A Year in the Life of a Wild Honey Bee Colony


A honey bee super organism – or colony – has the same basic needs and drives as any other organism except that it is made up of as many as 60,000 individual bees.

In late winter and spring a hive will begin to produce large amounts of brood in preparation for swarming.

A new colony is born when an existing colony – which usually lives in a cavity such as a hollow tree in or near a forest – issues a swarm.  Preparation for swarming begins in late winter through spring when brood production and hive population increases and pollen and nectar become plentiful because of the blooming of trees and other flowering plants. Healthy colonies in the region will also start producing drones at this time.

A queen cell being cared for by worker bees.  A hive which is about to swarm may contain tens of queen cells.

At some point heavy brood production together with an abundant influx of nectar being brought in by the rapidly growing population of foraging bees fills the available comb space in the hive and the queen starts to run out of places to lay eggs.  This causes two things to happen – The queen loses weight and regains the ability to fly, and nurse bees start building queen cells and raising new virgin queens.

A swarm issuing from a managed hive.

Before the new queens emerge from their cells they make a high pitched sound which we call piping. By then the hive will be choked with brood and nectar, and even though new comb might be in the process of being built (if there is space for it in the cavity) many of the adult bees in the colony will become gorged with nectar partly because there is no place to put it – but also in preparation for swarming.  At about this time the old queen will leave – swarming from the hive along with most of the nectar gorged adult forager bees.  Sometimes the total population can be so large at this point that a beekeeper will not even be aware that a gallon or five of bees have left his managed hive.

A swarm will hang out for a while – from just a few minutes to as much as 2-3 days – like this while scouts look for a suitable nest location.

The swarm will condense around the queen in a tree or bush – sometimes only a few feet from the hive and sometimes quite a distance away.  Most of the bees will remain in this spot while a few others scout around for a suitable location for a new home.  The swarm may stay in this location for a few minutes or as long as a day or two.  This is the period of time when a swarm is usually very docile and can be caught by a beekeeper and placed into a new hive.   But eventually the swarm will leave and move into a new cavity that they have chosen – apparently by a more or less democratic process believe it or not.

Meanwhile, back at the old hive new virgin queens are emerging from the queen cells.  Depending on the conditions the first queen to emerge may kill all of her sister queens, or several of the virgin queens can coexist for a while until each leave the hive leading individual secondary swarms to establish new colonies. In the case of a single virgin queen she will fly out alone to mate with 15 – 20 or so drones and then return to her hive to begin a life of laying eggs.  A queen has only one mating event in her life which may span 2-3 days – but after that she will never mate again.  Secondary “virgin swarms” will move into a different location.

Back to the prime swarm which has taken up residence in a suitable cavity – In a hollow tree or the walls or attic of a house, or maybe even an empty oil drum or an old refrigerator.  Bees are very adaptable when it comes to nesting locations.

Whenever young bees hold honey in their bodies for a long period of time they start to produce wax.  So as soon as they move into the new hive the worker bees are prepared to start building comb and storing nectar and soon the queen will start laying eggs.

Often – or perhaps usually – a hive like this will supersede – replace – the old queen which swarmed with it within a few weeks of establishing a new colony.

If all goes well the new colony will build up a strong population and store away enough honey during the spring nectar flow to sustain it through the summer.  When the spring nectar flow ends the queen will lay far fewer eggs through the hot dry parts of the summer when there is often a dearth of nectar.  During the summer dearth the foragers from strong hives will often rob weaker hives in the neighborhood. – Sometimes to the point of starvation and collapse for the weaker hives.

If the hive makes it through this difficult period – perhaps by robbing it’s weaker neighbors – egg production will increase a great deal beginning in late summer through early fall until frost.  The bees which are produced during this period will be the ones which take the hive through the winter.

In order to survive the coming winter a colony must have a sufficient population of bees to form a viable cluster – anywhere from the size of a large grapefruit to perhaps as large as a basketball.  The colony also must have sufficient food stored away to feed the cluster of bees, and to begin producing brood until forage and weather suitable for foraging become available again in late winter or spring.  If there is not good forage available in either the spring or fall seasons they may fall short on either or both of these goals.

By late fall the hive will be completely broodless, and when the weather starts to get cold the bees will form a tight cluster – usually near the bottom of the hive with honey stored over head.  The cluster of bees will maintain an internal temperature of about 94 degrees F as long as the cluster remains large enough and has food available. As winter progresses and food is consumed the cluster will usually move upward within the hive.  The number of bees in the colony will go down for much of the winter – until pollen and nectar forage become available and weather permits the bees to go out and get it.

Around mid-January the queen will start laying eggs again in the center of the cluster.  After the hive starts producing brood the cluster will stay on it to keep it warm, and can only access the food that can be reached without moving off of the brood.  If the weather remains cold long enough, and the immediately available food is used up all of the bees in the hive may starve with plenty of food only 2-3 inches away.  Starvation is especially common in mid spring when large amounts of brood require lots of food and late cold spells are not unusual – a hive can starve to death in just a few days, even when lots of nectar producing flowers are in bloom if the weather is not fair enough for them to get out and forage.

But if the hive makes it through the fickle weather of spring then soon enough it will probably be preparing to issue a swarm – Thus completing the cycle.