Bee-ology: How a Hive Works

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

A typical honeybee colony comprises one queen bee, about a thousand male drones, whose only job is to inseminate the queen, and upward of 60,000 sterile female worker bees that are responsible for pretty much everything else (building cells, feeding larvae, regulating hive temperature, collecting nectar).

1. To make honey, a worker bee flies to a flower and extracts nectar using her proboscis, a strawlike tongue. Bees forage twenty or more times a day, carrying up to 50 percent of their body weight in nectar.

2. The bee returns the nectar to the hive in her “honey stomach” (the pollen bees need for nourishment is carried on the backs of their legs).

3. Inside the hive, the bee spits the nectar into the mouth of another bee. That bee in turn spits into the comb, a series of hexagonal cells composed of a sturdy wax secreted by worker bees. Other bees flap their wings against the nectar to force dehydration.

4. When only 20 percent of the water remains in the nectar, honey is born. The bees cover each honey-filled cell with a wax cap and move on to the next one. Typical hives hold nine or ten frames’ worth of honeycomb.

5. When the frames are full of white-capped honey, it’s harvest time. The keeper cuts the caps off the harvestable cells with a hot knife, then runs it through an extractor and drains it into jars. A well-kept hive in optimal conditions can yield in excess of 100 pounds per year.

Bee-ology: How a Hive Works