In any hive there are thousands of honey bees. There are three types: a single queen, thousands of female worker bees and, in the summer, hundreds of male drones. The drone's sole purpose is to mate with the queen and every day they rise to the drone congregation area nearest to the hive to hang out with their mates and wait for a virgin queen to make her maiden flight. If they succeed in mating with her their sexual organs detach and the drone dies and falls to the ground. The unsuccessful drones are evicted by the workers at the end of the summer and die. 

At the height of summer there is an average of 35 - 40,000 bees in the hive - a really big colony would have around 60,000 bees. Over the winter this falls to around 5,000 bees. The winter bees live for several months whereas their summer colleagues only live for a few, intensely working weeks. 

Why do they sting?

A honey bee only stings for two reasons - they see you as a threat to the colony and they are protecting it or they are frightened for some other reason. 

You will be stung only by female worker bees, who like the drones above, die when they sting you. They have barbs on their sting which cause it to be firmly stuck in your skin and as you brush the bee away, its venom sacs and glands remain meaning that the sac muscles continue to pump venom into you. This is the reason for the advice to make sure you get the sting out as quickly as possible to minimise the effects. 

The queen can also sting, but she has a smooth sting which she uses to kill other, rival queens and is not defensive like the worker bee. 

Inside the hive 

There are square or rectangular wooden frames with hexagonal foundation comb on them. The bees build up the comb to form cells which can hold developing bee babies, honey or pollen.

They cluster around the queen on 4 - 6 frames where she lays her eggs and keep the temperature of the hive between 32C and 35C which is ideal for the developing bees.

Honey bees mix plant pollen with water to form what is called 'Bee Bread' that is fed to the growing larvae. It provides a rich source of protein and fat whilst stored honey provides energy (carbohydrate).

Bees collect about 20kg of pollen every year - that’s 1 million pollen loads at 20mg per trip!

Get planting! 

We need people to plant more flowers wherever they live – the more flowers, the more food (forage) for the honey bees. Greater food sources enable honey bees to be much stronger in the face of disease. You can find a comprehensive guide to Gardening for bees here which tells you which pollen will be available when the bees need it throughout the year.