Bees & Honey

Q. How long does a honey bee live?

A. In the spring through early fall, a worker bee only lives for about six weeks and a drone only lives for about eight weeks. The workers born during mid/late fall will live until the following spring. Nowadays, a queen will live and be productive egg-layer for 6 months-2 years and, sometime, into a third year before she dies or she is replaced by a daughter queen.

Q. How many honey bees are in a bee hive?

A.  During the spring and summer in San Francisco, there can be as many as 50,000+ honey bees in a colony.  This number will drop to around 5,000 by mid/late November when the weather becomes colder, day length shortens, pollen & nectar are scarce and the colony becomes much less active.

Q. How do honey bees make honey?

A. Honey bees take nectar, a sweet sticky substance exuded by flowers and some insects, and mix it with enzymes from glands in their mouths. The bees then store this nectar/enzyme mix in hexagonal wax cells until the moisture is reduced to around 17%. Bees help with the evaporation process by fanning their wings to create air currents within the hive to draw off moisture. Once the moisture of this mix is reduced to around 17%, it is honey. The bees then seal the honeycomb cell with a thin layer of wax (called a capping) until the honey is needed by the bees when they will uncap the cell to get to the honey.

Q. Why do bees make honey?

A. Honey made from the nectar of flowers, along with pollen from flowers, is the honey bees food. Nectar and honey are the bees source of carbohydrates and pollen is the bees source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Honey bees are not indigenous to North America. They were brought to this continent from Europe. The colony does not die out (unlike wasps and bumblebees) or hibernate during dry or winter months, so it needs a continuous source of food year round. Honey bees have evolved to store extra food to tide them through these periods when there are no flowers blooming.

Q. How does the beekeeper get the honey from the bees?

A. Ah, yes, the honey. Essentially, the beekeeper restricts certain activities of the bees to certain portions of the hive. Specifically, the beekeeper uses a special wire or plastic grid (called a queen excluder) that allows only the smaller-sized worker bees, but not the queen, to pass through the grid into the boxes placed above grid (called supers). By doing this, the beekeeper restricts the queen and rearing of new bees to the lower boxes of the hive and forces the worker bees to store surplus honey in the supers that are placed above the queen excluder. When it is time to harvest surplus honey, the beekeeping will use one of a number of methods available to cause the bees to exit the supers and go down into the lower boxes of the hive. The beekeeper can then simply lift the super(s) of honey off the hive and bring it to the location where the honey will be extracted. The beekeeper then scratches or slices off the wax cappings from the cells, exposing the honey. The honey is then whipped out from the cells by centrifugal force created by use of an electric or hand-crank machine (called an extractor) which looks much like an old-fashioned, upright spin dryer.

Q. Do the bees miss the honey that is taken by the beekeeper?

A. Only if the beekeeper gets too greedy and does not leave sufficient honey stores for the colony. In that case, such a beekeeper will likely feed the colony a high fructose corn syrup, or a liquid sugar syrup made with water and white granulated sugar. In San Francisco during a good year, a strong colony can produce two to three times more honey than it will need over the 2-3 months when little is blooming.

Q. How much honey can I get from one bee hive in San Francisco?

A. There can be great variations based on any number of factors. Factors such as the amount of rain we received during the prior winter, the micro-climate of the neighborhood where the bees are hived, the egg-laying ability of the queen and the health of the colony, all affect how much, if any, surplus honey a colony will produce. That being said, a honey bee colony in San Francisco could produce no surplus honey or as much as 100 pounds of surplus honey by the end of the colonys first year. However, an average colony, during an average year, generally will produce 20-50 pounds of surplus honey.