Blandford and Sturminster Beekeepers Association
Blandford and Sturminster Beekeepers Association

A Year in the Hive

In January the bees just hang out. Literally. They do not hibernate but one group hang onto the top of the hive frames, the next group hang from the first and so on. They form a ball of bees somewhere towards the middle of the hive. At this time there would be 15,000 workers (female), 0 drones (male) and 1 queen (female). The colony is totally dependent on the queen. If she dies over winter the colony will ultimately collapse and die. The bee keeper will have worked hard to make sure that the colony has all they need and the queen's attendants will make sure that her needs are met, they even feed her. It is too cold outside to fly; the only exception is what are called cleansing flights - even for bees, when you have to go you have to go.

And so the month passes. The bees break open the stored honey from the hexagonal cells in which it is stored and pass the food around. As with all things that bees do, the organisation and cooperation is mindstaggeringly beautiful, and the food is distributed evenly around the 15,001 bees without problem.


February is likely to be similar. Perhaps March too. It all depends on the temperature. Bees fly when the temperature gets to 13 or 14 degrees Celsius. On a warm day when the temperature is right the bees will rush down to the entrance, hook their rear wings to their front wings and launch themselves into the light. They will rise quickly and start to circle the hive. This is what beekeepers call the familiarisation flight. For most of a flight a bee will navigate by the sun (they can see ultra-violet light so they can tell where the sun is even on a totally overcast day), and only when they return to the hive will they use the memory of how the hive is situated to get home.


The bees segregate themselves into scouts, foragers, water carriers, guards, nurse bees (for the young larvae) and queen attendants. How they organise this one of the miracles of bee organisation. Numbers have to be adjusted so that there are enough of each and not too many of any one type. It is all controlled by the queen using pheromones. The other thing she has to manage carefully is the number of bees in the hive. Over winter there are about 15,000 bees in a hive, and in the summer this climbs to 80,000.

In order for there to be enough bees to collect the nectar and pollen, the queen must lay enough eggs at the right time so that bees are available. A bee cannot fly for the first three weeks of its life, and usually does hive duties for the next three weeks. That means that six weeks before the weather reaches flying temperature the queen has to start laying many more eggs. How does she know? Only a queen bee can tell you. And if she gets it wrong there will be mouths to feed and no food.


Male bees (drones) are not kept in the hive over the winter. Their only job is to mate with queens; they don't even feed themselves. So they die in the autumn and new drones are born in the spring.


May and June arrive. Scouts fly and on their return, and those who have found nectar become the centre of attention. They perform what is called the waggle dance. This indicates what direction relative to the sun the nectar was found in and at what distance. The foragers then stream out of the hive, pausing only to hook back wings to front they leap into the air and fly up and up.


When they arrive at the flowers they suck the nectar into cavities in their bodies. The flowers are so arranged that in getting to the nectar the bees brush against the  pollen which then sticks to their hairy bodies. The bees also collect other pollen and store it in their pollen sacks (just behind their knees!) Finally. laden and sated the bees fly off and make their way home. They land near the entrance to their hive and the guard bees smell them to check that they are not robbers. The bees then unload the pollen and nectar for others to store and they are back off for more.


The bees fly and fly back and forth collecting stores for the hive. These Summer bees do not live long, nine weeks on average, after which they fall exhausted and die. This means that the queen must lay eggs at an amazing rate. To maintain a hive of 80,000 bees the queen must lay 1,250 eggs per day, almost one per minute continuously.


This carries on throughout the summer. The source of nectar and pollen changes as plants come into flower or finish. As the season turns, the weather cools and the queen reduces her laying rate. By mid august it is nearly all over. The drones are either killed or driven out of the hive. The egg-laying rate reduces and reduces so that as Autumn bites the colony has reduced to about 15,000 bees and these are winter bees; fatter than Summer bees and longer living. Their job is to keep going through the winter until the following Spring. They eat the honey that has been produced during the year, or if some beekeeper has stolen it the sugar substitute that he has left in its place.


In September the colony starts to form its winter cluster around the queen. They use stores and by flexing their wing muscles they keep the temperature warm inside the hive. This continues for the rest of the year.


The queen lives a completely different life to the workers. She is looked after by attendants and is fed and cared for by them. Her job is to lay eggs and control the overall hive activity. She lives about five years, but at the end of this time she tires and cannot lay sufficient eggs. The workers then build queen cells and eggs laid in those cells are fed with royal jelly which causes the larvae to develop into young queens, called princesses.


When the first of the princesses is born her first action is to go 'round killing all the other princesses, and the old queen if she is still alive! She then goes out on her nuptial flight. She heads for a drone congregation area, an area above some local high point like a church spire. There she mates with about 14 drones, for each of which, alas, it is a terminal affair! She stores the sperm in her body and returns to the hive for a lifetime of egg laying.


Each egg is laid upright at the bottom of a hexagonal cell in one of the frames in the brood box. For the first three days the egg turns so that it is horizontal and then develops into a larva. The larvae are fed by the nurse bees. After 5 days (7 for drones) the larva is sealed into the cell. 3 days later (4 for a drone) it pupates and 10 days later eats its way out as a fully formed bee. Its first job is to clean its cell so that the queen can reuse it to lay another egg.

When a colony of bees becomes strong and has filled its hive, it often then makes a decision to swarm. This is how colonies of bees reproduce. It is not that bees in pairs make other bees as mammals do, but half the colony leaves splitting the colony into two. The process is that a new queen cell is made and filled, and when it is capped the old queen, along with a number of the workers, fly off in a large and noisy swarm. Some people feel threatened by swarms but they are just a group of creatures looking for a new home and if you don't trouble them they don't trouble you.


The swarm don't initially fly very far. They find something on which to rest while they decide where to go.


Once they are settled, scouts go off looking for suitable homes. This is the point at which people often contact beekeepers. It is generally much better for a beekeeper to take the swarm rather than leave it to its own devices, because it may end up in a currently unlit chimney or in a porch entrance or somewhere from where they cannot easily be displaced.


Once settled the queen is encouraged by the workers "lay-eggs, lay-eggs" and both hives continue gathering nectar and growing to full strength hives. One has become two.

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