Beginning Beekeeping Series: Session 0

It takes over 750 bees to make one pound of honey.

The bees need to visit nearly 2 million flowers to fill a 1 pound jar of honey.

The circle of life and honeybees

Before beekeepers came around, honeybees did fine all by themselves.  They lived in hollow trees and they spread clear across the country all on their own.  I think it is best to start by talking about how bees survive on their own, out in the wild, and not in those neat little white boxes we beekeepers put them in.  So think about a colony of bees living out in a hollow tree in the forest. “Colony” is the name we give to a functioning, self sustaining group of honey bees. A colony of bees has one queen, a few thousand drones (male bees) and several thousand worker bees (female bees).  They will build honeycomb out of wax that they secrete from glands on their abdomen. They attach the comb to the inside of the tree, starting on the top and the sides of the tree and building it all of the way down and through the hollow cavity. They will bring in pollen and nectar from the flowers in the area all around the tree, and they will store the pollen in those wax combs they built, and they will turn the nectar into honey and fill the combs with honey.  They will continue to do this until the entire space inside the tree is completely full and they run out of room.  

If they run out of room in the fall that means they have all the honey that they should need to get through the winter.  They will just hunker down all winter and eat honey to stay warm and wait for spring to start the whole process all over again.

If they run out of room in the early summer this means they had a really good year!  And it means there is plenty of summer left and they could use that time making more honey if they had space to put it.  It also means that even though it is early summer,  the colony should have enough honey stored to make it through the coming winter.  So this is the point in time that a colony of honeybees will essentially split in two and become two colonies.

Swarming is reproduction

This ‘out of room’ situation is the beginning of the swarm process.  Swarming is the honeybee colonies way of reproducing. When the bees get to this point early in the summer they will raise a new queen.  This new queen and half of the bees will get to stay in the hollow tree with all of the honey that is stored. This new queen and her half of the bees have it pretty good with a “turn key” house that is fully furnished with comb and the pantry is fully stocked with honey.  The old queen and the other half of the bees will all fly out of the tree together and go out to find a new home. They have a challenge ahead of them. First they will all cluster together on a tree branch in a big ball like a basketball or volleyball. And the old queen will be in the center of the ball for protection.  Then scout bees will start looking for a new home, a new hollow tree or something they can all move into. When they find a place to move into, the whole group will fly there and go inside. They will start building comb right away. All of the bees filled up on honey before they left their old home and if it did not take too long to find this new home they will still have honey left to store in this new comb.  But it is not enough honey to last more than a few days. They will have to find more nectar and pollen from the flowers in the area. They will need to make honey and they will have to build more comb to store it all in. They will have to work all the way through fall to build enough comb and make enough honey to get them through the coming winter. If the swarm is successful and survives the winter, then next spring there will be two colonies of bees in the forest where there had been just one.  If next year is good for both colonies they might both swarm and then there will be four colonies in the forest where there were only two. You can see that over the years honeybees can really spread if conditions are good. Honey bees are not native to the United States. People brought them over when this country was first settled and the bees spread faster than the settlers did. These days the bees are facing a lack of forage and pest pressures and they don’t spread too much on their own now. 

So that we can harvest honey, and to make inspecting a colony of bees possible, beekeepers put the bees in little white boxes called a hive.  These hive boxes have frames in them that can be removed and the bees build their comb within these removable frames. We can remove the frames and look at the bees and the comb and honey.  Removable frames have made it possible to observe and learn many of the things that we know about honeybees. 

Typical year in a beehive 

Whether they are in a hollow tree out in the forest or in a hive, there is an incredible amount of change going on in a beehive throughout the year.  In the summer months the bees are working really hard. The field bees are flying out to get nectar and pollen and bringing it back to the hive almost anytime the sun is shining.  Usually they work within two miles of their hive, but they can go as far as six miles to find flowers if they have to. They actually work so hard that they wear their wings down and burn themselves out and die in 4 to 6 weeks.  In the fall things slow down and the bees live a little longer. Those bees that get to stay in the hive and eat honey to stay warm all winter will live the whole winter and still be alive come spring. But the total population in the hive drops quite a bit in the fall and some of the bees die in the winter too.  The hive seems to find a balance between bees and honey so that there are not so many bees to feed in the winter that they run out of stored honey.  


