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Beekeeping Basics

Bees and Honey (The Basics of Beekeeping)

Why do Bees Make Honey?

Honeybees collect nectar and store it as honey in their hives. Nectar and honey provide the energy for the bees' flight muscles and for heating the hive during the winter period. Honeybees also collect pollen which supplies protein for bee brood to grow.

The Colony

Beekeeper checks bees on brood framesHoney bees live in colonies that are often maintained, fed, and transported by beekeepers. Centuries of selective breeding by humans has created honey bees that produce far more honey than the colony needs. Beekeepers harvest the excess honey. Beekeepers provide a place for the colony to live and to store honey in. The modern beehive is made up of a series of square or rectangular boxes without tops or bottoms placed one on top of another. Inside the boxes frames are hung in parallel, in which bees build up the wax honeycomb in which they both raise brood and store honey. Modern hives enable beekeepers to transport bees, moving from field to field as the crop needs pollinating and allowing the beekeeper to charge for the pollination services they provide.

A colony generally contains one breeding female, or "queen"; a few thousand males, or "drones"; and a large population of sterile female “worker” bees. The population of a healthy hive in mid-summer can average between 40,000 and 80,000 bees. The workers cooperate to find food and use a pattern of "dancing" to communicate with each other.


The queen is the largest bee in the colony. Queens are developed from larvae selected by worker bees to becomeQueen Bee with attendant workers sexually mature. The queen develops more fully than sexually immature workers because she is given royal jelly, a secretion from glands on the heads of young workers, for an extended time. She develops in a specially-constructed queen cell, which is larger than the cells of normal brood comb, and is oriented vertically instead of horizontally.

She will emerge from her cell to mate in flight with approximately 13-18 drone (male) bees. During this mating, she receives several million sperm cells, which last her entire life span (from two to five years). In each hive or colony, there is only one adult, mated queen, who is the mother of the worker bees of the hive, although there are exceptions on occasion.

Although the name might imply it, a queen has no control over the hive. Her sole function is to serve as the reproducer; she is an "egg laying machine." A good queen of quality stock, well reared with good nutrition and well mated, can lay up to 3,000 eggs per day during the spring build-up and live for two or more years. She lays her own weight in eggs every couple of hours and is continuously surrounded by young worker attendants, who meet her every need, such as feeding and cleaning.


The male bees, called “drones”, are characterized by eyes that are twice the size of those of worker bees and queens, and a body size greater than that of worker bees, though usually smaller than the queen bee. Their abdomen is stouter than the abdomen of workers or queen. Although heavy bodied, drones have to be able to fly fast enough to catch up with the queen in flight. Drones are stingless.
Their main function in the hive is to be ready to fertilize a receptive queen. Mating occurs in flight, which accounts for the need of the drones for better vision, which is provided by their big eyes.

In areas with severe winters, all drones are then driven out of the hive. The life expectancy of a drone is about 90 days.

Worker Bees

A worker bee is a non-reproducing female which performs certain tasks inWorker Bee carries Pollen support of a bee hive. Worker bees undergo a well defined progression of capabilities. In the summer 98% of the bees in a hive are worker bees. In the winter, besides the queen, all bees are worker bees. Workers feed the queen and larvae, guard the hive entrance and help to keep the hive cool by fanning their wings. Worker bees also collect nectar to make honey. In addition, honey bees produce wax comb. An important function is to collect pollen as a source of food for developing bees in the hive.

Honey Bee Products

Of course, honey is the main honey bee product that most beekeepers are interested in. However, there are a few other products of the hive that are also extremely important.

Two story Bee hive in SpringHoney: In the hive the bees use their honey stomachs to ingest and process the nectar a number of times. It is then stored in the honeycomb. Nectar is high in both water content and natural yeasts which, unchecked, could cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment. After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed - bees inside the hive "fan" their wings creating a strong draft across the honeycomb. This enhances evaporation of much of the water from the nectar. The reduction in water content, which raises the sugar concentration, prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by the beekeeper, has a long shelf life and will not ferment.
Beeswax: Worker bees of a certain age will secrete flakes of beeswax from a series of glands on their abdomen. They use the wax to form the walls and caps of the comb. When honey is harvested, the wax can be gathered to be used in various wax products like candles and creams.
Pollen: Bees collect pollen in the pollen basket (a concave area on the hind legs of the bee with special hairs to hold the pollen in place) and carry it back to the hive. In the hive, pollen is used as a protein source necessary during brood-rearing. In certain environments, excess pollen can be collected from the hive. It is often eaten as a high protein health supplement.
Propolis: Propolis (or bee glue) is created from resins, balsams and tree saps. Honeybees use propolis to seal cracks in the hive. Propolis may be used in cough drops and medicines.

For more information about honey, honey bees, beekeeping and related topics, see several online articles in Wikipedia, from which much of the above content appears, and which credit is given. A special credit goes to the National Honey Board, USA, for developing the original wording template (web 27dec 2008). This version was edited by J.Campbell 1 March 2009 for this site, using photos from personal collection of J. Campbell, executive member of RRAA, and can be used with permission. Many universities also publish beekeeping information online through their cooperative extension programs.