Hive FAQs

Over 3,000 people visited the Bayer Bee Care Center in Research Triangle Park, NC, in its first year. During warmer months, tours sometimes include a close look at a demonstration honey bee hive shown by one of the Center’s experts. Participants have an opportunity to see a hive from the safety of the screened in hive observation porch. Below are answers to some of the most common questions asked during hive demonstrations. If you or a group is interested in visiting the Center, please consider registering today. In the meantime, check out this video featuring a hive demonstration or some of the Center’s Live from the Hive entries.

What does a smoker do?

(Demonstrations usually begin with a beekeeper using the smoker.) Beekeepers burn cedar chips or other fuels in a smoker in order to calm the bees when they open the hive. Normally, guard bees or bees injured during inspection release a pheromone in alarm. The “alarm” pheromone smells like banana oil, but smoke masks the smell and gives the beekeeper an opportunity to work while the colony's defensive response is interrupted.

A smoker calms bees for yet another reason. When the bees sense a fire, they begin consuming honey because they think they will have to abandon their hive (and honey stores). After gorging on honey, bees become calmer and their distended abdomens make stinging more difficult.

Where do honey bees store their food?

Honey bees store their food in the rows of hexagonal wax honeycomb cells on wooden frames in the hive. Bees store pollen as a protein source which is important for raising brood (young bees). They also store nectar, which they turn into honey that becomes an important energy source for them.

How do bees make honey out of nectar?

Nectar, a sugary liquid within flowers, is sucked up through the honey bee’s proboscis, a straw-like tongue. The nectar is swallowed into an organ known as the “honey stomach” where it mixes with enzymes. Once the honey stomach is full, the bee returns to the hive to transfer the load to a waiting worker bee’s honey stomach who then deposits it into a honeycomb cell. Other worker bees beat their wings over the top of the syrupy sweet liquid to fan out moisture and thicken the substance. When the honey is ready, the honeycomb cells are capped with wax for storage.

How do bees carry pollen?

Bees are equipped with branched (plumose) body hairs that can catch and hold pollen, and combs (scopae) or baskets (corbiculae) for collecting and carrying pollen. Pollen is a protein source used to feed developing brood.

What are the dark capped wax cells?

Honey bees live in colonies and construct vertical wax combs with individual hexagonal cells for storing honey and rearing brood (baby bees). Often these cells have a wax cap over them. The darker capped wax cells represent where the young brood or “baby bees” are developing. During the egg and larvae stage of development, worker bees feed and care for the young brood so the honeycomb cells remain uncapped. When the bees progress to the pupae stage, their eyes begin to darken. Worker bees cover up the cells with wax and the pupae finalize their development with pigment and hair. The fully developed adult bee will then chew its way through the wax capping and emerge to begin its life in the hive. To learn more about what bees look like during the 21 days they are developing in their brood cell, check out this TED talk.

Why do capped brood cells appear darker than capped honey cells?

Capped brood cells appear darker than honey capped cells because more bees are walking around and on top of the capped brood when caring for the young open cells. This traffic dirties or darkens the wax similar to how white carpet in someone’s home would look in a high traffic area without regular vacuuming.

Where does the queen bee live?

At the heart of the honey bee colony is the queen. She lays up to 2,000 eggs a day during the spring and summer months and can live for two to four years. She lives inside the hive laying eggs in the empty cells of the honeycomb. A queen mates early in her life and then remains in the hive laying eggs until she is replaced by a new queen. Queens are replaced by their colonies for various reasons including inconsistent egg laying, age, parasites, pests or viruses.

Why is the queen marked?

Beekeepers often mark the thorax of queens with a colored dot of paint that makes it easier to find her among the 40,000-60,000 honey bees in a hive. It also helps to document the queen’s age. Each year, the International Queen Marking Color Code designates a specific color to be used in marking queens. (White or gray for years ending in 1 or 6; yellow for years ending in 2 or 7; red for years ending in 3 or 8; green for years ending in 4 or 9; and blue for years ending in 5 or 0.) For example, if a new queen emerged in April 2015, the beekeeper would mark her with a blue dot representing that she was born in 2015.

How far will bees fly for food?

All bees are vegetarians and require nectar and pollen from flowering plants as food for themselves and their offspring. Bees also need a clean water source for cooling the hive, making honey and hydration. Bees prefer to forage within a 1-3 mile radius of their hive. If food resources are not readily available within that distance, they will fly 5-10 miles from the hive. The farther bees have to fly, the more physical stress on their already short lifespan of 4-6 weeks during the spring and summer months.

What is the difference between a worker bee and a drone bee?

Worker bees are females and are the smallest bees and make up the majority of the colony’s population. Typically, there are 40,000-60,000 worker bees that perform all colony duties within the hive, search for nectar and pollen, produce wax and honey, feed the young, and protect the hive against enemies. Drones are males and are larger than the worker bees with big buggy eyes that help them navigate mating activity in flight. There are only a few hundred drones in each colony and they serve only one purpose: to mate with virgin honey bee queens. Soon after mating, drones die.

Honey bee queens control the sex of their offspring by determining whether a particular egg is fertilized or not. Unfertilized eggs become drones; fertilized eggs develop into female workers and queens.

Why do you only open the hive a few times a week and only when it's warm?

To minimize the interruption of daily hive activity, it’s best to open the hive as little as possible. Each time a beekeeper opens the hive, it causes disruption for about a day and a half of normal hive activity. It’s also important to only go in the hive when conditions are optimal. This includes a warm day with no rain and preferably in the middle part of the day when the foragers are out working so there are fewer bees in the hive to disturb. Opening the hive when the outside temperatures are less than 55°F can chill the brood. During cold winters, the bees cluster together, feeding on stored food reserves and sharing their body heat. When it is raining, the bees cannot take flight and are stuck inside the hive. At this time they are less willing to be disturbed by a visiting beekeeper.

How do honey bees make honeycomb and what is it used for?

Honey bees have abdominal glands that secrete wax that is used to construct the honeycomb in the hive. Each honeycomb cell is then used as a place for the queen bee to lay an egg in or as a place to store pollen or honey.

How is a queen replaced?

When a queen is failing and needs to be replaced the worker bees will begin feeding several young fertilized eggs a high protein substance secreted from the glands in the hypopharynx by the worker bees. Worker bees also begin building a wax structure around the developing queen eggs called a queen cup. This structure will protrude off the frame and allow the developing queen room for her development. The developing virgin queen will feed on royal jelly exclusively during her 16-day development period. Upon emergence, the virgin queen will create a piping sound or “battle cry” signifying to any potential queen competitors that she is about to emerge. From there, the old queen along with any newly emerged virgin queens will fight it out to the death. The victorious queen will then mate and establish herself as the new queen in that colony.

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