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The Honey Bee Colony

A colony of honeybees in early summer consists of a queen, thousands of workers and a few hundred drones living together as a community upon double-sided combs containing brood and stores of honey and pollen. The queen alone lays the eggs from which the other members of the colony develop, the workers from fertilized eggs and the drones from unfertilized eggs laid in slightly larger cells. The combs are made of wax secreted by the workers. In colonies living ‘wild’ in hollow trees or in cavities in walls the workers construct the combs unaided, but in modern moveable-comb hives the beekeeper provides thin, flat sheets of beeswax, embossed with a regular hexagonal pattern and enclosed by hanging wooden frames, for the bees to use as a foundation upon which to build the rows of cells on either side. The fertilized eggs laid by the queen in worker cells take three days to hatch. The tiny grubs, or larvae, are fed by nurse bees and grow rapidly to reach their full size five days later. Their cells are then sealed over with porous cappings of wax and the larvae turn into pupae from which the young workers emerge in another 12 -14 days, when they chew their way through the cappings to join the older workers on -the combs. Drones take a few days longer to develop. By midsummer the colony will have reached its greatest strength, with up to fifty thousand or more bees if all goes well. Thereafter, the population of workers will decline, and by early autumn all the drones will have died, leaving the queen and a reduced number of workers to survive the winter. Breeding starts again early in the year, (January or February) , slowly at first, but with gradually increasing numbers of young workers emerging to replace the old, over-wintered bees until the peak of egg-laying by the queen is reached about four months later. The cycle of colony growth and decline might, however, be interrupted by the issue of a swarm, usually sometime in May, June or July. The causes of swarming are not fully understood, though it is known that overcrowding of the hive is one of the predisposing factors. Whatever the cause, the effect is that a large proportion of the workers, together with the queen, pours out of the hive during the heat of a fine day and flies around before settling in a tight cluster on a nearby bush or other convenient support. If the swarm is not taken by the beekeeper, the bees and the queen will eventually fly off to establish a new colony in a new home, discovered for them by scout bees, usually some distance away from the hive from which they issued. The rest of the bees will remain behind in the hive, with the brood. On the brood combs will be some queen cells large, acorn-shaped cells which hang mouth downwards and contain larvae hatched from normal fertilized eggs but fed on a special diet of ‘royal jelly’ produced by die nurse bees. In these cells queens will develop, one of which, after mating in the air with several drones in succession, will become the new laying queen of the swarm’s ‘parent / original’ colony. The issue of a swarm brings about a sudden depopulation of the hive, and a consequent decrease in the foraging capacity of the colony, at a time of year when nectar is likely to be readily available. It is, therefore, important for the beekeeper to take steps to avoid his bees to swarm, by using methods to be discussed later, if he in the maximum amount of honey possible.

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