bee faqs

This is by no means an exhaustive list of FAQ's. I've tried to list many of the questions that I had when I first started, as well as some of the questions that others have asked me along the way. My hopes are that the FAQ's will answer at least some of your questions as it grows and more questions are added.

How do bees make honey?
Honey bees collect nectar from flowers, which is then turned into honey by a combination of the bee's digestive enzymes that invert the sugars, and evaporation.

It is due to the types of flowers visited by the bees as to why honeys vary in taste, color and tendency to crystallize. Some flowers, like cotton blossoms for example, can produce a nectar that results in an almost clear, and very light flavored honey. Others like Tahoka daisies can produce a dark honey resembling something very much like molasses in both taste and smell. Clover blossoms, due to their abundance of both long flowering seasons and high nectar production provide one of the largest sources of nectar used by bees to produce honey in many areas. Most clover produces a light golden-amber honey that is not overly delicate or strong and appeals to many. Clover honey has saturated the market in many areas for decades, so much so that some people growing up today may not even know other delicious honeys even exist!

Together with pollen, the nectar gathered from these flower blossoms provides food for the bees. They will easily hoard as much as they can, and often more than they could ever use. The nectar is brought back to the hive by a field bee (the older worker bees), where it is then given over to a house bee (the younger worker bees). The house bee will then take the nectar and place it in a cell, whereby the constant flow of air over the cell produced by other bees "fanning" their wings slowly draws the moisture from the nectar. Bees will usually place nectar that is being processed into honey above the areas of honey that have their cells capped for storage. These cells are in turn usually located above or outside of those used for storage of pollen, with the nest of brood residing in cells located in the center of the nest below the pollen storage areas.

Honey is more than just nectar concentrated by evaporation, however. As the nectar is moved by the house bees from cell to cell until is finally ready to fill a cell and be capped over with a thin layer of beeswax, it is ingested by the bee into its honey stomach where enzymes act on it to invert the simple sugars in the nectar into honey. This combination of inverting the simple sugars in nectar and evaporating it to a viscous state of approximately 18% or less moisture provides the bees with a food that can be stored for more or less indefinite periods of time. Even when the cells of honey have become heavily crystallized, bees have been known to add water to the crystals to dissolve them.

The bees will use this honey as food for themselves, as well as mixed with pollen to create a substance known as "bee bread" to feed to their young. In order for a hive to make it through the winter, a healthy storage of honey needs to be collected. Fortunately for us bees are hoarders by nature when it comes to honey and often collect far more than they need. If ready with strong hives at the start of a season of heavy nectar flow, the amount of surplus honey a beekeeper can harvest at the end of the season can be quite considerable.

How does honey get from the beehive to the store shelves?
Once the honey is ready to be harvested, the beekeeper will leave behind plenty of honey for the bees to make it through winter (and then some), and collect the rest. The honey collected from domestic beehives is contained in "frames" of honeycomb. Each frame of honey is usually about 1 1/2 inches thick, and made of individual beeswax cells emanating outward from a central rib, or sheet, of beeswax. The beekeeper can tell when the honey is ready to be harvested as the bees will cover each full cell of honey with a thin layer, or "cap", of beeswax. Once a frame of honey has almost every cell capped, it can be pulled from the hive.

Anywhere from 8 to 10 frames of honeycomb will fit in each section, or layer, of the beehive. These layers are usually referred to as "supers", and a beehive will usually consist of anywhere from one to five or even ten or more of these supers. The bees usually raise their young in the bottom one or two supers, storing honey in those supers above the nest. When a super or more of frames are fully capped (and is honey the bees don't need themselves), the beekeeper will harvest these supers of excess honey.

After collecting the honey, the beekeeper will either use the honey comb as it comes right out of the hive, or extract the honey from the frames of honeycomb for bottling. Special frames are usually used to produce comb honey for use or sell, and frames of comb are often taken from the hive as soon as they are capped (versus waiting for the entire super full of frames to be capped). This way the comb's appearance is light in color and very appealing. Fresh comb honey is often spread on breads and toast, or even eaten "as is" or chewed until a lump of beeswax is all that's left, then spit out.

