Lecture 9 – Part 2

Meanwhile another set of nursing bees have been working just in the same way on the other side of the wax, and so a series of hollows are made back to back all over the comb. Then the bees form the walls of the cells and soon a number of six-sided tubes, about half an inch deep, stand all along each side of the comb ready to receive honey or bee-eggs.

You can see the shape of these cells in c,d, Fig. 56, and notice how closely they fit into each other. Even the ends are so shaped that, as they lie back to back, the bottom of one cell (B, Fig. 56) fits into the space between the ends of three cells meeting it from the opposite side (A, Fig. 56), while they fit into the spaces around it. Upon this plan the clever little bees fill every atom of space, use the least possible quantity of wax, and make the cells lie so closely together that the whole comb is kept warm when the young bees are in it.


There are some kinds of bees who do not live in hives, but each one builds a home of its own. These bees – such as the upholsterer bee, which digs a hole in the earth and lines it with flowers and leaves, and the mason bee, which builds in walls – do not make six-sided cells, but round ones, for room is no object to them. But nature has gradually taught the little hive-bee to build its cells more and more closely, till they fit perfectly within each other. If you make a number of round holes close together in a soft substance, and then squeeze the substance evenly from all sides, the rounds will gradually take a six-sided form, showing that this is the closest shape into which they can be compressed. Although the bee does not know this, yet as gnaws away every bit of wax that can be spared she brings the holes into this shape.

As soon as one comb is finished, the bees begin another by the side of it, leaving a narrow lane between, just broad enough for two bees to pass back to back as they crawl along, and so the work goes on till the hive is full of combs.

As soon, however, as a length of about five or six inches of the first comb has been made into cells, the bees which are bringing home honey no longer hang to make it into wax, but begin to store it in the cells. We all know where the bees go to fetch their honey, and how, when a bee settles on a flower, she thrusts into it her small tongue-like proboscis, which is really a lengthened under-lip, and sucks out the drop of honey. This she swallows, passing it down her throat into a honey-bag or first stomach, which lies between her throat and her real stomach, and when she gets back to the hive she can empty this bag and pass honey back through her mouth again into the honey-cells.

But if you watch bees carefully, especially in the spring-time, you will find that they carry off something else besides honey. Early in the morning, when the dew is on the ground, or later in the day, in moist shady places, you may see a bee rubbing itself against a flower, or biting those bags of yellow dust or pollen which we mentioned in Lecture VII. When she has covered herself with pollen, she will brush it off with her feet, and, bringing it to her mouth, she will moisten and roll it into a little ball, and then pass it back from the first pair of legs to the second and so to the third or hinder pair. Here she will pack it into a little hairy groove called a “basket” in the joint of one of the hind legs, where you may see it, looking like a swelled joint, as she hovers among the flowers. She often fills both hind legs in this way, and when she arrives back at the hive the nursing bees take the lumps form her, and eat it themselves, or mix it with honey to feed the young bees; or, when they have any to spare, store it away in old honey-cells to be used by-and-by. This is the dark, bitter stuff called “bee- bread” which you often find in a honeycomb, especially in a comb which has been filled late in the summer.

When the bee has been relieved of the bee-bread she goes off to one of the clean cells in the new comb, and, standing on the edge, throws up the honey from the honey-bag into the cell. One cell will hold the contents of many honey-bags, and so the busy little workers have to work all day filling cell after cell, in which the honey lies uncovered, being too thick and sticky to flow out, and is used for daily food – unless there is any to spare, and then they close up the cells with wax to keep for the winter.

Meanwhile, a day or two after the bees have settled in the hive, the queen-bee begins to get very restless. She goes outside the hive and hovers about a little while, and then comes in again, and though generally the bees all look very closely after her to keep her indoors, yet now they let her do as she likes. Again she goes out, and again back, and then, at last, she soars up into the air and flies away. But she is not allowed to go alone. All the drones of the hive rise up after her, forming a guard of honour to follow her wherever she goes.

In about half-an-hour she comes back again, and then the working bees all gather round her, knowing that now she will remain quietly in the hive and spend all her time in laying eggs; for it is the queen-bee who lays all the eggs in the hive. This she begins to do about two days after her flight. There are now many cells ready besides those filled with honey; and, escorted by several bees, the queen-bee goes to one of these, and, putting her head into it remains there a second as if she were examining whether it would make a good home for the young bee. Then, coming out, she turns round and lays a small, oval, bluish-white egg in the cell. After this she takes no more notice of it, but goes on to the next cell and the next, doing the same thing, and laying eggs in all the empty cells equally on both sides of the comb. She goes on so quickly that she sometimes lays as many as 200 eggs in one day.

Then the work of the nursing bees begins. In two or three days each egg has become a tiny maggot or larva, and the nursing bees put into its cell a mixture of pollen and honey which they have prepared in their own mouths, thus making a kind of sweet bath in which the larva lies. In five or six days the larva grows so fat upon this that it nearly fills the cell, and then the bees seal up the mouth of the cell with a thin cover of wax, made of little rings and with a tiny hole in the centre.

As soon as the larva is covered in, it begins to give out from its under-lip a whitish, 9dsilken film, made of two threads of silk glued together, and with this it spins a covering or cocoon all round itself, and so it remains for about ten days more. At last, just twenty-one days after the egg was laid, the young bee is quite perfect,
lying in the cell as in Fig. 57, and she begins to eat her way through the cocoon and through the waxen lid, and scrambles out of her cell. Then the nurses come again to her, stroke her wings and feed her for twenty-four hours, and after that she is quite ready to begin work, and flies out to gather honey and pollen like the rest of the workers.

By this time the number of working bees in the hive is becoming very great, and the storing of honey and pollen-dust goes on very quickly. Even the empty cells which the young bees have left are cleaned out by the nurses and filled with honey; and this honey is darker than that stored in clean cells, and which we always call “virgin honey” because it is so pure and clear.

At last, after six weeks, the queen leaves off laying worker- eggs, and begins to lay, in some rather larger cells, eggs from which drones, or male bees, will grow up in about twenty days. Meanwhile the worker-bees have been building on the edge of the cones some very curious cells (q, Fig. 57) which look like thimbles hanging with the open side upwards, and about every three days the queen stops in laying drone-eggs and goes to put an egg in one of these cells. Notice that she waits three days between each of these peculiar layings, because we shall see presently that there is a good reason for her doing so.