How does a beehive work?

Since I guess I’ll be writing quite a bit about the furry aliens in the boxes in my back yard, it seems helpful to maybe create a tagged set of posts as “Beekeeping 101,” to provide some general information about the hows and whys. I’ll do my best to keep these entertaining.

As a city kid, I was dimly aware that I’d seen pictures of wooden boxes where bees lived. I’m not sure I’d considered the issue much further until about five years ago, when I started seeing news stories about Colony Collapse Disorder. CCD is still largely mysterious, but my personal (and probably badly informed) notion is that there’s a weakness stemming from widespread use of agricultural pesticides, pathogen vectoring from migratory beekeeping, and stress from the destruction of diverse habitats and their replacement with monocrop agriculture or subdivisions. Within this framework, novel combinations of disease are permitted to give rise to new complexes of disorders.

But that’s just me. In any case, CCD prompted me to embark on a years-long research project of understanding the mechanics of beekeeping until I finally felt comfortable enough to invest in two full sized hives, one “nucleus” hive (a half-sized hive; I’ll explain what that means in a minute), and two packages of honeybees from a South Georgia bee farm. My nucleus hive has no bees in it, but when I went outside today, several bees were inspecting it. Maybe one of my full-sized hives wants to swarm.

A Nucleus Hive, or Nuc. These five-frame hives are often used as starter hives, swarm traps, or to create "splits" from an existing 8- or 10-frame hive.

So from here, we should probably talk about “frames” and what those do. If you envision this box as a filing cabinet, the five frames basically rest inside the box much like files would.

Frames in the Nuc. This is three small-cell plastic frames, and two wooden foundationless frames. Both provide the bees structures to build on, and the beekeeper the ability to remove, inspect, replace, or rob (honey) from the hive.

The wooden foundationless frame and the black small cell plastic frame, inspected by my lovely assistant Newsprint.

If the Nuc had bees it in, Newsprint wouldn’t be so cavalier. He stuck his face in the entrance of one of my hives last year and then took off running. I haven’t seen him repeat the behavior, and otherwise the bees and the animals (including me) generally get along fine.

If we imagine that the Nuc was full of bees, they would have filled the empty wooden frame with comb, which they make from wax secreted by special glands on their abdomens and built out the plastic frame by drawing comb along the pattern stamped into it. They would be filling each cell with nectar, which becomes honey, pollen, which becomes various food products within the hive, or the queen would be laying eggs in the cells and producing brood.

Summer 2011, bees drawing out comb. The different colors indicate different contents and age of cells. Fresh comb is white.

These activities are happening in my two hives, and because winter has been warm and food appears to have been plentiful, they may be overpopulated, which would cause the colony (classified as a “superorganism”) to embark on its own reproductive adventure, called “swarming.”

In a swarm, approximately half of the population of a hive departs with the queen and sets up shop in some new rotted tree. The remainder of the hive stays behind and raises a new queen from the brood, and then the cycle repeats – in two colonies. It’s a good system that’s kept a healthy population of wild bees around for 100 million years or so, but seems to have failed in recent years.

Traditionally, beekeepers are extremely focused on doing what they can to prevent swarming, which slows down honey production for a while as the population rebuilds, or can kill a colony if the newly produced queen is a dud. As Africanized Honey Bees, so called “killer bees,” encroach on more US terrain, there’s also reason to worry about the genetics a virgin queen may encounter on her mating flight. While AHB is not documented to have gotten as far north as Atlanta (yet), I know of one local beekeeper who had to kill a hive that had gotten off the charts aggressive.

Anyway… What the nuc is positioned to do here, at the far edge of my garden, is catch a swarm. Which would be a pretty neat trick in my estimation. I’m waiting for a long enough period of nighttime temperatures that don’t drop much below 50 with sunshine in the daytime to add a box onto each of my hives. This reduces the urge to swarm by giving the over-populated hive room to grow, but obviously the bees operate on their own time frame. Hopefully I time it right, because the mild, wet winter means we may have an amazing honey flow this spring.

Today’s random bee picture: Bees drinking water from a discarded plastic cup in my garden’s retaining wall.

They like water they can smell, so these rotting leaves and pine needles provide media to grow microbes and produce aromas. I just stood there as half a dozen bees flew around and finally landed on the cup and climbed in. This has been their preferred water source since my neighbor drained his swimming pool for the winter.


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2 Responses to How does a beehive work?

  1. Pingback: Lately on the home and garden front | Stacie Boschma - Atlanta Freelance Writing

  2. George D. Mills says:

    I have been reading this information because I am new to the beekeeper hobby. I builded 3 hives so far I did not buy bees to populate my hive, should I buy some or wait to see if I can bait some in?

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