A honeybee hive is an intricate social structure. Unlike bumblebee colonies, which survive less than a year, honeybee colonies last for several years. They may have as many as 60,000 bees, made up of three castes:
- the queen, who produces eggs
- drones or males, who mate with the queen and have no stinger
- workers, who are non-reproducing females.
Every hive needs a queen to continually lay eggs and renew the population. She deposits the eggs singly in cells of the wax comb. After three or four days, a larva hatches and is fed by a particular worker bee. Each worker will visit a larvae about 1,000 times, so can only look after three or four. Larvae develop into a pupa while still in the cell. Drones take 24 days and workers 21 days to complete the egg, larval and pupal stages.
There is usually only one queen in a hive, attended and fed by a small group of bees. On a sunny day she will fly out of the hive and into the air where only the strongest drones can follow. She will mate with a few of them, who then die. After a few days she is loaded with millions of sperm, and will start laying eggs at the rate of about 1,500 per day. A fertile queen is able to selectively lay fertilised or unfertilised eggs. Fertilised eggs hatch into workers or virgin queens, while unfertilised eggs produce drones. A queen lives three to five years, compared with drones, who usually die before winter, and workers, who live only a few weeks or months.
When a queen grows old or dies, or the colony becomes very large, workers raise a new queen. They feed royal jelly to virgin queens, which develop in enlarged cells of the hive. It takes about 16 days for a queen to complete the egg, larval and pupal stages. The first queen to emerge immediately kills her unhatched rivals.
Forming a swarm
New honeybee colonies form when a queen bee leaves the hive with a large entourage of worker bees. Swarming usually happens in spring, but can happen throughout the honey-producing season. In apiaries swarming is undesirable – if bees leave, less honey is made. To solve the problem, beekeepers may encourage the bees to start new colonies before the natural swarming time. Swarms may seem frightening, but the bees are not normally aggressive.
While some colonies live in hives provided by people, others will choose a ‘wild’ nest site that is clean, dry and sheltered. Ideal nests are about 3 metres above the ground, 20 litres in volume, have an entrance 4–6 centimetres square, and face north or north-west. Natural nest sites include hollows in cabbage trees, white pine or willows, or in large rocks. Most native bees live in small burrows in dry soil in banks or on bare flats – sometimes these are abandoned rodent nests.