Understanding the bee colony

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A strong and healthy bee colony, with many workers and a strong queen that lays many eggs, is what every beekeeper pull out all the stops for. A strong colony will be of great fulfillment to the beekeeper, even though from time to time he or she will have to deal with weak and queen-less families and with swarming or absconding events.

The natural biological cycle of bees can partially be altered for the benefit of mankind. A good beekeeper must therefore know the ecology of bees in order to give them every possibility to follow their natural cycle or to alter where it will bring maximum benefit.

Honey bees are social insects that live in colonies ranging from 10,000 to 100000 bees. They are divided into three different castes.

  • Worker bees (unfertilized females)
  • Drones
  • The queen (fertilized female)

Bee combs

Bees usually build their nest in a dark, closed place such as cavities or hollow trees. The combs are made of wax, which is made by worker bee through wax glands located on the underside of its abdomen. Construction of the bee combs always begin at the top and proceed downwards. The wax flakes used for construction are produced through glands. The wax flakes are then removed from the abdomen via the forelegs and brought to the mouth where wax is chewed and positioned in the cells under construction. The combs consist of regular back-to-back array of almost hexagonal cells arranged in a parallel series.

Since the colony’s brood rearing or honey and pollen storage cannot be done outside the combs, the comb is one of the most important part of the colony. Within the Langstroth hive two main types of combs are found.

  1. The brood combs where brood is raised and stock of honey is stored. These are located in the “brood chamber” (large boxes comprising the lower body of a Langstroth hive). The combs with brood are located in the middle of the hive while combs with a store of honey are located on the side.
  2. The honey combs where bees store the nectar collected in the field which is to be ripened into honey as a surplus food stock reserve. These are located in the “super” and this is the honey harvested by the beekeeper.

The brood combs used to raise new brood are organized in this manner. Most of the brood cells (where eggs, larvae and pupae are found) are located at the center of the brood nest. Bees tend to store honey near the upper edges of the nest, while pollen is stored between the honey cells and the central brood area. This is the only place where pollen is stored within the hive. Honey and pollen is then used to feed the colony and the brood.

How the reproduction system is determined

Within the brood it is important to distinguish two main types of cells, which is identified according to the different size each of them has. Somehow they are linked to the castes mentioned above.

  • The smallest cells are where the worker bees are reared. They are called the “worker cells”.
  • The larger cells are where the drones are reared. They are called the “drone cells”. Usually they are located in the lower part of the brood comb.

Besides these two, there is also another type of cell when a new queen has to be reared. It is called the “the queen cell” and has a pine nut shape. This is where the queen is reared.

The size of the cell within the brood comb is one of the main factors determining reproduction system of the bees. In fact, the queen, recognizing the size of the cells, lays unfertilized eggs in the larger drone cells and fertilized eggs in the smaller worker cells. For this reason it is said that who determines the sex and the population size of castes in a colony is not the queen but the workers who decide the number of worker and drone cells to construct.

The other important factor determining the reproduction system of the bees is the type of diet. The queen is fed for her entire life with royal jelly. This food, made in the bees’ gland, is sometimes referred to as bee milk. Worker bees and drones on the other side are fed royal jelly in the first days; afterwards with water, pollen and honey.

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