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.





Installing Package Honey Bees

Soon your bees will finally be here – a most joyous occasion for new bee keepers especially. No doubt you have been studying up on how to get package bees into their hive, and already have some idea how to do it, but just in case…

Of course you already have your hive equipment all ready assembled, painted and hopefully in place in your future bee yard ready to receive your new BFFs.

If you are using a Screened Bottom Board – close it up!  Packages or swarms often abscond when installed in hives with open bottoms.  Once they have some comb built and brood going open it up if you want to, but keep it shut until then.

Note – I started keeping honey bees using the foundationless method, and while it did work out OK, I have since changed to all plastic foundation – which is another issue.  The point is that these pictures show foundationless frames, while you will probably be using foundation of some kind.  Don’t worry about that, the only difference is how you release the queen – which will be pointed out when we get to that part.

If it turns out that the weather is foul when your package bees arrive, they can be kept in a cool dark place – like a garage – for several days, but installing them sooner is better than later.  Except for this – if you are installing in a top bar hive or other foundationless system, it might be better for the bees to spend a total of at least 3 days caged up in contact with their new queen before you release them.

If there are no other bees already nearby where you are installing your package bees, then you can do it at any time of day – hopefully during nice weather – but if you already have bees in the same location you can help to keep your bees from drifting to existing hives by doing the deed as late as possible in the afternoon so that they will spend the night in the new hive before they look around too much.

How to Install your Package Honey Bees

First take 4 frames out of the hive  to make a space for the bees.  Next pry the plywood cover off of the package.

The package contains a can of syrup with a few holes in it for the bees to eat during shipping.

Hold the tab that the queen cage is hanging from as you carefully remove the syrup can. Everything will have bees clinging to it so you have to go slow and kind of wiggle things around to keep from injuring them.

After removing the can, and the queen cage keep the bees in the cage by laying the little piece of plywood back over the hole.

Notice the white wax that the workers deposited on the queen cage while they were in route.  They really cant wait to get to work.Notice the white wax that the workers deposited on the queen cage while they were in route. They really can’t wait to get to work.  But, the queen and worker bees were collected from different hives at the commercial apiary where the bees were produced, and don’t immediately accept each other.If those bees hanging onto the queen cage cling tight and feel almost like velcro when you gently brush them off it means that the queen has not yet been accepted.  But even if they have accepted the queen already a timed candy release is a tried and true way of minimizing the risk when introducing a queen to a new hive.There should be several attendant bees in the cage with the queen, and  some of them might be dead – which is normal – but make sure that the queen is alive.

Compared to the pictures of queens you might  have seen on the Internet your new queen might look kind of puny.  There are two reasons for that 1) People usually post pictures of particularly big fat queens, not average ones.  2) Your queen has been in a cage – not laying eggs – for several days, and queens get skinny when they are not laying eggs.  She will fatten up a lot in a week or two.

Most wooden  queen cages have two  corks that keep the queen in for the trip, and under one cork there is  a plug made out of sugar “candy” that the workers will gnaw away to free the queen.  Be sure to remove the correct cork – the one with candy under it – not the one which immediately releases the queen.  Immediate direct release of your queen will void the warranty – and may result in her being immediately killed.  Don’t do that!

Hang the Queen Cage in the Hive – An easy way to fasten the queen cage in is with a simple rubber band:

Your queen could come in any of several types of queen cage, but whatever kind you get you want to install the cage in the center of the hive with the candy end up so that the exit doesn't get clogged with dead attendants. You might have to remove one frame from the outside to make room for the queen cage. Make sure that the screen is not obstructed or blocked. If you use a rubber band for this, use a nice fat one so that the bees don't chew it apart before the queen is released.
Your queen could come in any of several types of queen cage, but whatever kind you get you want to install the cage in the center of the hive with the candy to the side, so that melted candy doesn’t drip on the queen and so that the exit doesn’t get clogged with dead attendants. You might have to remove one frame from the outside to make room for the queen cage. Make sure that the screen is not obstructed or blocked. If you use a rubber band for this, use a nice fat one so that the bees don’t chew it apart before the queen is released.

Don’t directly release the queen Unless, you are doing foundationless – in which case you MUST directly release the queen. If you don’t know what I mean by “doing foundationless” then this does not apply to you.  Rest assured that using foundation is a good way to go – the tried and true way.  Those foundationless guys are outlaws, who live on the ragged edge. Direct release is much more risky than a timed candy release.

The reason that you don’t put a queen cage into a foundationless hive is that the bees will start building comb right on the queen cage instead of on your carefully constructed starter strips, and instead of nice straight comb you will get something like this instead:


Crooked chaotic comb which will be likely to fall apart when you do an inspection – Which is something you don’t have to worry about when you use foundation.

When introducing a queen into a foundationless hive without comb.  First make sure that the queen has been confined with the package for at least 3 days, and bees are not aggressively clinging to the queen cage like velcro.  Then  just free the queen and put the queen cage in your pocket – seriously don’t leave the cage laying around or the bees might cluster on it because of the queen pheremones on it.  Now hope that she doesn’t immediately fly away, and isn’t killed by the other bees.

If after a candy release the queen is still in the cage in a week you can safely release her then  during your first inspection.

Usually in a package bee installation “how to” you are instructed to shake the bees out through the 3 inch hole left by the syrup can – lots of shaking involved which doesn’t look too pleasant for the bees – but it really doesn’t hurt them.  You can also take  the screen loose on the side of the box to open up the entire side as instructed in this beemaster video on installing a package of bees.  But really, that’s a lot of extra work, and shaking them out through the can hole works fine.

Before you shake in the bees Install the entrance reducer on the smallest opening.

