How Beekeeping Works

By: Dave Roos

Honeybee Biology and Colony Structure

bees, brood
The brood chamber is the place where the queen lays her eggs and where the larvae, as seen here, are fed and kept warm. Eric Tourneret/Getty Images

Of the 20,000 species of wild bees, only the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is used in the United States and Europe for honey production [source: Galway Beekeepers' Association]. That's because the Western honeybee's unique biology and "superorganism" structure allow beekeepers to work in tandem with nature to share in the bee's bountiful honey harvests.

Honeybees are social insects that live in highly organized colonies with complex divisions of labor. A honeybee colony is called a superorganism because the survival of the entire colony depends on the coordinated actions of individuals. Working together, bee colonies build and maintain hives, regulate the hive temperature, reproduce and raise young, and collect and store food in the form of honey and pollen. None of them could do it alone.


Queen, Workers and Drones

A honeybee colony contains between 60,000 and 100,000 individuals composed of three types of bees: workers, drones and the queen. Each bee plays its own critical role in helping the hive thrive in the spring and summer and survive the cruel winter months in northern climates.

The vast majority of bees in a honeybee colony are worker bees. Worker bees are sexually undeveloped females who are responsible for just about everything that happens in the hive besides mating and laying eggs. Their small bodies are equipped with special scent glands, pollen baskets and brood food glands that allow them to perform a litany of different labors in their short lives (six weeks in the spring and summer, and up to six months in the late fall to survive the winter) [source: MAAREC].

Worker bees are in charge of building the wax comb that holds eggs and developing pupae (known as brood), feeding the brood, taking care of the queen, guarding the hive entrance from robbers and other pests, ventilating the hive, foraging for pollen, nectar and water, and capping the precious honey stores.

Every honeybee colony has only one queen at a time. The queen's only job (and it's an important one) is to lay eggs. The queen is about twice the size of a worker bee and can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day, 250,000 eggs per year and close to a million over her lifetime, which can span several years. The overall health of a honeybee colony depends largely on the quality of its queen and her egg-laying prowess [source: MAAREC].

Drones are male bees with one simple task: mate with the queen. Mating happens in mid-air outside of the hive. The queen can mate with a dozen drones at once, storing their sperm in a special sac from which she can release measured amounts at the moment of laying her eggs [source: Orkin]. Drones are born from unfertilized eggs and are only allowed in the hive during the spring and summer. When winter sets in and resources are scarce, the drones are forced out and left to die.

A successful beekeeper must understand both the life cycle of individual bees and the life cycle of the larger colony superorganism. For example, a bee colony has different nutritional requirements during different seasons of the year, and if left to its own devices, a thriving colony in the springtime is likely to raise a second queen and swarm to a new hive site. All of this needs to be carefully managed if the beekeeper wants to benefit from the bees' hard work.

But before we dive deeper into starting a beehive and managing a bee colony, it's time to talk equipment.