Having more uses, extracted honey is more popular than comb honey. Therefore, the majority of honeycomb harvested is processed for bottling. The beekeeper, using a heated knife, will shave the caps off the comb, exposing the honey stored inside each cell. Once both sides of the frame have been "decapped", the frame is put inside an "extractor". This apparatus is a machine that steadily spins the frames around until the honey is literally thrown out of the cells and drips down the inside walls of the extractor's tank, collecting at the bottom. When all the frames in the extractor are emptied of their honey, they are taken out and replaced with other decapped frames.

As the level of honey rises in the tank, it will be drained off into a strainer and then filtered through fine-mesh nylon. The resulting honey is often called "raw" honey, as it still contains any pollen or the tiniest bits of wax that made it through the filter, making it slightly opaque in appearance. Many prefer their honey raw, considering it more "natural" at this stage, and is as far as some beekeepers go in the extracting process. Some commercial honey-producing operations may take it a step further and heat the honey slightly (making it less viscous, or thinner) so it can be strained through even finer filters. Much of the honey seen on store shelves that is a very transparent golden or amber color was processed by this method, with it's clarity due to the further filtering of wax and pollen out of the honey.

Once the supers of frames have had their honey extracted, the beekeeper will usually put the supers of sticky frames back on the hives. The bees clean them up very nicely, moving any remaining honey still stuck to the cell walls after the extracting process back down into their hive with their other stored honey. The beekeeper will then either leave the supers of frames of empty and dry honeycomb on the hive to be refilled again if a strong nectar flow is still going on or is approaching, or remove most or all of the empty supers if the nectar flow is over, or in preparation for winter.

How do honey bees carry pollen?
Click to enlarge! Honey bees carry pollen back to the hive in a small "basket" of fine hairs on the outside of their hind legs. As the bee scrapes pollen off its body, hairs on the leg collect the pollen. It is then transferred to the basket opening with a minute comb at the mid-joint of the leg. There is even a "pollen press" as part of the joint that will pack the pollen into these baskets. When the basket is full the bee will return to the hive and unload the pollen "pellets" out of the baskets into a cell. The house bees then take care of packing the pollen down in the cell until it's needed for food for the brood.

Where do bees get beeswax?
Bees actually produce their own beeswax. On the underside of the bee's abdomen there are eight glands that secrete the liquid wax. As the wax hardens it forms small flakes that are then removed by the bee with its hind legs and brought up to the bee's mandibles. Here, it is masticated into a malleable form where it is then used to build comb. To give you an idea of just how small these flakes are, one pound of the wax equates to about 570,000 of these flakes.

What are supers?
Supers are wooden boxes that have no top or bottom. Supers are stacked one on top of another as needed when the bee's population or honey storage requirements grow in size. A "standard" hive has a bottom floor, one or more supers that act as a hive body for the brood nest, usually one to several supers for honey storage and a cover for the hive. In the U.S. most beekeepers have standardized on supers that hold ten frames and come in four basic sizes... deep (9 5/8"), medium (6 5/8"), shallow (5 11/16") and comb (4 1/2" for round section, 4 3/4" for split section). In Europe other sizes and styles are used including the more garden ornamental WBC to National, Commercial or even a large Modified Dadant. In some areas plastic or Styrofoam supers are marketed and used.

Why do beekeepers paint their hives white?
Actually, not all beekeepers paint their hives white. A lot do, and this is to help the bees in keeping the hive cooler in summer, especially if the hive is located in direct sun during the heat of the day. White (or light colors) have also been proven to be colors bees don't seem to mind. Some beekeepers in colder areas stain or paint their hives a darker color to help the bees keep the hives warmer in the early spring when they start raising brood. Commercial beekeepers often use whatever light colored paint they can find on sale. Light blues, yellows and greens are not uncommon.

