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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Seasonal development cycles

The honeybee is a social insect whose life is so closely linked with the flowering plants in its environment that it whole seasonal cycle revolves around the flowering seasons of the plants it has co-evolved to pollinate. The bees' seasonal cycle will vary in different parts of the world depending on the climatic conditions that determine plant flowering periods. This means that the size of the colony will change throughout the year in a way that coincides with the quantities of nectar and pollen that the worker bees are able to collect. Bees are adapted to survive in times of nectar dearth by storing a surplus of honey but they will not want to share this resource with more than the minimum number of bees needed for the colony to survive until new flowers appear. Each member of the colony is depenedent on each other member of the colony. The whole  superorganism has evolved so that all the members of the colony are better able to survive by co-operating together than by working alone. This co-operative arrangement has allowed bees to successfully colonise the widest range of environments of almost any animal in the world. The queen bee is the mother of the hive, the egg layer and as such is essential to its survival. Because she is only one, she is well protected by the workers. The drones, who do no work in the hive and whose only contribution is to fertilise the queen, are cast out of the colony when the nectar stops flowing. They are easily replaced in times of plenty.

The life history of the worker honey bee starts with the queen laying an egg in a honeycomb. She will lay a single egg in each honey comb cell. The egg hatches into  a larva which is fed by the nurse worker bees, first on royal jelly and then later on a mixture of honey and pollen called bee bread. Once the larva has grown to its full size (nicely filling the honey comb cell) it will be capped over with a wax covering so that it can pupate. Pupation is the process where the honeybee larva turns into a fully formed adult (or imago). Worker bees are females and derive from fetilised eggs. The drones work is to fertilise a new virgin queen on her nuptual flight. A fertilised queen is able to choose whether to lay fertilised eggs (which will turn into workers or, under certain circumstances, a new queen) or unfertilised eggs, which will turn into drones. In a beehive there is normally only 1 queen, about 500 drones that are only present in times of plentiful food supply, with the largest number of bees being worker bees.

The worker bees do all the work of the colony; and this work is related to their age. This in turn is related to the development of their glands, the time of the year and the food supply available to the colony. On hatching the young bees have to learn to find their way about the hive and then they will become cleaning bees. As their feeding glands develop they become nurse bees, feeding the young larvae, later their wax glands develop and they become honeycomb making bees. During this time in the hive young bees will have to work together to evaporate water from the nectar - concentrating it into the honey stores they will need for the dearth period. They will also cool the hive by fanning their wings to keep a cool airflow through the colony. As their sting glands develop they become guard bees and finally they become foraging bees collecting nectar, pollen, propolis and water to maintain the life of the colony.

The rate of egg-laying by the queen bee depends on the amount of food coming into the colony and this will depend on the time of year. The colony size will change over time to meet the potential for food storage that is around the colony. The colony will survive the dearth peiod with the smallest number of colony members possible. Only the queen and the smallest number of workers will be left during this period. The queen will stop laying and the colony will rest. This means no drones will be present and the old foraging bees will have died; worn out by collecting the honey stores that will sustain the rest of the colony through the dearth period. As the trees and flowers start to bloom again and produce nectar the queen will start to lay new eggs. Only a few at first but as the nectar flow increases so the queen lays more eggs. The colony will start to grow in size until it reaches its maximum size again. The maximum hive size will coincide with the maximum honey flow time from the bee forage so that the workers are able to maximise the honey crop they collect.

When food supplies are short, the queen will lay fewer eggs; no food for a period of time and, in the tropics, the bees will abscond or migrate to find a better place. If plenty of food is available then the colony will build up to become strong. Many worker bees are produced; a strong force of them ready to collect nectar from the available flowers as fast as possible and to produce the honey stores needed for the next period of dearth. Drones are produced and new queen cells will appear as the colony seeks to reproduce itself by dividing and sending out swarms. The swarms are the colony's natural form of reproduction.

Successful honeybee management depends on understanding the way the colony changes its size throughout the year. For instance, colonisation of a new beehive will only occur at certain times of year; when the bees are swarming, or if they are migrating or absconding. The beekeeper who knows the times of year when this happens is far more likely to have his hives ready and nicely baited to attract passing swarms. 

The best place to find out this kind of information is to ask a local beekeeper. Long experience will mean this information is easily explained to the newcomer. However, if there is no-one available, a beekeeping calendar can be constructed. A beekeeper also needs to know about the availability of bee forage throughout the year. This allows the beekeeper to plan ahead, to build up strong colonies ready for the main honey flows and to know when harvesting times are likely to occur. A flowering calendar is a record of the approximate flowering times of important nectar and pollen plants in the locality.

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