When you are ready to install the bees, take a deep breath and rap the package down sharply to get all of the bees in a confused pile on the bottom.  Now just dump them right into the hive with the queen.  After you shake most all of them out, set the empty package near the entrance of the hive so that any holdouts can walk in on their own.

You might be worried that at this point they will either all just fly away or swarm all over you and try to sting you to death, but they won’t.  Actually they will probably just about ignore you.  Experienced bee keepers might not wear any equipment at all.  Smart bee keepers will wear a veil, because getting stung in the eye can cause blindness.  Beginners should suit up to the point that they are confident and don’t have to worry about it at all.  No shame in that.

After pouring the bees into the hive carefully replace all of the frames – slowly wiggle them in to give the bees a chance to get out of the way. If you have 10 frame equipment you might want to leave one frame out until you remove the queen cage in a few days – just even out the extra space on each end.  It seems impossible from the way this picture looks, but I don’t think I killed a single bee.

Now carefully replace the inner cover.

A Quart jar with some holes punched in the lid makes a great feeder – a push pin type thumb tack makes perfect sized holes.  Install whatever kind of feeder you plan to use and fill it with 1/1 sugar syrup.  Check on it and keep it filled as long as they will take it and don’t start back filling the brood nest.

Cover the jar feeder with an empty hive body, and the outer cover.

If I had been on the ball I would have placed the entrance reducer before I started.

In just a few minutes the bees were all moving inside and flying around the yard orienting themselves.  In a few hours they were already bringing in pollen from the blackberry flowers.

Now the hardest part –  leave them alone for at least a week.  The bees need time to build comb for the queen to lay in and to accept  her before you bother them – premature inspection could cause them to kill or supercede the queen.  Keep them fed, and admire how cool they look going in and out, but don’t open the hive.

This process might look intimidating, but after all of the waiting you will probably really enjoy it.  When I got my first package I worried that when I dumped all of those bees out they would just rise up and fly away if I didn’t do everything exactly right.  But the thing is they don’t seem to want to fly away.  It’s almost like if you had been cooped up in a greyhound bus for 3 days and then you were deposited right into a five star hotel with an open buffet – what they really seemed to want to do was settle in and make their selves at home.


      1. Get your hive equipment ready – don’t forget to install the entrance reducer. Close the screened bottom board if you are using one.
      2. Remove 4 frames from the middle of the hive to make a hole to pour the bees into.
      3. Rap the cage down to shake the bees down to the bottom.
      4. Pry out the feed can, remove the queen cage, and cover the hole.
      5. Verify that the queen is alive.  If she is not alive – call me, I have a few spares.
      6. Remove the cork from the candy end of the queen cage.
      7. Fasten the queen cage into the hive with the candy end up and the screen unobstructed.
      8. Rap the package down again to shake the bees to the bottom.
      9. Dump them in there.
      10. Replace the frames – push them all together to the center of the hive!
      11. Install your feeder and close the hive.
      12. Keep them fed.
      13. Leave them alone for a whole week.
      14. If when you inspect after one week the queen is still in the cage – remove the other cork and release her into the hive – by now she will be well accepted.  And by the way, an otherwise queenless hive like this will feed the caged queen through the cage for a long time – that is exactly how commercial producers “bank” queens until they are ready to ship.
      15. Don’t get excited if you don’t see either the queen or brood the first time you inspect – both are hard for new bee keepers to spot.

A great video on installing package bees

Photography by my lovely and fearless wife Shirley – who was not wearing a bee suit.

Register your Bees!

Now that you are a bee keeper you are required by law to register your bee yard.  Don’t worry – it’s free, easy and it (probably) isn’t a government plot to take away your stuff.

If you’ve been a bee keeper for a while you might want to take this opportunity to update your information.

The Apiary Act of 1995 includes a section on registration of apiaries.  In the Apiary Act, new apiaries are required to be registered with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.  These apiaries are required to be re-registered every 3 years.  The list of registered beekeepers and apiaries is maintained by the State Apiarist and upon registration, the beekeeper receives a unique registration number.  This number is the beekeeper’s personal registration number and can be used to brand hives and equipment.  Registration cards are available from this office, County Extension Agent offices, your local beekeeper association or this website.

There are a number of benefits to registering your apiary:

  • E-mail notification of disease outbreaks and updates from the State Apiarist.
  • E-mail and postal notification of aerial spraying of pesticides in your area when we are notified of the spraying projects.
  • Free inspection of your colonies if you are selling them, moving them or you feel you may have a bee health problem.
  • Registering your bees helps to protect your bees and your neighbor’s bees in the case of an American Foulbrood (AFB) outbreak or other regulatory pest.
  • If your colonies have to be destroyed due to American Foulbrood or other regulated pest or disease you will be compensated if they are registered.  There is no indemnity paid for the loss of unregistered bee colonies.

What can happen if you do not register your bees or your apiary?

  • Failure to register you bees or comply with the provisions of “The Apiary Act of 1995” may result in the confiscation your bees, beekeeping equipment and a $500.00 fine.
  • If your colonies have to be destroyed due to American Foulbrood or other regulated pest or disease you will not be compensated if they are not registered.

Please remember that by law all honey bee colonies in the state of Tennessee are required to be registered with this office. All honey bees and used equipment transported into, out of, within or through the state of Tennessee are required by law to be inspected.

Other TN Apiary forms:

Apiary Inspection Request
Apiary Registration Form
Application to Move Honeybees or Used Equipment into TN
Application to Establish an Experimental Apiary in TN
Reporting Movement of Honeybee Colonies for Pollination within TN
Request for Apiary Information
Request to be Placed on Pollinator List for Growers
Request to be Placed on Swarm Removal Services List
Request to be Placed on Structural Honeybee Removal List
Request to be Placed on List to Sell Local Honey and Other Products
Request to be Removed From Any/All Above Lists
Apiary Section Complaint Form