When spring comes the hive is at its lowest population of the year.  And as those bees that lived the whole winter start to fly out and bring pollen and nectar in they start to work hard and they will start to die off after 4 to 6 weeks.  To replace the bees that are dying, as soon as the weather warms up enough in the spring the queen starts to lay eggs. All bees start out as a tiny little egg that is about the size of a grain of salt.  The queen will only lay as many eggs as the bees can keep warm when it cools off at night. Each time the queen lays an egg she can choose to lay a fertilized egg or an unfertilized egg. Fertilized eggs will develop into female worker bee.  It will take twenty one days (3 weeks) for each new worker bee to go from egg to larva to pupa and finally emerger out of their cell. Unfertilized eggs will develop into male drone bees and they take 24 days to emerge. Honeybees raise their young in comb that is the same shape as the honey comb you are probably familiar with.  As it gets warmer and as the population of the hive grows the queen will lay more and more eggs and can eventually lay up to 2,000 eggs per day.  

So if most bees are living 4 to 6 weeks,  and it takes 3 weeks to raise new bees, then each generation can live just long enough to raise one or two more generations.  The population increase starts slow at first but will eventually snowball and a typical hive managed by a beekeeper can reach 60,000 bees or more by early summer.


When things are timed just right, this population peak happens about the same time the resources available to make honey also peak.  You may think that there are always plants blooming and the bees should have a constant supply of resources. While there is usually something blooming that the bees can work, the amount of necare available fluctuates and  is usually only enough to build the hive up slowly or just maintain the hive. Then suddenly the amount of nectar available jumps up and peaks in what we call a nectar flow. When this happens there is more nectar available than what the bees have time to bring in.  If the hive population peaks before or during this nectar flow the colony can make a very large crop of honey. When conditions are right a hive of honeybees can make 5 pounds of honey in one day. The vast majority of the honey any hive will make all year comes from nectar collected during this flow.  In our area the flow starts around the second week of June and ends some time in July. That is a short 4 to 6 week period in which the bees make the majority of the years honey crop!  

The most likely time for a hive to send out a swarm is during the nectar flow or shortly after the nectar flow.  Remember, swarming happens when the colony has stored enough honey that they are prepared for winter, are out of space to store more honey and out of space for the queen to lay eggs in. And there must also be enough time left before fall so the swarm can make plenty of honey for winter stores. 


If the hive does not swarm then they will slow down a bit and only bring in necar when there is space for it.  Usually by the middle of August the nectar flow will reduce down to a point where the colony is actually eating more honey than they are making.  This opens up some space for the queen to lay eggs again and the colony will raise some new bees and start to balance things out so they have the right amount of honey and bees to get through the winter. 


In the winter the bees stay inside the hive and can only go outside and fly if it is above 50 degrees and sunny.  To stay warm they bunch together in a ball with the outside made up of tightly packed bees. We call this the winter cluster.  They will expand and contract this ball depending on how cold it is outside. They vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat and eat honey to give them energy to continue to do this all winter long.  When necessary they can generate enough heat to keep the center of the cluster at 96 degrees. Throughout the winter each bee is totally dependant on all the other bees to stay warm. If the number of bees is to few this winter cluster may not be able to stay warm enough to survive the cold.  If the number of bees is too many they may eat all of the honey before spring. There is no food source available to them other than the honey they stored last summer. So if they run out of honey before spring, then all of the bees will freeze and die.  


Spring again

It is difficult for the bees to survive until the first spring flowers provide an opportunity to bring in more food.  Some of the earliest sources of pollen and nectar that honeybees can use in the spring are Maple trees and Dandelions.  So don’t treat your lawns for dandelions. You can tell your neighbors you are saving the bees!  

That covers the life cycle and reproductive cycle of the honeybee without going into too much detail.  Honeybees are a fascinating subject that just gets more and more interesting the more you learn about them!