Bees: Good Neighbors, Bad Roommates

bees in structure

Hardly a day goes by without honey bees making the news. Public interest in “saving the bees” is high as a result of this (often alarming) media coverage. Knowledgeable counsel and advice is important in dealing with honey bees since they make good neighbors but really bad roommates.

The honey bee colony has only one queen and her role is critical. She is the largest bee in the colony and lays the eggs that will sustain the colony population. She also emits scents (pheromones) that regulate colony unity. The queen is the colony’s only fully developed female. She may live four years or more. The colony workers, numbering 60,000 or more in a fully populated hive, are females as well, but not reproductively mature. These workers keep the hive clean and tidy, produce beeswax, build comb, tend the queen and her brood, make honey, etc. Newly emerged workers spend their first three weeks or so doing these chores inside the hive. Later they progress to guarding the hive entrance and then become “field bees” gathering nectar, pollen, water and plant resins for the hive. During the peak of honey flow, a worker may only live six weeks or so under a heavy burden of work to be done.

The drone (male honey bee) has a fascinating story. His mother, the queen, decides when the colony has sufficient resources in the spring to raise her sons who will pass her genes on to the next generation. The colony will be repaid the food and effort devoted to raising new workers. Raising new workers is like an investment for the colony but the drone’s only role is as mating partner for new queens. When the time is right, the queen seeks out bigger comb cells that the workers have prepared to produce their larger brothers. There she lays unfertilized eggs that will develop in to some 200 or so male drones. You read that right!  Drones develop from unfertilized eggs (strange to us mammals, but not all that uncommon in the insect world). While not quite as large as the queen, the drones are barrel-shaped robust bees with large compound eyes like those of a dragonfly.  The drone gather some 100 feet above the ground and circle about giving off scents that attract newly emerged virgin queens. New queens are attracted to the drone congregation area and fly up to mate in flight with as many as 20 or more drones. After mating, the drones fall to the ground and die while the new queen returns to her colony to assume her role, perhaps never leaving over her life span of four or more years.

While the queen is egg laying effort sustains colony numbers, new colonies are created by dividing in two or “swarming”: about half the population leaves with the queen in search of a new home. The swarm must find a suitable nest site to survive while the established colony that is left behind must nurture a new queen who hopefully survives a mating flight and returns to the colony. If both groups are successful, there are now two colonies instead of just one. Reproductive swarms usually happen in the springtime when forage is plentiful, so “swarm season” is right now. (“Absconding” is the term beekeepers use for entire colonies that “swarm”, abandoning their nest, usually due to pests or disease. Absconding can happen at any time of the year.)  

A cluster of bees hanging from a tree limb or on a wooden fence are awaiting the return of scouts that will guide them to a new residence. The worst advice anyone can receive is “don’t worry, they’ll leave” since the rest of the sentence may well be “and move into your garage.” 

Capturing swarms and introducing them into a hive is a basic beekeeping skill. A clustered swarm of bees in a tree or on a fence is hungry and anxious, so the beekeepers offer of a new home is often quickly accepted. If not the beekeeper’s managed hive, hopefully the bees will move into a hollow tree or maybe an abandoned birdhouse. If the colony moves into the wall of someone’s home, it’s not good for the people or the bees. Now there is a costly pest control problem not a beekeeping problem. Simply killing the bees leaves the wall full of dead bees and honey that must all be removed or the stench will be awful. The cavity must be filled (with material like fiberglass insulation) and caulked closed to discourage another colony from moving in (a common occurrence). And don’t forget the restoration, painting and cleanup. Few beekeepers are willing to tackle removals or “cutouts” and it is hard to find commercial services that will do the work. Honey bees make good neighbors but really bad roommates.

This article was written by Fort Bend Beekeepers Association officer and member, Jeff McMullan.  The Fort Bend Beekeepers meet monthly at the Bud O’Shields Community Center in Rosenberg.  Meetings start at 7pm the second Tuesday of the month.  For more information about the Fort Bend Beekeepers, visit their website at We also keep a SWARM LIST at the Extension Office.  This is a list of local experienced beekeepers that are available to assist in removal of bees from your property.  For information call (281) 342-3034.


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