July 9, 2016

Basic Anatomy of the Honey Bee

Like all insects the body of a bee is divided into three main sections, the head, the thorax and the abdomen.

Head of a Bee

The bee’s head carries the antennae, the eyes and the mouthparts. The eyes of a bee are interesting  as they consist of two kinds; two large compound eyes which are the bees main vision organ and on top of the head three simple eyes or ocelli, which are believed to monitor light intensity. Inside the head is the bee’s brain and glands.

Bee Thorax

The thorax is divided into three parts the pro, meso and metathorax. A pair of legs is attached to each of these thorax parts and the bottom two each have a pair of wings. The thorax ends in a segment called the propodeum which although looks like part of the bee’s thorax is really the first segment of the abdomen.

Internally the thorax contains the large muscles which power the wings which are also responsible for heat production both in flight and when controlling the temperature within the hive. There is also a smaller set of muscles which control wing direction.

The Abdominal Section of the Bee

The bee’s abdomen is joined to the thorax by a narrow band or neck called the petiole. The abdomen is composed of six visible segments. internally the abdomen contains the bees heart, alimentary canal, wax glands, sting and sex organs.

More about Honey Bee Anatomy and Physiology

A Closer Look at Honeycomb

Honey bee nests are made from honeycomb, which is made up of a mass of hexagonal wax cells built by the bees from wax . Each of these cells are used to contain honey and pollen stores and all stages of the young or brood from egg to pupa.

These hexagonal cells are built up on both sides of a central vertical plain known as the septum . The base of the cell on one side of the septum serves as the base for the cell on the other side, thereby maximizing the space created using the least amount of wax.

The hexagonal  honeycomb cells are not all the same size but come in two distinct sizes. Cells used to rear worker bees measure  approximately 5 to an inch, while those for the larger drone bees measure approximately 4 to an inch. Both types of  cells can also be used to store honey.

The honeycomb cell walls are very thin, only about .006 of an inch in thickness, with a slightly thicker top or coping. Propolis is used to strengthen and varnish the cells.

It is believed that the reason that honeycomb is composed of hexagons, rather than any other shape is that the hexagonal shapes cover a surface and create cells in a way that is composed of the least surface area. That is, the bees have typically used the most efficient way to maximise the storage space in an area while using the least amount of wax.

In a typical hive or nest in the wild the honeycomb structures or frames will hang vertically. The bees will build or draw the hexagonal cells out enough to hold the developing young bees or honey. If the cells are used for brood there will be enough space left for two bees to work back to back between the vertical honeycomb and if the cells contain honey to maximise the storage space there will be only enough space left for one bee to work between the honeycombs. The cells are also cleverly angled at about 13 degrees, which is just enough to prevent honey or nectar dripping out.

More about Honey Bee Colonies

Correct late winter / spring management of your bees is vital to the survival and productivity of the bee colony for the rest of the year. This time in the beekeeping calendar is primarily concerned with ensuring that the bees have sufficient food stores, but also with disease and mite control.

In autumn, bees will normally cluster between the combs near the bottom of the stored honey. During winter, they will gradually eat these stores while moving upward between the combs, once they reach the top they will have run out of food and can potentially starve.

Having adequate supplies of honey and pollen located above and to the sides of the cluster is very important, since once first brood rearing begins, often early in January, the cluster will be unable to leave the brood area to find food reserves.

In February and early March, colonies should be assessed and opened preferably on a sunny day and only if the temperature is above 40°F (4°C). Midday is the best time to check the cluster so that the bees have adequate time to recluster if necessary.  When locating the cluster be very careful not to disturb it.

Even if food is available bees will not go down into lower boxes or move vertically in cold weather to get to food stores. So if the cluster is near the top of the hive, emergency feeding may be necessary. Check closely to see how much honey is available to the bees on either side of and above the cluster.

Colonies found to be short of stores before late March-Early April in more northerly areas should not be fed sugar syrup as the bees will have problems handling the excess water, unless the weather is unseasonably dry and warm. Instead sugar candy or dry granulated sugar (a quick method is to rip a bag of sugar open, dampen slightly and add it to the top of the frames or inner cover) should be fed to the bees.

Once the daytime temperatures increase enough to allow the winter cluster to start to disperse and occasional flights to take place, heavy sugar syrup can be fed to ensure the colony does not starve before external resources become available.

From mid-March through April, monitoring colony stores and its relation to brood expansion is important. The fresh pollen becoming available at this time, serves as a strong stimulus to brood rearing and as a result the size of the brood may increase faster than stores can be replenished. This is when colonies are particularly vulnerable to starvation.

