Beekeepers keep bees in hives in an apiary. Honey bees live in colonies in these hives of up to 50,000 strong in the summer, sometimes more, most of which are workers. Worker bees are females that are unable to mate and usually don't lay eggs – and it is they that do the work. They feed the small number of males (called drones) and also look after the single queen. A young bee stays inside the hive and does various house duties such as cleaning and feeding young. They will also produce the wax honeycomb on which they live. Although they can fly, these are referred to as house bees.
They will also act as guard bees as they get older. When older still, the worker bees will get their bearings on short orientation flights in front of the hive before foraging for pollen and nectar for the remainder of a short life. These are referred to as flying bees. Nectar is turned into honey and stored in wax combs. Honey is their source of energy (carbohydrate). When the honey is ripe, if it is not eaten, is sealed over in the comb to preserve it. Honey bees also collect pollen. Pollen is their source of protein and other food stuffs. You may see pollen on the back legs of the bees if you see them on garden flowers. It’s collected in tiny hairs. Surplus pollen is also stored in the wax comb. The surplus pollen and honey is built up over the summer months and acts as the food to keep the bees alive during the cold winter when they cannot fly. It is the honey we extract and eat. If we take too much or if the weather has been poor, we can give sugar syrup to the bees. They will process this in the same way as honey and when ready, they will cap it over in the comb and keep it for stores.
If the queen is old or if there is not enough space in the hive, or just because they can(!) the bees may start to make queen cells. In these the queen will lay an egg and once these eggs have hatched and grown – fed by royal jelly from the worker bees – the queen cell will be sealed over. It is at this time that the hive will swarm. About 50% of the bees will follow the queen out; leaving the remainder - mostly older bees - inside to tend to the brood and to the new queen. Once emerged from its queen cell, the virgin queen will fly and mate with several drones (somewhere between 10 and 20) before returning to the hive. Often the first queen to emerge will destroy her younger sisters although sometimes several queens will emerge and this can have the effect of producing small swarms called casts over several days. These casts weaken the colony significantly and are seldom strong enough to survive the winter.
A note about drones. These are bigger than the worker or queen bee and are there for the sole purpose of mating. When they have mated they die. In the autumn, they are generally expelled from the hive as they are no any use as they do nothing apart from lounge around eating valuable resources, drinking cans of beer and watching telly. New drones will be created in the spring from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen. Drones can't sting and are much noisier when they fly - you can guess the sort of noise they make...
Beekeepers can create new colonies. Here at Browston, we set up breeder colonies to produce queen cells which can be placed in nucleus hives or apideas - tiny queen-rearing hives. Once the queen mates and is laying she can be used as required. Nucleus colonies can grow into a full-sized colony over time, or possibly united with another colony which has failed to raise a queen or where we want to replace the queen.