Beekeeping, like any other activity, has its own set of jargon. Words that are unique to the hobby that can be confusing. Some of these words are familiar to the general public, while others are mysteries until explained. Several readers said a dictionary is needed for some of the terms we’ve been using. I get that, because we were in the same boat just months ago. We’ve learned a lot since then, but we’re beginners at this, too. We are still learning ourselves.
In order to try and help, we’re posting some photos of our bees that will help you more precisely see what we’re talking about in our posts. We will point out things like honey comb, brood comb, cross-comb, capped honey, pupa, larva, and more.
Identification starts to become fairly easy once you’ve inspected a beehive (a place where bees live) a few times. But if you’ve never had that opportunity, I hope this helps. I apologize if some of this is insultingly basic, but I’d like it to be used by all age groups and experience levels.
Bees fill their hives with wax structures called comb. In the case of a top bar hive (the type of hive we are using), wax comb is built vertically on a wooden bar that spans the two longest sides of an empty wooden box. As the bees build the comb bigger and bigger, it is said to be “drawn out.” Sometimes bees can build this wax across two or more top bars, essentially binding the bars together and making them difficult to lift out. This is called “cross-comb.” It’s not a good thing! Cross-comb has to be removed or repaired in order for a beekeeper to properly inspect a top bar hive. This problem can also occur in the more commonly used langstroth beehive, where comb is built on frames instead of bars.
There are two general types of comb you’ll find in a hive: brood comb and honey comb. Think of brood comb as the nursery at a local hospital. It’s where all the babies are kept and tended to. Think of honey comb as a pantry. It’s where all the food is stored. Pretty simple.
Cells are the hexagon shaped holes you find on both sides of brood comb and honey comb. The queen bee lays eggs in brood cells. Once those eggs hatch into larva (a worm), those brood cells are capped with wax. Those caps are mustard yellow in color and bulge out slightly. When the brood cell is capped, the larva changes into a pupa and that pupa changes into an adult bee. Roughly 21 days into the process, a soft, matted adult bee chews through the wax cap and emerges to be a working member of the community. A community of bees is called a colony.
Honey comb is full of food for the bees (and hopefully the beekeeper). Often this food is saved for future use (think winter). When this happens, the bees cap the honey cells with wax. The wax caps that cover honey cells are a lighter color than the caps that cover brood cells. Capped honey is cream colored and the caps are flat. Uncapped honey is shiny and looks golden in color.
Bees often keep their brood and honey in separate areas of their home, but a single comb in a top bar hive is not always exclusively one or the other. Often a comb contains both honey and brood. Brood comb almost always contains some honey cells at the top that are used to feed the brood on that particular comb. But in a mature colony, there should be several honey combs that contain no brood. That is the honey you want to harvest and eat.
Now onto the actual bees! There are three types of bees in a colony: a queen bee, workers bees, and drone bees.
The queen bee keeps order and gives orders. There is only one in a given hive. She is the only bee that can lay fertile eggs. She is much longer and fatter than other bees.
Most of the colony is made up of worker bees. Workers bees are females. They leave the hive and forage (collect) nectar and pollen from the flowers. Some of them stay behind and act as nurse bees. They tend to the brood and also to the queen’s needs. They also protect the colony and honey stores with their stingers.
The rest of the bees are drones. There are very few of them. These are male bees that exist solely to mate with the queen. They are larger than female workers, but have no stinger. They don’t live terribly long.
I’m not an expert on any of this. But describing things in simple terms helps me remember. There are many other jargony terms that are associated with bee anatomy, tools, equipment, and processes. I won’t get into those in this post. Many of those things are discussed in separate posts or will be in the future as we encounter them. Until then, feel free to ask any questions and I’ll explain the best I can at this point in my journey.