If late March into April is warm and dry and good flight weather then feeding may not be necessary. However, if the weather inhibits flight activity, strong colonies with large brood areas can quickly run out of food. As a rule of thumb if at any time in Spring and Summer a colony has less than 20 pounds of food stores, equivalent to three full-depth frames of honey it should be fed. At this time sugar syrup, one part sugar to water should be given.

Pollen is also essential for brood raising, so check to see that sufficient supplies are stored in the brood area. You can increase or supple­ment pollen supplies with pollen substitutes avail­able from most beekeeping suppliers. In most instances this should not be necessary.

N.B. Once you start feeding you must continue until you are certain that plenty of natural resources are available, otherwise the bees may starve. In addition whilst feeding in spring will ensure that your bees do not starve, it may also lead to a rapid increase in brood rearing and therefore swarm management may be needed as early as mid to late spring.

More on Bee Colony Management

Differences in the Anatomy of a Queen Bee, Worker Bee and Drone

As far as size is concerned the queen honey bee is the longest of the three. However unlike the other two her wings only extend half way along her abdomen, which itself is pointed at the end. Her legs appear to be spider-like and her head is proportionally smaller than a worker bee or drone.

The drone on the other hand is squarely built with a stumpy squared off abdomen and is a similar weight to the queen bee. His wings are large and cover his abdomen completely. He has the longest legs but these are largely disguised by his stout body shape. The drone has a large round head and very large compound eyes which appear to meet on the top.

The worker bee is the smallest of the three and half of the weight of the queen bee or drone. Her wings although longer than the queens, do not quite cover her abdomen, which is pointed at the end and she has short legs. The head of the worker bee is proportionally large and more triangular than the others.

The workers mouth parts or mandibles are spoon-shaped which helps her mould wax and collect propolis. Her tongue is also the longest as she has to be able to forage and access nectar in flowers. Her third pair of legs are also modified with special sacs or corbiculum  to carry loads of pollen and propolis when required.

More about Honey Bee Anatomy and Physiology

More about the Honey Bee Colony

How and Why Honey Bees Make Wax

Honey bees use wax to build comb that forms their nest and the intricate hexagonal cells that make up that comb. These wax cells are used to house the various stages of bee young (or brood)  as they develop from egg to adulthood. In addition wax cells are used to store pollen and nectar.

Wax is produced as needed by worker bees to form and repair comb and individual cells. The wax is secreted by these worker bees, from eight special wax glands situated on the underside of their abdomens (inside the protective plates or sternites of abdominal segments 4 to 7). Worker bees produce wax most efficiently during the 10th through to the 16th days of their lives and this declines steadily from day 18 until the end of  life.

When wax is required these workers fill themselves up with honey and then hang together in clusters to contain the heat generated by the metabolism of the honey in their muscles. This resultant rise in temperature allows the wax to be secreted from the bee’s wax glands and this secreted wax then pours into special holders beneath these glands and solidifies.

The eight translucent white blobs of wax that are formed are then removed by the bee using her end pair of legs and either passed to her mouth or to the mouth of others to carry to another part of the comb. The wax is worked on and manipulated until the consistency is right and  it is then moulded into position using the bees mandibles (or mouth parts) and the comb is built up to the size required to house newly laid eggs or food stores. It is in the mastication process that salivary secretions are added to the wax to help soften it and this also accounts for its change of colour. The colour of beeswax in a comb is white at first and then darkens with age and use, especially if it is used to raise brood.

It is believed that 6-8 pounds of honey is needed to produce a pound of bees wax and it is estimated that bees fly 150,000 miles, roughly six times around the earth, to yield one pound of beeswax (530,000 km/kg).

More about Honey Bee Physiology and Anatomy

German Black Bee

Honey bees are not native to the New World, although North America has about 4,000 native species of bees. Honey bees were brought to America in the 17th century by the early European settlers. These bees were most likely of the subspecies A. m. mellifera, otherwise known as the German or ‘black’  bee, although they occurred originally from the UK to eastern Central Europe. Native Americans referred to these black bees as ‘white man’s flies’ noting that when honey bees appeared in areas previously devoid of them, European settlers would not be far behind.

This honey bee is very dark in colour and tends to be very defensive, making bee management more difficult. One of the German bees’ more favourable characteristics however is that they are a hardy strain, able to survive long, cold winters in northern climates.

