The most common domestic hive is the movable Langstroth type, made up of stacked boxes. Each box contains tray-like frames made of wax or plastic, which slide in vertically and provide a base for the wax honeycomb cells. Honey is deposited in the upper boxes, and the lower boxes house the queen and most of the bees. After the beekeeper has removed the honey, the frames are usually returned to the hive so more honey can be deposited.
Workers begin the beehive by building a lattice of beeswax – a honeycomb. Its cells will contain the growing young and store honey and pollen. Building is hard work – it takes as much food to make a kilogram of beeswax honeycomb as it does to produce 8 kilograms of honey. It has been estimated that bees have to fly the equivalent of 1,160,000 kilometres to produce 1 kilogram of beeswax.
Workers use wax taken from 12–17-day-old worker bees, which secrete the wax from glands on the underside of their abdomen. The size of the glands depends on the bee’s age. For wax secretion to occur, the temperature in the hive has to be 33–36°C.
In commercial hives, beekeepers recycle most of the beeswax so the bees can concentrate their energy on making honey.
The life of worker bees
Worker bees have a busy but short life, the duration of which depends on the season – four or five months in winter, but only six weeks in summer.
Having just emerged from egg, larva and pupa stages, adult workers stay inside the hive. They clean previously used cells so they are ready for new eggs, feed larvae, build honeycombs and store food. Food storage involves sealing dried honey into cells with a wax cap. Pollen brought into the hive for feeding the brood is also stored. It is blended with a small amount of honey to prevent spoiling, then the mixture is firmly packed into comb cells.
The term honeymoon came from the old custom of giving newlyweds mead (an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey) for the first 30 days of their marriage.
Young nurse bees (workers 3–5 days old) feed worker larvae ‘beebread’ made of pollen and honey. Advanced nurse bees (workers 6–11 days old) feed royal jelly to the queen larva and to drone and worker larvae which are 1-3 days old. Drones do not feed themselves – they are fed on demand by workers.
The next phase of the worker’s life is to take a short turn at ventilating and guarding the hive. They fan the hive to cool it during the day and dry the honey at night. To guard the entrance of the hive, workers check incoming bees to ensure they have the correct odour and are bringing in food. Strangers are attacked and may be killed.
The final period of a worker’s life is spent foraging for nectar and pollen.