A hive is a structure in which a bee colony lives. Managed bee colonies are housed in hive boxes that can be stacked to provide additional space for the colony and its honey as it expands. The boxes are constructed using uniform dimensions so frames can be interchanged between boxes and hives as necessary.
The photo above depicts two production colonies (left and right), two nucleus colonies (narrow white boxes) and an occupied swarm trap from which the frames are about to be moved into a hive box in our apiary (center).
A nucleus colony or "nuc" is a small colony of bees (typically 5-10 frames of worker bees and a queen), which is a resource hive in the apiary. The smaller hive box makes it easier for the smaller bee population to control temperature and humidity within the hive and manage pests.
Nucs have many uses, including queen raising and breeding, production of additional brood to bolster weaker hives, management of swarming by splitting strong production hives, and overwintering new colonies for replacement/expansion in the spring.
Our honey production colonies are housed in 10-frame boxes. A typical production colony consists of two 10-frame deep boxes (yellow boxes in image above). Bees use the deep boxes for pollen storage and raising of brood.
During the spring and summer nectar flow, shallower boxes called "honey supers" are stacked above the brood boxes (white box in image above). Bees store nectar in the supers and convert or cure the nectar into honey. Supers are removed to harvest honey, then the bees store honey in the brood boxes as their winter food supply.
Managed bee colonies are raised using removable frames. The frames are typically made of wood or plastic on or within which bees make or "draw out" wax comb. The cells of the comb are used for raising new bees or brood and for the storage of pollen, nectar and honey.
Bees will fill nearly all open space with wax comb or will seal or glue together smaller spaces with propolis, a resinous material bees produce by mixing wax, saliva and sap collected from evergreens. To facilitate inspection and management of hives and minimize damage to the comb, all bee hive components are designed using a concept known as "bee space". Bees prefer to leave approximately 9 mm (3/8") space between surfaces to allow free passage throughout the hive. Smaller gaps limit bees' use of that area and lead to propolizing, while larger gaps are filled with "burr" or "brace" comb. Thus, all hive components (boxes, lids, frames, etc.) are designed to maintain bee space between them so they can be removed and inspected.
The population of a bee colony consists of a single queen, female worker bees, and, during the spring and summer, male drones. At its peak in the summer, a 10-frame hive may contain 50,000 or more bees, most of which are workers.
The queen generally only leaves the hive once--to be bred shortly after she emerges as an adult bee. She then resides in the hive, where she can lay 1,500+ eggs/day during the spring and summer.
Worker bees perform all other daily functions in the hive. They produce wax and propolis, build comb, feed eggs and larvae, feed and attend to the queen, clean cells for reuse, remove debris and dead bees from the hive. Workers are also the pollination "workforce" as they forage for pollen and nectar.
Drones are produced in the spring and summer to breed virgin queens. Worker bees exclude drones from the hive in the fall to reduce the colony population to be sustained through the winter.
Bees collect nectar and store it in cells in the "honeycomb". Bees cure nectar by evaporating excess moisture. When nectar has cured into honey, bees protect it by capping it with wax (top of image above).
Pollen is an important source of protein and is also collected by worker bees. Bees store pollen in the comb near areas used for brood (orange and yellow cells in the center of image above).
A bee's life cycle consists of four stages of development: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Worker bees develop from an egg to an adult in 21 days. The queen lays a single egg in each cell of the comb. Fertilized eggs develop into worker bees; unfertilized eggs develop as drones. Eggs and larvae are fed by the workers in uncapped cells. Once the cells are capped, the larvae transforms into a pupae and then into a adult bee. Capped worker brood and uncapped larvae are visible in the bottom center of the image above.
During the winter, bees thermoregulate by clustering together tightly. Notwithstanding outside temperatures, the core of the cluster is maintained at 80+ degrees. When temperatures rise above 50-degrees, bees will break from the cluster and make cleansing flights. These industrious bees found yellow and red pollen somewhere, perhaps witch hazel, on January 6th.
Winter Cluster Information
Cold, January afternoons are a great time to spend in the shop building new boxes and hardware. We're assembling and painting new brood and nuc boxes, feeders and honey supers to expand our bee yards
The hives have little activity with temperatures below the 50s, but the bees break their cluster and get active during warm afternoons in early February.
When temperatures creep in to the 50s and 60s, bees remove dead bees from the hives and take short cleansing flights to expel waste, which they don't do in the hive.
Some hives may receive patties containing protein and carbohydrates to stimulate brood rearing a little earlier than they would otherwise kick into gear to (hopefully) permit early spring splits.
This hive swarmed or absconded from a colony in downtown Easton in late September. Despite feeding with 2:1 syrup in October, it did not store a lot for the winter. Dry sugar and a portion of a pollen patty were added to sustain it until the spring flow.
Red maples begin flowering providing important early nectar and pollen to support hive expansion.
On warm afternoon, the bees are increasingly active collecting pollen (protein). The area of brood expands and hives begin to rapidly expand in population.
Fresh pollen and nectar kick-start brood rearing, including drone brood in comb drawn within the small void caused by the winter feeding shim.
It seems like we're always assembling and painting a lot of new woodenware. It's a welcome change to be able to paint outside in the sun!
A plethora of native and planted floral sources support the growing hives in April, including dandelion, Redbud, pears, apples and crabapples, ornamental cherry, and others.
Queens kick egg laying into high gear. Hives have frames full of brood like this. 9 days after an egg is laid, the cell is "capped" to protect the developing bee. Worker bees emerge 11-12 days later. Can you find the queen?
Robust, over-wintered hives are "split" to build up more hives and to reduce the potential for swarming by our honey producers. Nucleus hives made in the fall are either split or moved into 10-frame production hive boxes.