But because of their defensive nature and their susceptibility to many brood diseases, including American and European foulbrood, this strain lost favour among beekeepers well over a century ago and was quickly replaced with Italian Bees . Although until recently the feral bee population in the U.S. was dominated by this strain, newly introduced diseases have almost wiped out most wild honey bee colonies, making the German bee now no longer a strain found in North America.

More about Honey Bee Strains and Hybrids

Locating your Bee Hives

Once you have decided beekeeping is for you some consideration should be given to where your hives should be situated. In this article we are assuming that your bees are to be kept in a rural or non urban area (see Keeping bees in an urban setting ),  most of the points covered here will also however be relevant to urban beekeeping.

Although bees can travel up to three miles to collect nectar and pollen it is obviously more productive for them to be able to forage nearer to their hives, that is, within a mile or less. Pollen is essential for brood rearing and nectar and the honey produced is the bees’ basic source of energy. While bees can in general be kept virtually anywhere, large concentrations of floral sources and large colonies are needed to produce large honey crops.

Bees also need a source of fresh water so they can dilute their honey to use it, regulate hive temperature, liquefy crystallised honey and raise brood. If a water supply is not available within a 1⁄4 mile of the hives, you can always provide a barrel or bowl of water with a floating board or small stones for the bees to land on and avoid drowning. Another source of water that bees seem to like is moist compost, a small open bag of potting compost is great for this.

Bees are also less irritable and easier to handle when located in the open where they have plenty  of sunshine. A southern or easterly exposure gives colonies maximum sunshine throughout the day, ensuring that the early sun hits the hives and gets them up and foraging early. The apiary is also best situated near natural wind protection such as hills, buildings, or evergreen bushes and trees.

The ground the hives are on should be dry and well-drained. Avoid windy, exposed hilltops or sites near water that might potentially flood. You should also avoid placing hives in heavily shaded woods or on damp sites to prevent diseases such as Nosema and European Foul Brood which thrive in such conditions. Hives should never be placed directly on the ground, but should have stands or be placed on pallets or similar. It is important to allow ventilation through the floor of the hive.

You should also locate your hives where you can be sure of having asy year round accessibility. You will not want to have to carry heavy hive parts, (supers filled with honey can weigh up to 50 lbs) for any distance.  Hives should be secluded from traffic, constant noise and disturbance from animals and children. To discourage vandalism, placing colonies near a dwelling house or area frequently visited yet screened from view by hedges or other vegetation is a good idea.

Safety from pesticide applications that can affect colonies directly or where the bees’ forage is also important. Acquaint yourself with the pesticides commonly used in the area and place colonies away from fields or other areas that are routinely treated with pesticides.

When selecting sites for large number of hives try to establish how many other beekeepers are operating in the area. A location can easily become overstocked with bees, which results in a poor honey crop for everyone. If you do not have the space for your hives yourself, contact your local land owner who will usually be only too happy to have your beehives. You may even be able to get him to pay you if it is going to help pollinate his crops, if not, honey is often an acceptable rent payment.

More about setting up Hives

Russian Hybrid Honey Bees

Russian Hybrid Honey Bees are one of the newer bee stocks in the U.S. The Department of Agriculture’s Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana have produced queens derived from bees found on the far eastern side of Russia in the coastal Primorski region on the Sea of Japan and around Vladivostok.

The researchers’ logic was that these Russian Bees have coexisted for the last 150 years with the devastating ectoparasite Varroa destructor, a mite that is responsible for severe colony losses around the globe. Moreover, they are also highly resistant to tracheal mites, the other major enemy of honey bees here in the West. While these bees are much more expensive than other strains and require special management techniques, they may be the only answer to the Varroa problem. Such stock very importantly also provides a chemical free alternative to pest control.

The USDA tested whether this stock had evolved resistance to varroa and found that it had, with numerous studies showing that bees of this strain have fewer than half the number of mites that are found in standard commercial stocks.

Russian Hybrid bees also tend to rear brood only during times of nectar and pollen flows, so brood rearing and colony populations tend to fluctuate with the environment, thereby suiting them better for areas with more severe and longer winters.

Russian Hybrid Bees also exhibit some unusual behaviour compared to other strains. For example, they tend to have queen cells present in their colonies almost all the time, whereas most other stocks rear queens only during times of swarming or queen replacement. Russian Hybrid bees also perform better when not in the presence of other bee strains as research has shown that cross-contamination from susceptible stocks can lessen the varroa resistance of these bees.

More about Honey Bee Hybrids and Strains

Hybrid Honey Bees

Hybrid bees are produced by crossing several lines or strains of honey bees. This is usually done with the aim of  increasing honey productivity and controlling temperament. More recently hybrids have been developed with a view to controlling diseases and parasites, such as the Varroa mite.

