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Field Guide to Beekeeping

The Components of a Honey Bee Nest

- July 1, 2015 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

In my column last month, I discussed the terminology associated with the members of a honey bee colony. In the present article, I am going to introduce you to terminology associated with the hive and its various components. I put the important new terms in bold font so that you know exactly what I am trying to define.

I will begin my discourse of nest components by discussing the difference between a honey bee colony and a honey bee nest (or hive). In the loosest sense, a honey bee colony is a group of bees, usually sharing the same or a related mother, that together function as a single unit. This “togetherness” confers certain, mutually beneficial attributes that are otherwise absent in a single bee. In laymen’s terms, a colony is the sum total of all the bees that live in the nest. The nest, or hive, on the other hand, is the physical space occupied by the colony and is the sum of the components that together, comprise the nest.

Why make the distinction between nest/hive and colony? Quite frankly, it is because we often use the terms incorrectly or interchangeably. It is very common to hear one say that bees live in a colony or that the bees are a hive (i.e. a hive of bees). However, it is important to distinguish between the two since they do not mean the same thing and conversations become confused when using the words incorrectly. Bees do not live in a colony, neither are they a hive, though the latter use is accepted increasingly. I prefer to use the word nest rather than hive because I believe it is less ambiguous and less likely to be used incorrectly.
With that background, I am not writing about the components of a honey bee colony. That would produce a discussion of the colony members, which I covered in last month’s column. Rather, I am focusing on the components of a nest, the bees’ living quarters. I also am not discussing the parts of a managed hive (the lids, frames, bottom board, etc.). Instead, I am focusing on those parts that are common to all hives, whether managed, wild, or feral.
The honey bees we keep prefer to nest in cavities that are about 40 L in volume and 10 or more feet above the ground. We know this from the work of L.L. Langstroth and Tom Seeley, among others, who conducted elegant studies to determine honey bee nest site preferences. Furthermore, there likely is a number of nests that honey bees will establish per unit area (# nests/unit area = nest density). Notably, honey bees in the wild rarely nest in the densities that we as beekeepers create in our overcrowded apiaries. Bees seem to nest at much lower densities, likely based on the amount of resources available in the environment.

The nesting sites that honey bees choose to inhabit usually meet stringent criteria that the bees desire. I will not discuss those criteria in depth here, but it is worth noting that Tom Seeley, in his book Honey Bee Democracy, covers this topic in considerable detail. I also want to share that Randall Hepburn and colleagues published a book entitled Honeybee Nests: Composition, Structure, Function. The authors of both books more than adequately cover the topics of nest site choice (Seeley) – what honey bee colonies desire in a nest site – and nest components (Hepburn et al.), i.e. the parts of a nest. I recommend reading both if you remain interested in this topic after you finish reading this article.

Nest components
All honey bee nests have an entrance (Figure 1). In managed hives, the entrance is at the base of the nest and occupies a space that is the entire width of the face of the nest. For nest sites occupied by wild or feral colonies, the nest entrance may be as small as the diameter of a dime, though the entrance most commonly is a few inches in size. Some wild and feral nests even have multiple entrances.

The nest entrance is the exit and entry point for bees leaving and entering the hive. All of the colony’s traffic is directed through the nest entrance. It also serves as the point of entry for would-be colony pests, parasites, and predators. Consequently, the bees work hard to defend the nest entrance against colony invasion and other threats to the colony.

When entering the colony through the nest entrance, one quickly encounters the wax combs (Figure 2) that provide the internal framework for the colony. The honey bees we keep construct multiple layers of wax combs, arranged vertically in sheets in their nests. The bees suspend these combs from the ceiling of the nest and affix them to the nest walls to provide added structural support to the combs.

The combs are made of wax that bees secrete from special glands, the wax glands, located on the underside of their abdomens. Wax production is greatest during a nectar flow because the incoming sugar source provides the energy the bees need to secrete the wax and the incoming nectar needs a place to be stored, thus creating a demand for comb. The bees remove the wax scales from their abdomens and use their mandibles (their chewing mouthparts) to manipulate the wax and place it on the growing comb.

Beeswax, the term for the wax produced by the bees, is an interesting substance itself. New wax is white and its chemistry is fairly well known. The major compound families in beeswax include alkanes, alkenes, free fatty acids, monoesters, diesters, and hydroxymonoesters (Hepburn et al. 2014). Fatty alcohols and hydroxydiesters are minor constituents of beeswax. Hepburn et al. (2014) note that beeswax is a visco-elastic, thermoplastic material.

This simply means that beeswax “flows” at normal hive temperatures, though to the naked eye, it looks as if nothing changes. In this sense, it is somewhat like glass, which behaves like a “liquid-solid.”

In managed hives, bees are encouraged to build their combs within the …