About the Honey Bees

flowerPollinating insects provide almost incalculable economic and ecological benefits to humans, wildlife, and flowering plants. Honey bees, Apis mellifera, are the third most economically important agricultural livestock globally.

Honey bees are indispensable to the stability of crop production and food security in the UK and across the world, contributing many millions to crop quality and quantity via pollination services. The first step in the production of fruit and vegetables is the pollination of the flower, of which 70% of the 124 main crops used directly for human consumption depend on pollinators.

There are different strains of the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Many in Britain are black or dark brown; others have yellow bands on their abdomens. Some bees are very easy to control, while others are virtually uncontrollable, especially in the hands of a beginner. It is very important to source bees of a docile temperament. The last thing you want in your first season is to have to deal with vicious bees and decide to give up beekeeping as a result.

beesHoneybees are social insects and live together in large colonies. Each colony contains one fertile female known as the queen, and many thousands of sterile females known as workers. For three to four months in summer, a colony will also contain a few hundred males known as drones. From early in the year until late autumn most colonies have developing young, (eggs, larvae, pupae), collectively known as brood. These are reared in wax combs which also contain the colony’s food stores.

During winter, brood rearing either ceases, or is greatly reduced and the colony lives on the food stores it has accumulated during the summer. At the height of the summer there can be a population of 50,000 -60,000 workers in a colony, together with a few hundred drones and the queen. During the winter, when there is little work to do, the colony population reduces to 15,000-20,000 workers and the queen.

Normally, there are no drones in a colony during the winter months. The honeybee’s ability to survive on stored food during unfavourable seasons and to regulate the temperature of its nest independently of the temperature of the environment has enabled it to spread to most parts of the world.

flowerIn our temperate climate honeybee colonies gather and store enough food reserves of honey and pollen to survive the winter. In a good year the beekeeper can take the excess honey from the colony, leaving enough for the colony to survive through the cold months until the following spring.

There are many different strains of the honeybee. The subspecies differ in colour, temperament, productivity, resistance to pests and diseases and so forth. Some bees are very easy to control while others are virtually uncontrollable, especially in the hands of a beginner.

The general structure of the honeybee resembles that of other insects, but each of the three castes (worker, queen and drone) are provided with special structures that are adapted for their specialised role.

Queen Bee

The queen bee

The queen is the largest member of the colony. Her role is to lay eggs to produce more bees. She is the only bee which can lay fertilised eggs and hence she is the ‘mother’ of the colony. Her long abdomen contains ovaries which can produce large numbers of eggs for prolonged periods of time. The queen can determine the sex of the offspring that she produces by controlling the fertilisation of the eggs that she lays. If the queen lays a fertilized egg, it will develop into a female bee (worker or queen). Unfertilized eggs develop into males (drones). Having this control is important for the wellbeing of the colony, as a colony must comprise a large population of workers to carry out most of the work. A queen will live for several years.

The worker bee

The worker does most of the necessary tasks in the colony except for laying eggs. These tasks include cleaning cells, feeding brood, producing wax, building combs, ventilating the hive, guarding the entrance, foraging for food and processing nectar into honey. The task each worker carries out is related to its age, for example, the youngest workers tend to act as cleaners within the colony, and the oldest workers are the foragers. This division of labour based on age (temporal polyethism) is adapted by the colony as necessary to meet it’s needs.

drone brood

The drone

The drone is heavier and larger than the worker, but not as large as the queen. The drone is the male bee in the colony and his role is to mate with the queen so that she can lay fertilised eggs. The drone’s sex organs take up a large part of its abdomen. Drones live for several months during the summer, but are ejected from the colony as winter approaches.