Initially, planned crosses result  in a line of very prolific bees that exhibit what is called hybrid vigour. As long as mating is controlled this vigour can be maintained. Commercial hybrids such as Midnite and Starline are produced by crossing inbred lines that have been developed and maintained for specific characteristics such as gentleness, productivity or over wintering.

Another well-known hybrid the Buckfast Bee is a hybrid selected over a long period of time from many strains of bees from southwestern England. They have been shown to be more resistant to tracheal mites and better suited to the cool climate of that region. Buckfast Bees are also easily available  in the United States.

Other groups of stock such as Russian , SMR, or Hybrid (sometimes Minnesota hybrid) are bees selected for greater mite resistance and/or improved hygienic behaviour (hive cleaning—specifically, dead and dying brood removal), a trait that results in bees ridding their colony more quickly of potential harmful pathogens.

If you are considering purchasing any of these hybrids as with any stock, researching your potential supplier is a good idea if you are uncertain about the claims made concerning the characteristics of the stock. In addition you should also check on the experience of other beekeepers that have used the particular hybrid in your area.

If you use hybrid bees or bees of a selected stock in your operation, you will need to requeen regularly. As allowing natural queen replacement usually leads to loss of hybrid vigour and may even causes colonies to be quite defensive and therefore more difficult to manage.

More on Hybrid and Honey Bee Strains

Major Honey Bee Strains

When ordering bees for the first time new beekeepers may be faced with the decision of which strain or race of bee to order. Honey bees in the United States and most of Europe are a heterogeneous blend of several strains, originating from Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Currently, there are three major strains, Italians, Caucasians and Carniolans. These current day strains are of course not the same as the original ones they were named after, having under gone considerable interbreeding and selection.

It is however still worth looking at the characteristics of these three main honey bee strains and identify the advantages and disadvantages of each.  As you become more experienced  you may wish to experiment with queens and bee packages from different specialist queen breeders and suppliers to learn more about the behaviour and relative productivity of each strain under your local conditions. However do not expect any one strain of bee to have read the text books and behave completely as expected.

Italian Honey Bees

Italians are the most popular honey bee strain in the United States and Western Europe. The Italian bee is lightish yellow or brown with alternating stripes of brown and black on the abdomen. The workers with three abdominal bands are sometimes called leather-coloured Italians and the queens with five bands are sometimes called goldens or cordovan queens.

Italian honey bees tend to start brood rearing early in the spring and continue until late autumn, which results in a large population throughout the active season. Large colonies can collect a considerable amount of nectar in a relatively short period, but they also require more honey for maintenance during  Autumn/Winter than do the darker bee strains. Most strains of Italian bees are considered to be quiet and gentle on the combs.

The disadvantages of Italian Honey Bees include weaker orientation to their hives compared to other strains, which results in more bees drifting from one colony to another and may also be responsible for their stronger inclination to robbing, which in turn can also facilitate the spread of disease. The Italians are however considered good housekeepers and are comparatively resistant to European foulbrood (EFB)—which was the major reason for their initial popularity.

The lighter colour of the Italian queen makes finding her in the hive easier compared to queens of the other two races. Italian honey bees also produce brilliant white honey cappings, which is ideal for producing comb honey.

Caucasian Honey Bees

Caucasian honey bees are usually described as being the gentlest of all honey bees. They are dark brown to black in colour, with greyish bands on the abdomen. They tend to construct a lot of excess comb and also use large amounts of propolis to fasten combs and reduce the size of the entrance. Some of the newer strains, however have been bred to use less propolis. Because they propolise excessively, they are not considered suitable for producing comb honey.

Caucasians are inclined to drifting and robbing but not excessive swarming. Colonies normally do not reach full strength before midsummer and they conserve their honey stores somewhat better than the Italians do. They also forage at somewhat lower temperatures and in less favourable weather conditions than do Italian bees. They have also been found to display some resistance to EFB.

Carniolan Honey Bees

Carniolans are dark bees, similar to Caucasians in appearance, except they often have brown spots or bands on their abdomen. These bees overwinter as small clusters but increase rapidly in the spring after the first pollen becomes available, as a result, they are prone to excessive swarming .

However due to their small overwintering cluster size, they are very economical in their food consumption, even under unfavourable climatic conditions and generally overwinter well. They are also not inclined to robbing, have a good sense of orientation and are quiet on the combs.

More on Hybrid and Honey Bee Strains