Introduction to the science and art of beekeeping

Hello everyone, welcome to this introductory post on the science and art of beekeeping. In order to keep and manage bees for profits, we need to have salient understanding of the bee colony organization and behavioral aspects associated with them. Beekeeping beginners for some reason should fundamentally have this knowledge

This is basically because each step and practice applied in managing the bee colony will have profound impact on the capacity of the colony to survive and thrive in its environment at any given time.

In the natural systems, bees live in nests, while in the man-made beekeeping environment; bees are kept in hives for production, pollination or procreation. It is important that we understand factors that affect bees and that we try as much as possible to mimic their natural environment if we are to optimize on their productivity

Honey bees on a comb

Worker bees on a comb

Before we delve into the behavioral aspects of bees and how we can align our management practices to these behavioral patterns, we may want first to understand the bee as an animal at individual level, and bee colony as a super organism

Bees as eusocial organisms

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Eusocial species, are any colonial animal species that lives in multi generational family groups in which the vast majority of individuals cooperate to aid relatively few (or even a single) reproductive group members”.

Eusocial organisms like the bee, have highly specialized task differentiation, making them very efficient at resource gathering and colony defense and care of the brood. In bee colonies workers (though females) forgo the reproductive function due to developmental limitations and are thus focused on work that is beneficial to the colony

Workers may never reproduce during their entire lives; however, they gain adaptation benefits that strengthen the colony and aid the reproduction of a queen, who is typically their mother.

So, in a bee family, only one female (the queen) has reproductive capacity and plays that role and is therefore the mother of all members of the colony.

The rest of the females are workers and play such roles as foraging for food, caring for the young, and maintaining and protecting the nest

A bee colony is thus made up of overlapping generations and strict division of labor leading to specialized behavioral groups referred to as castes

The coordination of tasks and the central organization of the entire colony to efficiently act on tasks according to their specializations gives rise to a collective behavior which may cause a bee colony to be seen as a single super organism

Bee castes

A bee colony is made up of three different castes:

  1. The queen – single fertile female that specializes in laying eggs that give rise to other bees and also coordinates and controls the hive activities through chemical substances and pheromones. The queen is equipped with a sting but her sting is only meant for fighting rival queens
  2. Drones – male bees whose main function is to mate with virgin queens. In most cases, drones will mate with virgin queens from other hives out in the drone congregation areas. Drones can also play a part in hive temperature control by fanning their powerful wings. They are however not equipped with sting and are chased out of the hive at the first sign of food scarcity
  3. Workers – these are sterile females. At the genetic level, they are exactly the same as the queen, however inadequate diet leads to reproductive underdevelopment making them incapable of beneficent reproduction. They are however endowed with fitness for work to care for the colony and avail every provision

Roles played by different castes in the hive

The queen

Each colony or bee hive normally has only one queen

The main role of the queen is to lay eggs. She also controls the activities and behavior of the colony by giving specific instructions based on chemical substances and pheromones it produces for the purpose.

A queen bee lays between 1000 to 3000 eggs per day depending on season to maintain the have population and colony size.

Sizable colony is desirable in accomplishing all the work in the hive associated with feeding and caring for the queen and the brood, collecting floral resources from the field and defending the colony from intruders and robber bee colonies

A queen can live for as long as five years, but the most productive phase of her life is between one and two years. After this her egg laying potential starts to deteriorate leading gradually to weaker colonies.

Beekeepers would therefore want to have queen replacement programs in place to replace the queens annually

Drones

A hive could have up to about 300 drones. This is dependent on the seasons, drones are raised in the hive mainly when there is abundance of food (honey flow season)

Bee colonies raise large number of drones when they are preparing to swarm, this is therefore an indication and sign of swarming

The main role of the drone is biological function of fertilizing the queen. This should not be misunderstood to mean that they fertilize the mother queens in the hive, no. Why? Because a queen is only fertilized once in her lifetime

So the drones raised in many different colonies will fly out in the cool of the afternoon to designated areas known as the drone congregation areas

Virgin queens in the surrounding area will also fly to these areas half an hour later. The drones will then join into the frenzy of completion to fertilize the queens

Generally a queen will mate with eight to 10 drones, storing all the sperms in the spermatheca cells to be used during her entire lifetime. She uses them to fertilize every egg that is meant to produce a female bee (workers and queens). Eggs meant to produce drones are laid unfertilized (therefore drones are haploid while workers and queens are diploid)

In the process of the scramble to mate with queens and perpetuate their genetic materials, successful drones will die because part of their reproductive system pulls off in the process

Apart from the biological role of mating with the queen, drones are stout bodied, big and very strong. They therefore have very strong wings, they help in temperature control in the hive by rapidly flapping their wings creating air current

They do not however do any other work. They are not equipped to forage, neither are they equipped to defend the hive. They are therefore the first ones to be sacrificed at the slightest sign of food shortage. The workers drive them out of the hive

Workers

Workers do all the work in the hive for the colony to survive and thrive. They however have a short lifespan of four to five weeks only

Some of the work performed by workers include

  • – Cleaning the hives
  • – Grooming the queen
  • – Collecting nectar and pollen
  • – Feeding the queen and the brood
  • – Building combs
  • – Defending the colony
  • – Keeping the brood warm

In order to accomplish all these duties effectively, worker bees have strict guidelines on division of duty and task specialization according to their ages.

Tasks of worker bees by age

One to two olds – newly hatched neophytes, they clean comb cells and cluster in brood areas to keep brood warm

Three to five day olds – feed larvae that are more than three days old on mixture of honey and water. Their royal jelly glands are not yet mature

Six to 11 day olds – they feed young larvae and the queen on royal jelly. Their hypopharyngial glands are fully developed and start secreting royal jelly

From day 12 to day 17 – the worker bees have a variety of activities:

The wax gland is fully developed and they build combs using wax secreted from the wax glands

They transport food in the hive

Their enzyme glands are fully developed so they receive and process nectar from field bees and stores in the cells of the comb

They receive and process pollen from the field and packs it into the cells

From day 18 to day 21 – the poison glands are fully developed, they guard the hive entrance from intruders and robber bees

From day 22 to the end of their lives – they become field bees going into the field to look for nectar and pollen

Honey bee life cycle

Bees undergo complete metamorphosis.

They go from egg – larvae – pupae – adults