To produce one of our half pound (227g) jars of honey, the bees will have visited around one million flowers and flown 25,000 miles. That’s equivalent to flying the circumference of our planet!
A hive of bees is called a colony.
There is only one queen in a colony and she can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day.
Worker bees and the queen are females. The colony determines when a new queen should be created by feeding selected female larvae with royal jelly.
Male bees are called drones. They don’t have a sting and don’t forage, clean or defend the hive. Their primary purpose is to mate with a virgin queen from another colony, an activity which, if accomplished, is fatal for the drone!
It takes 12 bees their collective lifetimes to make one spoonful of honey.
A worker bee may visit 2,000 flowers a day to collect nectar and pollen.
A worker bee flies at 15-20 mph when travelling to a food source and about 12 mph when returning laden with nectar, pollen, propolis (resin from tree buds) or water.
Research from Sussex University (The Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects – LASI) has shown that honey bees can fly up to 14km to highly rewarding patches of heather. However, an average distance would be less than a mile from the hive.
A bee colony can have up 60,000 bees in summer when there is plenty of nectar available, although this drops in winter to around 10,000, so there are fewer mouths to feed.
A queen will typically live for three to four years before being replaced by the bees, a process known as ‘supercedure’. An ageing queen will become less productive and may be replaced sooner by the beekeeper.
A worker bee will live for about six weeks in summer, when they are active and around six months in winter when they’re more likely to be confined to the hive.
Summer bees lifespan is shorter because their bodies wear out after approximately 800 km of flying, when they run out of glycogen used to power flight muscles.
Bees don’t hibernate but snuggle up (or ‘cluster’) when the temperature drops in winter, in order to preserve warmth. The reason bees produce and store honey is to provide a source of food when there are fewer flowers or they’re unable to leave the hive.
Bees communicate the location of a rich food source with each other using a special ‘waggle’ dance which indicates the direction of travel relative to the sun and approximate distance.
‘Swarming’ is the process by which a new honey bee colony is formed when the queen leaves with around 60% of the worker bees to find a new home, which could be in a hollow tree, a cave or building cavity. The remaining bees are left behind with a number of ‘queen cells’, containing developing virgin queens. Only one of these virgin queens will go on to hatch, mate and lead the original colony.
Beekeepers often mark queens with a small dot of paint to make them easier to spot. There are five colours used to indicate the year the queen was born. The age of the queen can then be easily assessed. For 2021, the colour is white!
There are believed to be more than 260,000 managed bee hives in the UK (National Bee Unit, 2020). This is a decline from the post WW2 peak of about 450,000 colonies.
The largest beekeeping operation in the world is based in the United States with around 80,000 colonies.