an old queen for a young one. In this way a beekeeper has some control over the temper and enthusiasm of a colony.

Types of eggs in hive

Looking more at life inside a beehive, it is possible to tell three different types of wax cell used for eggs.

In the smallest cells (5mm diameter) the queen lays fertilised eggs, which in 21 days produce the female worker bees essential to keeping the colony fed. In larger cells (7mm diameter) unfertilized eggs are laid which in 24 days become the male drone bees; in beekeeping language, the production of offspring not requiring mating is known as parthenogenesis.

The most curious of all the cells in the hive is that which is used to produce new queens. Colonies typically construct up to 20 wax queen cells which are acorn-like and hang vertically downwards and a colony producing queen type cells warns the beekeeper of an impending swarm.

Queen-making & swarming
Following the construction of the queen cells, the queen lays fertilised eggs in each one. Young (nurse) bees feed the young queen larvae with a rich creamy food called Royal Jelly, and extend the cell downwards until it is about 25mm in length.

Nine days after laying, the first queen cell is sealed with a layer of wax capping. This is the time for a large swarm (called a prime swarm) of bees when the old queen leaves the hive led by the older bees. The old queen has been starved of food to make her lighter and able to fly. The older bees can jole the old queen to join the swarm.

Eight days later first virgin queen leaves her cell. Two things can now occur, either the first virgin queen leads a smaller swarm from the hive (called a cast) or she locates the other queen cells and kills her sisters by stinging through the wax wall of their cells. About one week later the young queen takes her first flight to orientate her to her new surroundings.

The queen will shortly take several mating flights in which she will mate with up to 20 male bees called drones; three days later the mated queen will begin to lay fertilised eggs. She will stay with the colony until at least the following year when she too may lead a prime swarm. A swarm is the natural way for bees to multiply and produce new colonies. It is normally the culmination of queen rearing.

How a queen is made
From the outside, it is hard to imagine the life inside a beehive acting as a single unit to make its own queen – but this is exactly what happens!

The making of a queen is triggered usually by a combination of conditions such as congestion in the hive and lack of egg laying space this culminates in a swarm. It is not known why bees will only tolerate one queen but any attempt to introduce a second queen results in her death. However, if a queen dies unexpectedly during the summer the bees are able to make an emergency queen from eggs younger than 3 days old.

The typical life of a honey bee
Honey bee collecting pollenWhile life inside a beehive is literally a “hive of activity”, it is surprising just how short the lifespan of a bee actually is – but also how long, depending on the type of bee and when it is born. In the summer a worker bee only lives for about 40 days. As no young are raised over the winter months, the workers born in the autumn will live until the following spring. A queen can live up to 5 years although for the beekeeper a queen is past her prime in her third year.

The organisation of the beehive
If we consider all the life inside a beehive, and the face that a typical colony comprises of 35,000 in summer (dropping to just 5000 in winter) it is amazing just how much gets done and how every bee has its role. When a bee is born it’s first job is to clean out the cell in which she was born.

Jobs are then allocated on the basis of age, with each bee progressing through a series of tasks as follows:
1-2 days – Cleans cells and keeps the brood warm
3-5 days – Feeds older larvae
6-11 days – Feeds youngest larvae
12-17 days – Produces wax, Builds comb, Carries food, Undertaker duties
18-21 days – Guards the hive entrance
22+ days – Flying from hive begins, Pollinates plants, Collects pollen, nectar and water.

The Waggle Dance
One of the most amazing aspects of life inside a beehive is how the bees communicate with each other to pass on the location of food sources. To do this they have evolved a unique dance language, known as the “waggle dance”.

A worker bee returning from a rich source of food will ‘dance’ on the vertical comb surface by running in a circle, on each revolution the bee will bisect the circle at an angle.

The angle with respect to 12 O’clock represents the angle to fly with respect to the sun.
If the bee ran from 6 to 12 O‘clock i.e. straight up, this would say fly directly towards the sun.
And 7 to 1O’clock would mean fly just to the right of the sun, 12 to 6 O’clock ‘Fly directly away from the sun. In other words the bees translate the angle to the sun as an angle to the vertical.
To represent distance the bee ‘wiggles’ its abdomen whist crossing the circle, the more wiggles the greater the distance. So a bee will ‘say’ to it’s friends ‘Fly over there for about a 1 mile and you will find something that tastes like this’.

Like nearly every aspect of life inside a beehive – it’s simply astonishing that creatures so small are in fact very sophisticated indeed!

Image of Beattie Bee