Honeybees are social insects. They live in a colony. The colony continues through the winter and lives from year-to-year. There is a single queen and there are male bees at certain times of the year. Most honeybees are workers. A mature colony of honeybees can have as many as 80,000 workers.
People see an occasional honeybee gathering pollen and nectar from flowers. They sometimes also see honeybees when they “swarm” or migrate to a new nest site. But most people do not see the amazing activity that happens inside a honeybee nest.
Domesticated honeybees make their nests in boxes that the beekeepers provide. If a colony of honeybees escapes into the wild, they will often choose a hollow tree as a nesting site. Once in a while, honeybees find an opening on the outside of a house. The honeybees get into the wall or attic of the home and make a nest.
During the summer, the average honeybee worker lives six or seven weeks. During the first few weeks, the worker is a “nest worker”. She stays inside the nest and takes care of the queen, the immature bees, and the nest. During the last part of her life, the worker moves outdoors and becomes a “field worker”. These workers gather pollen and nectar for their nest mates.
The workers make small flakes of wax from special glands on their abdomen. Then the workers chew the wax flakes. This adds enzymes to the wax and makes it soft. The workers use the wax to make cells in the familiar six-sided pattern. The workers connect the wax cells together to make combs.
There is a special “nursery” area in the hive. It is called the brood comb. The queen deposits eggs into the cells of the brood comb – one egg per cell. When the eggs hatch, workers feed the larvae and the larvae develop in their cells. When a larva is ready to change into an adult bee, the workers place a wax cap on the cell. After changing, the new adult workers emerge from the cells and begin working.
The workers build other cells as storage compartments. Excess pollen is stored in wax cells. Nectar is converted into honey and stored in cells. A large cluster of cells that are filled with honey is known as a honeycomb.
The temperature inside the honeybee nest can get very warm. Since the cells are made of wax, high temperature is a threat. To keep the honeycomb cool, workers bring water and drip it onto the comb. Then the workers fan their wings to circulate the air. The moving air evaporates the water and cools the honeycomb. Scientists have learned that during the winter, workers of some honeybee species can generate heat to protect the immature bees from freezing.
Honeybee nests are very active places. Thousands of workers come and go all day making sure that the colony thrives. Scientists report that by the time they reach “old age”, many honeybee workers have frayed wings. It is easy to understand how the expression “busy bee” came into use!