Warmer daytime temperatures permit hive inspections to confirm the productivity of the queen. As the month progresses, hives are checked on a regular basis for queen cells to manage/prevent swarms.
Beekeeping activity begins in earnest. Spring weather and nectar flow triggers swarming of growing hives. Swarm calls generally begin in mid-April. If you find a swarm, we would be happy to relocate it to a new hive.
We deploy swarm traps in Wye Mills, St. Michaels, Easton, Oxford, Trappe, Cambridge and Denton. Hopeful of adding new local, feral honeybee genetics to our apiaries.
Hives are split and less productive queens are replaced using the "On-The-Spot" or OTS method of queen rearing developer by Mel Disselkoen. This involves removal of older queens to a nuc box, notching or compressing the bottoms of cells just after eggs hatch, and management of resulting queen cells.
Queen cells capped in a full hive are moved to a queen castle, which is a deep hive box divided into compartments with separate entrances. Each compartment requires only 2-3 frames and provides an efficient space for new queens to emerge, mate and begin laying.
After the new queen is laying, the 2 frames in a compartment of the queen castle are moved to a 5-frame nuc box to provide room for additional brood and pollen and nectar storage.
Queens lay 1,000+ eggs daily, each of which will be a new bee in 3 weeks. Nucs started in April outgrow their 5-frame boxes and are moved up to 10-frame boxes.
Black locust and tulip poplar, two of the principal nectar sources in our area, bloom in May, along with blackberry, black cherry, autumn olive, and lilacs.
The very busy bees are returning to the hives with pollen and nectar dawn to dusk.
Most tree blooms wind down before the heat of summer, and bee foraging shifts to clover, wildflowers, and landscape beds. Hives are expanded through addition of "honey supers"--shallow boxes placed above the deep brood boxes for honey storage and collection.
Nectar is stored in the cells of the wax comb ("honeycomb") and cured through evaporation. Sucrose (sugar) concentrations in nectar vary by species from 10-40%, with water comprising the bulk of the remainder. The sucrose is converted to fructose and glucose as the bees move nectar from flowers to the hives. Honey is about 75% sugars (about 50/50 glucose and fructose). The remaining 20-25% is principally water (16-18%) and traces of protein, fat and fiber
Bees manage the temperature and humidity levels inside the hive by returning with water for evaporative cooling and by fanning their wings to move air and heat through the hive. Evaporation is essential to dry and thicken nectar into cured honey.
When nectar is dried or cured to 16-18% moisture, it is honey. The bees cap the honey with new, white wax to prevent it from absorbing moisture. We add more supers to give the bees space to store as much honey as they can produce.
On hot days in the summer, the bees "beard" in the afternoons and evenings. With hive populations at a peak, some bees gather outside the hive to maintain an appropriate broodnest temperature inside the hive.
During the nectar flow, hives are typically gentle, but they become more defensive as the nectar flows wane. During the summer "dearth" (absence of nectar), hives are much less receptive to inspections and manipulations. A light puff of smoke generally calms the hive quickly.
When all frames in the honey supers are capped, the supers are removed from the hives for extraction of the honey. Bees are removed from the supers using one-way "bee escape" boards and a battery-powered blower. They return to the hive and continue storing any available nectar through fall for the hive to consume during the winter.
After bees evaporate the moisture content down to 16-18%, they cap the cured honey with wax to prevent it from absorbing moisture from the air (humidity). The white wax cappings are shaved off using a knife to open the honey comb for extraction.
After the wax capping is removed, the frames are placed in a extractor, which spins the frames and extracts the honey through centrifugal force. The empty frames and comb are put back into the honey supers, and, depending on the stage of the nectar flow, either placed back on the hives for the bees to refill or stored for use during the next spring/spring. All fall nectar flow honey (goldenrod, aster, etc.) is left for the bees to consume through the winter.
As honey flows out of the extractor, it is gently filtered through a wire mesh sieve to remove large wax capping crumbs, propolis and pollen particles. Our honey is sold raw (with small flecks of bee pollen and propolis). Most supermarket honey is pasteurized (heated then cooled rapidly) and filtered under pressure. This makes the honey more clear and delays crystallization, but also removes pollen and destroys heat sensitive enzymes.
New hives made by splitting larger hives in the summer consumed lots of nectar to generate wax to produce new comb and may have less honey stored for winter. They are supplemented through feeding of heavy sugar syrup (2:1 sugar/water mix), which the bees move into comb, dry down, and cap with wax like honey.
In addition to confirming their "winter stores", we review hives for strength and consolidate weaker hives by removing one queen. A common beekeeping mantra is "take your losses in the fall". This recommends combining weak hives, which both may be less likely to survive the winter, into a single, larger hive to increase its chances of survival to spring.
Hives get a 1-1/2" shim to provide provide an upper entrance for ventilation to carry humid air out of the hive. Foam insulation is placed under the outer cover to reduce potential for condensation, which could drip onto and chill the clustered bees.
Mice like the protected, dry and slightly warmer environment of bee hives as much as they enjoy houses and garages. Hive entrances are reduced to <1" and screened to exclude mice.
After the honey supers are harvested, the hives are treated to control Varroa mites, an external parasite that feeds on honey bees. Mites spend most of their lives inside capped cells with developing bees, so hives are treated again in late November or early December when hives have the least amount of brood.
Bees consume honey and cluster together to generate and conserve heat. As daylight slowly increases after the winter solstice, a new bee year begins.
Honey on warm cornbread or buttermilk biscuits. Hot tea sweetened with honey. Honey glazed salmon. Honey-bourbon toddy and a warm fire....
You won't return to mass produced, filtered, pasteurized honey after trying the raw and unprocessed, local treat our busy bees produced this year. As a small, family operation, we will sell out before harvesting next summer's honey.
Try some today.