Inside the Honeybee Hive

Honeybees are classified by the genus Apis. The most common group we would see here in Ireland are part of the Western Honeybee group: Apis mellifera. These are medium sized bees that when found in the wild build their comb within cavities in trees or burrowed in the ground. Honeybees can also be considered semi-domesticated as we house them in both domestic and commercial settings within wooden hives but they still have the ability to swarm and establish themselves out of the hives.

Honey in a frame
A typical hive used by beekeepers
Photo credit: Marcus Ward

Interestingly it is thought that honeybees evolved from the sphecid wasp and were originally predators.1 Now they are fuzzy pollinators that spend their summers collecting nectar and pollen from flowers, trees and weeds. As humans we rely heavily on pollinators like honeybees to pollinate the majority of our food supplies.2 It is becoming more and more important to have patches of wild flowers in built up areas and to significantly reduce our use of pesticides.

Western Honeybee Apis mellifera with a large pollen sac on her hind leg
Source: Wickimedia
Two workers feeding on a rapeseed pollen ball
Photo credit: Rachel Ward

How is a colony organized?

Honeybees are arranged in three casts (groups) within a colony. First, we have the drones, the male honeybees. These make up a very small number within the hive as honeybees are a female dominant insect. The role of the drone is to provide genetic diversity to the species of honeybees by mating with virgin queens from surrounding hives. Unfortunately, once their job of introducing the diversity to the species, the drones die.1

The workers make up the second cast. This group is composed of infertile females that make up the numbers within the hive.  Their roles span from cleaning and building cells within the frames; nursing the freshly laid larvae to guarding the queen and foraging for food to feed the hive.

Finally, there is the head of the hive, the Queen Bee. This lady is the fertile female that is responsible for laying the larvae that will build the colony numbers. She also ensures that the hive is a collective unit by producing a pheromone called “queen substance” and enjoying a diet of royal jelly. 3 The Queen lives between 3-5 years, it is speculated that her lifespan is so long due to her diet of royal jelly. 4,5 Royal jelly is a nutrient rich substance that is produced by the nurse bees. Honeybees, like bumblebees, are eusocial meaning that there is a single fertile female (the Queen) and the infertile females work collectively to rearing the upcoming generations.

Winter to Summer Hives

During the summer months there are ~80,000 workers and between 200- 1,000 drones, with the workers life span lasting up to 6 weeks. This means that the Queen is busy laying new frames for emerging bees. The increase of workers within the hive occurs at the same time as flowers and trees come into blossom, this allows the hive to collect huge stores of food which are used to sustain the emerging broods.

Workers collect pollen and nectar and use their Hypopharyngeal Gland (hpg): a paired long tuberous organ connected to numerous acini (sac like structures) which are composed of ~a dozen secretory cells and is located within the frontal part of the bees head above the mandibles to produce honey.6,7 Workers also collect a substance called propolis from trees or woody shrubbery, this is “bee glue” that workers use to plug gaps or holes within the hives or frames.

Worker honeybee schematic diagram
Source: diemomentknipserin
Propolis above the frames
Photo credit: Rachel Ward

What happens to bees in winter? Do they migrate, or do they follow the path of bumblebees where only they Queen survives through hibernation?  Honeybees do not hibernate or migrate during the winter months, instead they survive through the winter within their hives enjoying the food that the summer bees stocked up on. You could say that winter bees are the indulgent lazy relations of the hard-working busy summer bees.

Winter bees form a cluster within the hive and move over and along the frames maintaining a hive temperature of 37 °C, protecting the queen and eating until they are full. The colony population drops significantly during winter in comparison to summer as hive numbers are reduced to 30,000 workers and no drones. During the winter workers can survive up to 6 months, this reduces the need for the Queen to continuously lay and significantly decreases the demand on the food resources.

A Honeybee hive is always a metropolis of activity and the bees are always busy collecting food sources, pollinating plants and rearing the broods the Queen lays. It is only during the winter months that the bees activity decrease and they enjoy filling themselves on the food stores prepared for them by the summer bees. These highly organised insects are essential to all life and bring beauty and colour into our gardens. The more we can do to help them the better our lives will be as a result.

Small steps matter! “Look deeper into nature, and then you will understand everything better”- Albert Einstein

  1. Coffey, M. F. (2007). Parasites of the Honeybee. Teagasc.
  2. Potts, S. G., Biesmeijer, J. C., Kremen, C., Neumann, P., Schweiger, O., & Kunin, W. E. (2010). Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in ecology & evolution25(6), 345-353.
  3. Hooper, T. Guide to Bees and Honey; 4th ed.; 2008;
  4. Furusawa, T., Arai, Y., Kato, K., & Ichihara, K. (2016). Quantitative analysis of Apisin, a major protein unique to royal jelly. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine2016.
  5. Ramanathan, A. N. K. G., Nair, A. J., & Sugunan, V. S. (2018). A review on royal jelly proteins and peptides. Journal of functional foods44, 255-264.
  6. Feng, M., Fang, Y., & Li, J. (2009). Proteomic analysis of honeybee worker (Apis mellifera) hypopharyngeal gland development. BMC genomics10(1), 645.
  7. Ramanathan, A. N. K. G., Nair, A. J., & Sugunan, V. S. (2018). A review on royal jelly proteins and peptides. Journal of functional foods44, 255-264.

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