European honey bees prefer to make their nests in dark, empty cavities such as a hollow tree or a wooden box. They make multiple, evenly spaced, vertical sheets of comb attached to the top of the cavity. Modern beekeeping takes advantage of how European honey bees behave in the wild. Bee boxes are built to reflect a dark cavity, and honey bees are happy to build their comb on the wax or plastic frames provided by the beekeeper. Frames allow honey bees to use less wax and energy to build their comb, and the beekeeper can easily remove frames for inspections without damaging the hard work of the bees.
Fun fact: honey bee colonies can grow up to 50 000 individuals at the peak of the summer!
Wax is produced by glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen. Bees use their wax to build all the comb in their hive. The comb is constructed with the worker’s mouthparts into small hexagons which are all evenly spaced and sized. Hexagons are a very efficient shape! They are the shape that utilizes the most space, while using the least amount of wax. The comb is used for food storage (nectar, honey, pollen) and brood rearing. Some comb is built larger for rearing drones and is built into downward facing cups to rear queens.
In the fall, honey bees will begin preparing for the winter. The queen will slowly stop laying eggs, and the last of the worker brood to be reared are called “winter bees” that will live the entire winter. Drones are no longer needed and are kicked out of the hive to conserve food. Instead of brood, the entire hive is filled with honey to be stored for the winter. A colony needs this honey to eat throughout the winter so that they can generate energy to keep warm. As temperatures decrease, the colony will form a basketball sized cluster in the hive. They will huddle together and vibrate to keep warm. Honey bees keep their cluster at around 30 degrees C throughout the winter. As they consume their stored honey, the cluster will move through the hive from the bottom up. Honey bees will not defecate inside the hive even in the winter. They will venture outside on warm, sunny days in the winter to relieve themselves, but can wait months if needed. As temperatures increase in the spring, the cluster will disperse, and workers will begin foraging again.
Beekeepers do many things to help their hives survive the winter. Keeping colonies strong and disease free throughout the summer and fall is the first step to a successful winter. This will allow colonies to go into the winter with the largest population possible and decreases the chances of pests and disease overtaking the colony through the winter. In the fall after honey is harvested, beekeepers will feed their colonies with sugar syrup. Sugar syrup acts as nectar and the bees will use it to replace their honey stores. Without food in the winter, a honey bee colony would not survive. Finally, as temperatures start to decrease in the late fall, beekeepers will wrap their hives. Strong bee hives can do just fine outside all winter as long as they are protected from the wind and water. Wrapping hives in black plastic helps to reduce wind exposure and keep in heat. Wraps will also have an upper entrance hole for ventilation, moisture control, and for bees to leave the hive to defecate.