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Beehives 101

Have you ever wondered what the inside of a beehive looks like?

You might be surprised to learn that beehives are highly organized superorganisms. Inside is a whole ecosystem of its own, working efficiently at all times.

Beehives are complex and fascinating, so keep reading to learn more!


What’s in a Beehive?

A beehive is where honey bees live, but it doesn’t look the way many people commonly assume.

People often envision a big tan mass hanging from a tree, but that’s usually a wasp nest and not made by bees. Instead, bees have a more open type of hive and typically need something to enclose their space, whether natural or provided for them. This could be inside the hollow of a tree or sometimes in a building.

Inside a beehive, sheets or frames of comb run parallel to each other and provide efficient storage space for nectar, pollen, and brood, or areas designated for developing bees.

The structure of a beehive helps keep it properly ventilated and allows the bees to maintain a comfortable temperature for themselves.

Natural Beehives vs. Apiary Beehives

hive splitting

Whether they’re made by wild bees or a beekeeper, beehives have the same general components.

The main difference is natural beehives are built in available spaces the bees seek out for themselves, while beekeepers will construct hives meant to emulate the basic features of a natural beehive to manage their bees. Examples of places bees might choose to build hives include hanging from tree branches or inside hollow trees, inside walls of buildings, or in places like empty garbage cans.

Artificial beehives in an apiary come in many different forms but generally have the same components: an enclosed wooden space with designated entrances and frames for comb. Types of beehives include the most common Langstroth, horizontal, Warre, and top bar hives.

The Foundation of a Beehive

Best Beginning Beekeeping Supplies

The comb is the part of building a beehive that takes the most work.

The wax comb consists of a sheet made from beeswax with hexagonal cells on both sides built out horizontally. Honeybees build combs by secreting tiny flakes of wax from special glands in their abdomen, then chewing them until they become pliable and can be molded into the comb. The comb starts out white or very pale yellow and darkens with time and use.

Inside the small hexagonal cells is where the life of the hive is stored. It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources for worker bees to build all the comb they need.

The wax stays sturdy, is easily maintained, and is hygienic for the bees, making it the perfect material. Wax is also used to enclose cells, known as capping. This applies to both broods in the pupal stage when the cell gets sealed off and finished honey to keep it from spoiling or dripping out.

Just about every single cell will serve multiple purposes and be reused many times.

Everything in its Place

A main benefit of building beehives from the comb is that it allows the bees to store everything they need very efficiently.

This includes pollen stores, with each cell holding only a single source of pollen at a time, nectar gathered from flowers that will become honey and eggs that will grow into adult bees. They also need to have available empty cells to use for whatever they might need.

Beehives will usually have their comb organized so that sections of brood are in the center of sheets of comb and lower in the hive. Brood can be surrounded by pollen, nectar, or capped honey.

Outer comb and frames higher up in apiary bee hives will hold capped honey and other resources as the bees build their resources.

You can easily tell what’s in each cell by sight alone. Pollen cells will be uncapped, with a single type of pollen packed into each cell. Every type of pollen is a slightly different color, so you can often tell what the bees are foraging from by the colors you see.

The nectar that has not yet become honey will also be uncapped, with a shiny liquid inside. This means the moisture content is likely too high, or the cell isn’t filled yet.

Once the nectar is ready to become honey, the bees will put a layer of wax on top to seal it, which can have a whitish or almost black appearance. This is the honey that’s ready to harvest or can be saved for the bees to consume in winter.

Increasing Hive Population

swarm of honey bees flying around beehive. Bees returning from collecting honey fly back to the hive. Honey bees on home apiary, apiculture concept

Keeping the colony going is a central function within any beehive and requires a lot of space. This is known as brood, and brood will look different depending on what stage it’s in.

A newly-laid egg is so small it’s tough to see, so cells with just an egg can often look empty. After several days, that egg will hatch into small white larvae that progressively grow and float in a special liquid called jelly.

When the larva is old enough, worker bees will cap its cell for it to finish developing inside as a pupa. This has a different appearance from capped honey cells, usually having a more brown color and raised texture. Drone brood, or cells with larger male bee pupas, will stick further out with rounded caps.

Queen cells are peanut-shaped cells that hang down off the comb, either on the side of the comb or from the bottom, depending on why a new queen is needed. A cell built for a potential future queen that hasn’t been used yet is called a queen cup and isn’t technically a queen cell until the workers decide to use it.

It’s important that the bees have enough room in the beehive to adjust their population as needed, and they like to be ready for anything.

Beehives Are a Feat of Natural Engineering

To observe the inside of a beehive is to see a system that functions like a well-oiled machine.

It’s astonishing how well-organized these little creatures are, and we must ensure their survival as pollinators.

Now that you’re in the beehive, there’s so much more to learn about honey bees!

Kristi Scheuneman

Saturday 22nd of July 2023

I agree wholeheartedly! Bees are amazing creatures, designed and engineered by the all wise Creator of this amazing, intricate, beautiful, universe. Lets give the credit and gratitude for all this wonderment to the one to whom it belongs; Jesus Christ, our creator, savior, helper, and friend to those who place their trust in Him.