Basic Beekeeping for Beginners

Written by Ali Brehm, ESLLC 2015-2016

Everyone knows how much I love bees and talking about bees. I figured that it’s finally time to really explain the basics of bees.

Hive Types

There are three main types of hives.

1. Langstroth

This is the most popular type of hive and you’ve most likely seen them, they are the classic stacked box. Within each box are vertical racks, or “frames” that rest inside the hive, much like file folders in a file cabinet. The frames are where the bees make the comb, or some beekeepers choose to use frames that have premade patterns in them so that the bees don’t make the comb the wrong way. The hive body is where the larvae and most of the bees are, which is the bottom-most box on the stack. In order to get the bees to produce more honey, you add shorter boxes, or “supers” to the top of the hive body. Bees don’t like empty space above them, and so they will fill the supers with honey.

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2. Top-Bar

The top bar hive has a similar structure to the Langstroth, however, instead of full frames, they are simply the top piece. This is so that the bees are able to create their own comb all the way down to the bottom of the box. During honey season, these hives can get very finicky due to the importance of making sure that the bees aren’t accidentally attaching bars together with comb. These are really good options for beginners, and they are cheap to make yourself and require much less equipment. However, they are often not standardized due to the home-made aspect and so you won’t be able to mix and match from other hives.

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3. Warre

Warre hives are the kind of hive that requires minimal interference. Warre hives are much more natural and the bees are able to regulate themselves better, however, you don’t receive as much yield as you would a Langstroth or Top-Bar hive.

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Inside the Hive

There are several parts that make up the inside of the beehive, regardless of the type of hive you choose to have.

1. Brood and bees

If your hive is healthy, it will contain all stages of bee life: eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult bees.

2. Beeswax comb

The bees secrete a wax from their abdomens to make the comb, which they then chew to make pliable. From this, they mold it into the comb shape to hold their food and their young. Ever wonder why the comb is always a perfect hexagon? In short, it’s so that all the sides fit together and so that everyone can work on the comb at once. Here is an NPR article all about the classic comb shape.

3. Nectar, pollen, and honey

Bees go out in search of nectar and pollen from flowers to take back to their hive to store as food. In the cells, bees treat the nectar with an enzyme and then fan their wings to evaporate the water, curing the mix into honey. Because the honey will ferment under certain conditions, the bees cap off the honey cells with a wax layer.

4. Propolis

While out foraging, bees also collect plant sap and resin which is treated with another type of enzyme to make propolis. Bees use the propolis to seal small holes and to strengthen comb. Beyond that, propolis is used as a cleaning product for the bees due to its antibacterial properties.

Types of Bees in a Hive

1. The queen

The queen is the largest bee in the colony, with a smooth body. The queen is one important lady, as without her the colony will fail. About a week after the queen hatches, she flies out of the hive and mates with drones from other colonies for a few days, and after, saves the millions of sperm cells that she will ever need for the rest of her life. The queen will then lay up to two thousand eggs a day for the rest of her life. The fun thing about the queen is that keepers often paint a colored dot on her abdomen, and that is to denote what year she was hatched. You can go to places like the botanical gardens and see their clear beehives and hunt for the queen and see what year she began her reign.

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2. The drone

The queen mainly lays fertilized eggs, which hatch into female worker bees. Sometimes, the queen lays unfertilized eggs which transform into male drone bees, and their sole purpose in life is to mate with other queens. Seriously. All they do is fly around in search of other queens. After the drone mates, however, his genitals rip out of his body and he dies. Alternately, the drones often die because they are kicked out of the hive in times of strife as the worker bees want fewer mouths to feed.

3. The worker

Finally, there is the worker bee. They literally do everything. They nurse the larvae and newborn bees, they follow the queen and groom, feed, and protect her, they remove dead bees and larvae from the hive, they clean the hive and do any maintenance that is required, they protect the hive and attack any intruders, and they forage for pollen, nectar, water, and tree sap. They fly up to sixty miles a day every day, until their wings are ripped to shreds and they die of exhaustion.

Those are the basics! I could talk for hours if you want to know more about bees and their homes, I’m always willing to talk! 

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