How do honey bees keep their hive at a constant 93-95° Fahrenheit temperature?
Honey bees do this in several ways. As the temperature rises inside the hive due to warm weather, they will ventilate their hive by having some bees create an increase in air flow through the hive. The bees do this by lining up in one direction into the hive and back out again, and fanning their wings. This creates an intentional draft through the hive that keeps temperatures down. Should the weather get hotter some of the bees will then collect water, placing these drops of water in cells and spreading thin sheets of water between their mandibles. The bee's fan-current evaporates the water, lowering the temperature even more (and you didn't think bees knew about air conditioning!). During cooler weather and winter the bees will actually "cluster", creating a ball shape that is hollow with the queen in the middle. The bees take turns eating honey and vibrating as they move through the cluster wall. The heat given off by calories being burned in the process warms the cluster. However, during the dead of winter when there is no brood being raised the temperature does in fact fall below the 93-95° range to about 85° Fahrenheit.

How do beekeepers get the honey out of the comb?
There are several ways of doing this, and the amount of honey being collected usually determines the process taken. If the beekeeper only has a super or two of honey, the comb can be broken up and strained through a fine-mesh bag into a bucket. Another alternative is a pair of wooden paddles hinged together to form a press that is used to squeeze the honey from the comb. Both these methods destroy the comb, which bees use honey to produce. As such, beekeepers usually use what is called an "extractor". An extractor is a round stainless steel (or super heavy-duty plastic) barrel with baskets (tangential) or frame clips (radial) inside attached to a vertical rod. The rod extends through the top of the extractor and is attached to pulleys or gears. The baskets spin inside the tank when a hand crank is turned (more expensive or very large models are motorized). The frames of honeycomb, once the cappings have been removed, are placed in the baskets or frame clips and then spun around until all the honey comes out of the combs by centrifugal force. The bottom of the extractor has a valve for draining the extractor of the honey collected. Using an extractor enables beekeepers (and bees) to use the frames of empty comb again, saving the bees time and honey in creating new comb each time they're needed.

My jar of honey is crystallized. Is it ruined?
Not at all. The sugars in honey may start to crystallize over time (honey from some nectar sources faster than others). This in itself does not harm the honey in the slightest. As a matter of fact, many commercial honey producers intentionally crystallize barrels of honey by storing them at temperatures of about 52-56° Fahrenheit. as it makes them easier to handle. "Whipped honey" is honey that as been "seeded" with very fine honey crystals, then occasionally stirred over a period of days until the honey is uniformly crystallized and smooth. To reliquefy a jar of crystallized honey, take a pan of hot (not boiling) water and set the jar of honey down in the water bath (top cracked open and well above the water level). The crystals should melt and become liquid again. Repeat if necessary. If your honey is "raw", unprocessed (but filtered) honey, make sure the tempurature of the hot water is not over 95° Fahrenheit to preserve the full "naturalness" of the honey.

Why do some queen bees have a painted dot on them?
Most suppliers of queen bees will mark the queens they ship to you with a colored dot of paint on the top of the thorax for a very small fee (.50 cents or so). This colored dot not only helps you quickly find the queen among the other bees in the hive should you need to, but will also signify what year the queen was introduced into the hive. Queen breeders use a color numbering system so that queens marked with blue indicate years ending in 0 or 5, white a 1 or 6, yellow a 2 or 7, red a 3 or 8 and green for years ending in 4 or 9.

What is "bee space"?
In 1851 a beekeeper, Rev. L.L. Langstroth noted that honey bees allowed themselves 3/8" between combs. If a hive had a 1/4"-3/8" space it wouldn't be filled with comb. Anything over 3/8" was filled with comb, anything less than 1/4" was filled with propolis. He took this "discovery" and created the first movable-frame hive and is called by many the Father of Beekeeping.

Why is some honey a light color, and some dark?
The color of honey depends on its nectar source. Usually, early spring honey is lighter than honey collected in fall, again due to the nectar source. Some flowers produce a light, almost clear honey (such as cotton), other blossoms provide a nectar that produces a golden amber color (such as the common clover honey seen in stores). Others, such as buckwheat produce a very dark, almost molasses-color honey. There are shades of honey that cover the spectrum between these colors as well. Besides the color of honey, the nectar source also determines the taste of honey. It is common that the lighter the honey the milder the taste (but not always).

