At the peak of the year for the honey bee – June, July and August - there are between 50 and 60,000 bees in a colony. It will be made up of :-
1) One Queen (female) – slightly larger with a longer abdomen - a Worker that has been fed on a better diet, has mated with up to 15 Drones and lays the eggs;
2) A few hundred Drones (males) – larger and squatter, mate with Queens and have no sting; and
3) Many thousands (the rest) of Workers (females) which are smaller and do all he work.
The Queen's role is to lay eggs which, if the conditions are right, will be done at the rate of up to 2,000 eggs a day (or even more) – equivalent to twice her body weight. Most of the eggs will be fertilized – Worker eggs - which will be laid at the bottom of the cells in the lower section of the hive. After 3 days an egg hatches into a larva and on day 9 the cell will get capped over. On day 21 a new fully grown worker bee emerges and for the first 3 weeks of its life will do hive duty. This will include cleaning and feeding the Queen, cleaning the cells out for the Queen to lay eggs in, attending the brood – eggs, larvae and capped cells – feeding and keeping them warm and drawing out any wax cells that might be needed. For the second 3 weeks of its life the Worker goes out foraging to bring in pollen, nectar, water, etc. The nectar collected is store around the brood and in larger quantities above the brood and is converted by the bees to honey. Beekeepers will often place an additional box (a Super) above the main (Brood) box purely for nectar/honey with a Queen Excluder between the boxes. The Queen Excluder stops the Queen from going up to the Super as she is too large to get through, so that she cannot lay eggs where the honey is stored. The cells in the frame of the Super will only get capped over with wax when the bees have reduced the water content to about 18-20%. If it is more than this, the honey could start fermenting.
If the conditions are favourable – the colony has built up well during the spring with plenty of food around and the weather is reasonable - the colony will think about creating a second colony. Larger cells are produced in the brood box and the Queen will lay Drone (male) eggs about five weeks before swarming. It takes 24 days for a new Drone to emerge and then mature. Just over a week before the hive swarms, a Queen Cell is built which unlike all the other cells, is vertical and the cell extends downwards. A newly laid worker egg is attached to the floor of the Queen Cell and is fed a better/richer diet that makes her physically bigger. On day 8 the Queen Cell gets capped over and shortly afterwards the old Queen will leave with about half the workers and half the stores in a swarm. The swarm will land on a nearby tree, post or other surface before deciding where to make its new home. In the original hive, a new Queen will emerge on day 16. Hopefully within the next week she will go out on a mating flight, mate with several Drones, return to the hive and start laying a few days later.
Beekeepers do not like it when a colony swarms because the bee numbers are dramatically reduced. Also, once a Queen cell is produced with an egg in it, the existing Queen will stop laying eggs so that that she will be fit enough to fly off in the swarm. It could be as long as three to five weeks before a new Queen has mated and started laying eggs. During that time, when no new bees are emerging, the number of bees in the hive will drop further and if this dip in bee numbers is at the same time when there is plenty of forage around, the bees will not have the workforce to produce the honey and store it. Therefore beekeepers will use various methods to stop or get round a hive from swarming.
If all has gone well, by the end of August there will be a crop of honey in the top of the Brood Box and in the Supers. The frames of honey in the Supers that have all sealed cells on them will be removed and uncapped before being spun in an extractor to get the honey out of them (The Society has a honey extractor available for hire). An extractor is like a large metal dustbin with a cage in it that spins round. The frames are held in the cage like the spokes of wheel – radially - or in a square or triangle - tangentially. The cage is turned either by hand or using an electrical motor starting gently and building up slowly to top speed. The honey comes out of the frames, falls to the bottom and is then coarse filtered after coming through the tap at the bottom. It is then fine filtered and left to settle before finally bottling the “golden harvest” in clean jars and labelling them, after which it is ready for eating or to be offered for sale.
After the honey is taken off, the bees may be ‘treated’ to ensure that they are in the best of health going into the winter and have enough stores to go through the winter. The Drones will be 'kicked out' (by the Workers) in the Autumn and the hive will over winter with 8-10000 bees – the Queen and Workers. As the weather gets colder the Queen will stop laying after slowing down from the peak in the summer. The bees will form a ball or cluster in the hive where the centre will be warm and the bees change position slowly in such a way that the warm bees move towards the outside of the cluster and the cooler bees move towards the centre. During this broodless period - late December / early January - the bees may be treated again. Late in January, or as the temperature starts rising again, the Queen will start laying eggs again and the cycle continues.