If you are considering adding a beehive or two to your homestead, it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about honeybees first. Bees are so beneficial and not only do they provide delicious honey, they also pollinate our gardens and produce beeswax that can be used to make candles and other useful items.
Every beehive is occupied by three different types of bees.
- Worker Bees: Worker bees don’t lay eggs. They are the female bees that take care of the queen. They are also responsible for collecting pollen and nectar from miles around, building the honeycomb, and tending to the young bees. If all that’s not enough, they also produce royal jelly with glands located on their heads. This nutrient dense substance is fed to the baby bees (larvae). Now you know where the phrase “Busy as a bee!” comes from.
- The Queen: The queen is the only female in the hive that lays eggs. She is taken care of by the worker bees. They feed her and protect her in exchange for her providing eggs to sustain the colony. If your hive’s queen dies, she will need to be replaced in order for the hive to survive. Sometimes, the hive will attempt to replace an older queen. This is usually the only time the female worker bees will lay eggs.
- Drones: The male bees are called drones. The drones have one job; mating with the queen during her mating flight. That’s it! They don’t even have stingers or baskets on their legs to collect pollen.
Lifecycle of a Honeybee
Understanding the lifecycle of your honeybees will help you to know if your hive is healthy. First, the queen will lay her eggs in an empty cell. She may lay up to 2,000 eggs in one day! The eggs are very tiny and white.
In about three days, the eggs will hatch and become a tiny larva. Honeybee larvae are chubby and white. They are also helpless, so they are fed and cared for by the worker bees. They are fed royal jelly for about three days. After that, they are given pollen and honey. The larvae are fed an astonishing 1,000 times daily. In about six days, the larva will be quite large, and the workers will seal the larva in its cell.
Hidden away in its cell, the larva becomes a pupa. For the next two weeks, the pupa will undergo a dramatic transformation. It will grow into a fully-grown honeybee with legs, eyes, antennae, wings, and stripes. At maturity, in 12-14 days, the bee will chew its way out of the cell. If the hive is growing a new queen, however, she will grow much faster (7 days) and only be fed royal jelly.
Young worker bees are in charge of cleaning the hive and taking care of the queen and larvae. When they get a little older, they will produce was to build the honeycomb. They also guard the hive. When they are around three weeks old, they will begin to leave the hove in search of pollen and nectar.
A Day in the Life of a Worker Bee
The life of a working honeybee is actually quite fascinating. The foraging worker bees will fly from flower to flower collecting nectar in their special stomachs. Pollen will be collected on the fuzzy hairs of their legs and on their bodies. On their hind legs, they also have special cavities (pollen baskets) that hold large amounts of pollen. They collect water, too, and everything is taken back to the hive. While they’re going about their business, the flowers are being pollinated.
Meanwhile, the worker bees that remain inside the hive build the honeycomb that’s used to store food and raise the brood. When the foraging bees return to the hive, they pass the collected nectar to the house worker bees who use special enzymes to convert the raw nectar into honey. They place the honey into the prepared cells and fan it with their wings to remove any excess moisture. It will then be capped with wax if it’s meant for storage.
The workers store pollen and honey in the cells that are closest to the larvae at the bottom of the hive. When those cells get filled up, they will begin to store honey up higher in the honey supers, provided by the beekeeper.
The Importance of Scent
Scent is very important to the function of a bee colony. Bees use pheromones to communicate and the queen has her own special pheromones. When the queen stops communicating or her pheromones become weak, the bees know it’s time to create a new queen. Worker bees also produce special pheromones that can warn the hive of danger and help guide the foraging bees back to the hive. Even the brood gets in on the act by producing special pheromones that tell the workers when it’s time to change their diet or seal them in their cells.
Worker bees also communicate with each other by doing special dances that tell the other bees where the food is located. These intricate bee dances can reveal how far away the food is, how much food is there, the quality of the food, and the direction in which it’s located according to the sun. In fact, bees actually use the sun as a sort of compass for telling direction.
There are several varieties of honeybees choose from. Two of the most common are:
Italian honeybees: They are gentle bees that produce a lot of honey. The only drawback is that they use a lot of their honey to maintain their brood during the winter, so you will need to leave them a good amount of honey to get them by.
Russian honeybees: These are a hybrid strain that combines a few traits from both Italian and Carniolan honeybees. They are naturally resistant to mites and they overwinter very well. You need to keep an eye on them in the spring because the colony will grow rapidly, and they may outgrow their hive and decide to swarm.
As an up-and-coming beekeeper, learning about the lifecycle of the bees in your care is a great place to start. Beekeeping may seem a little intimidating at first but knowing what a healthy hive should look like is half the battle.