What is propolis, and what do bees do with it?
Propolis is a combination of gums and resins bees collect from trees and plants, as well as wax, pollen and oils. Bees like a tight hive, and use propolis to "glue" loose items in the hive and seal cracks. That's why you'll find frames glued down with propolis, and cracks between supers sealed. Some strains of honey bees, such as the Caucasians, use propolis heavily in their hive, and even use it to narrow the entrance as needed. Propolis is usually sticky when warm, and brittle when cold. It is also high in antibiotic properties and has been used in medicinal remedies since ancient times.

What is a queen excluder?
A queen excluder is a metal or plastic grill (similar to the wire shelving in refrigerators) that is placed between supers. The space between the grills is .16", which prevents the queen or drones from entering the supers placed above the excluder. Beekeepers place the excluder above the super containing brood to keep the queen from going into the honey supers and laying eggs. Since pollen is usually stored close to the brood, this ensures that the supers will contain only honey. Excluders are usually put on the hives in spring before the main honey flow, and removed in fall after the last harvest of honey.

What's the best way to get comb honey?
Click to enlarge! There are about as many best ways to get comb honey as there are ways. What's important is for a strong nectar flow be present. This will help the bees fill the comb quickly, and minimize "travel stain" on the comb from propolis in the hive that bees track around on the bottoms of their feet. Some beekeepers use special 4 and 1/2" comb supers that have special frames and accommodate round plastic inserts that sandwich thin foundation. After being taken off the hive, the frames are separated leaving four round sections of comb honey. When the two open sides of these plastic rings are covered, they make a ready-package for sale. Others use a standard shallow frame (with thin foundation) and cut out the comb in squares or rectangles when harvested.

If supers hold 10 frames, why do some beekeepers use 9?
Using nine frames in honey supers has a definite advantage when it comes time to extract your honey. Some beekeepers use only eight! For one, even though there is the same amount of honey there are less frames to extract. Also, if you are using a decapping knife it is much easier to cut off the cappings as the comb is wider and the cappings extend beyond the edges of the frame. However, if frames of foundation are placed in the super, you should always use 10 frames. If you don't the bees will create burr comb to fill the space between the frames (which is too big... remember the 3/8" bee space?). If you've got frames of already-drawn comb, try using 9 in the super next time. I think you'll be impressed!

Won't setting sticky supers outside after extracting cause robbing behavior in the apiary?
It depends on a couple factors. If there is a dearth of nectar coming in from the field it very well may lead to robbing. If the supers are placed in close proximity to other hives (especially if there are weak ones present), probably "yes" again. If you choose to put the supers outside for the bees to clean, make sure to stack them so there is plenty of access to the frames in as many areas as possible to keep fighting to a minimum. Personally, I prefer to put the supers back on the hives over the inner cover (make sure the oblong hole in the inner cover is open). It may take a little longer for the supers to get clean, but I haven't had any problem with robbing by doing so. Make sure there's empty comb below the inner cover for the bees to store the honey from the extracted supers or you may find they use the very supers you're wanting them to clean!

Do you have to sterilize jars before bottling the honey?
No. Honey is anaerobic, contains natural antibiotics in minute amounts (hydrogen peroxide is one of them), and therefore does not need to be stored in sterile containers. They do need to be clean, though! Many beekeepers use canning jars, recycled mayonnaise jars, plastic milk cartons or whatever they find that will work. Commercial producers use newly manufactured jars. Run the jars (new or recycled) through the dishwasher rinse and dry cycles right before you use them to remove any dust particles (which hastens crystallization).

Why aren't there more FAQ's?
This area is still under construction. More will come!

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Some people are allergic to bee venom and can incur serious medical problems if stung. You should always consult a doctor prior to keeping bees. I assume no responsibility or liability for accidents, injuries or damage caused by the use, or misuse of the information provided. It is intended for educational purposes only!

big bee Honey bees are wonderful insects that do incredible good, and beekeeping is a fantastic way to study them and their interaction with the environment around them. If you have any questions about bees, or beekeeping that are not answered here, please email me! You can do this easily by clicking on my name at the bottom of this page.

Many close-up photographs courtesy of P-O Gustafsson, a fellow beekeeper.
Copyright © 1999-2003 David D. Scribner. All Rights Reserved.
Last Updated: December 7, 2003