The classic honeycomb appearance of a beehive is an iconic image. From my very early years, I can remember the hexagonal patterns adorning my favourite storybooks.
I always imagined beehives to be the equivalent of pubs for us, where bees go and guzzle honey together and reminisce after a hard day of collecting nectar and pollen.
As nice an idea as that may be, the reality is hives are so much more. The epicentre of reproduction and food production, this structure provides a key role in honeybees’ success so far.
So let’s get stuck into some of the details and answer the question ‘How Do Bees Make Hives?’.
What does a hive look like
A simple question with a not so simple answer. The word hive is often used as a ‘cover all’ term when this could not be further from the truth.
A hive is a man-made structure. Normally made from wood that is enclosed and acts as a location for the colony to build a home and raise their young.
The word nest is used when colonies of wild honeybees take up residence normally in a crevice between rocks or a hollowed tree.
Human beings have kept bees for their honey as far back as the Egyptians.
This calorie-rich golden syrup would have been a gold mine for early man.
Egyptians depicted storing honey in vases as far back as 650BC. This meant they must have spent time studying how and why bees build hives and how to simulate them.
Today beekeeping is on the up and the amount of managed colonies and hives within the United Kingdom is rising each year and contributing to the population of honeybees in the United Kingdom.
A modern hive is simply a wooden enclosed structure designed to house bees and encourage honeycomb/ honey production.
Previously hives would have a fixed structure meaning that extracting the honey would destroy the hive within.
Now with the advent of movable frame hives, beekeepers are able to collect honey with little to no disruption to the colony within.
How do bees make hives and nests?
Whether a managed hive or a nest of wild honeybees the task is the same. The worker bees are put to work creating the structure of the hive from the top down.
The interior structure is made primarily of honeycomb but there are some other interesting elements within the construction process.
Honeybees will collect a substance called Propolis from tree buds.
This substance has many uses but the most important is as a form of sealant for honeycomb.
Any gaps or crevices within the honeycomb structure will be filled with Propolis to ensure that it is capable of storing honey or young.
Worker bees are equipped with a handy tool when it comes to honeycomb production.
At about 10 days old a female worker bee will develop glands in her abdomen. These glands allow the female worker bee to convert the sugar she collects from nectar and pollen into the wax.
This process is apparent when small flakes of wax begin to appear on the worker bee’s abdomen.
the perfect place for a nest
Honeybees are fussy about the location of their new home, and rightly so.
When selecting a location for a nest, the swarm will send out scout bees to assess potential locations. Upon returning to the hive scout bees will perform a ‘waggle dance’, the vigour of the dance is used as a key indicator to the viability of the location.
When assessing site locations the scout bees are looking for a very particular spot. It must provide ample protection from the elements to ensure the hive cannot be damaged by poor weather.
There needs to be a large selection of flora rich in pollen and nectar to allow the bees to forage, collect stores and create honey.
You can encourage bees to take up residence by providing a nice range of suitable wildflowers.
Check out Revive a Bee’s recommended wildflower mix to encourage more bees and pollinators to your garden or wild area.
It can not be in direct sunlight as the honeycomb could melt and it needs to have a discreet entry with no other points of entry in the entire nest.
Once all of these criteria have been met the scout bee will return to the swarm and relay her findings with her dance moves.
Before honeybee workers begin construction they collect the flakes of wax adorning their abdomen. Then they proceed to chew the wax for 30 minutes, this softens the wax and creates a more malleable building tool.
Propolis collected from tree buds is used as a sealant, but it has some far more fascinating functions.
Workers bees will use a layer of Propolis at the entrance to their home. This acts as a disinfectant for the bees legs, not unlike the swimming pool foot baths of old.
In other cases, bees will use Propolis to essentially embalm any intruders. After an intruder has been stung and killed, it will be encased in a layer of Propolis.
This will not allow the corpse to decompose which would pose a major health risk to the entire colony. Ideally, the worker bees would drag the body away but in cases where it is too heavy or large, Propolis is a great alternative.
The hexagonal design of the honeycomb is no mistake and when you look into the reasons why the honeybees genius becomes apparent.
Imagine stacking hundreds of cylinders on top of each other, now do the same with the hexagonal structure of honeycomb. When you use a cylindrical shape you will always have gaps, but with the honeycomb hexagon, every single bit of viable space is used.
This is a real testament to the true intelligence of bees and their truly amazing construction skills.
During construction, worker bees will use their abdomen as a measure of the honeycomb cell size.
Ensuring the receptacle will be ample for the honey and young that will soon be arriving.
Once the hive/nest has been completed
After the honeycomb is complete it is ready to be filled with eggs and honey. The queen honeybee will proceed to start producing young to deposit into the newly created cells.
As honeybees harvest nectar through summer and spring they will start to develop a surplus. This excess honey is stored within the cells of the honeycomb for the coming winter.
The excess honey is capped in a wax layer to ensure its prolonged life.
So to answer the question ‘How Do Bees Make Hives?’. The answer is a lot of teamwork and some truly ingenious methods and tools.