Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

Industries of the Hive and the Observation Hive

Teacher's Story

dropcap image EE-HIVES are the houses which man furnishes for the bee colonies, the wild bees ordinarily living in hollow trees or in caves. The usual hive consists of a box which is the lower story and of one or more upper stories, called "supers." In the lower story are placed frames for the brood and for storing the honey for the winter use of the bees. In the supers are placed the sections, each of which is planned to hold a pound of honey. It is the habit of the bees to place their brood in the lower part of their nests and store honey in the upper portions. The bee-keepers have taken advantage of this habit of the bees and remove the supers with their filled sections and replace them with others to be filled, and thus get a large crop of honey. The number of bees in a colony varies; there should be at least 40,000 in a healthy colony. Of these a large proportion are workers; there may be a few hundred drones the latter part of the season but only one queen.


A home-made observation hive.

Honey-comb is built of wax and is hung from the frame so that the cells are horizontal; its purpose is to cradle the young and for the storage of pollen and honey. The wax used for building the comb is a secretion of the bees; when comb is needed, a number of self-elected bee citizens gorge themselves with honey and hang themselves up in a curtain, each bee reaching up with her fore feet and taking hold of the hind feet of the one above her. After remaining thus for some time the wax appears in little plates, one on each side of the second, third, fourth and fifth segments of the abdomen. This wax is chewed by the bees and made into comb.

Honey is made from the nectar of flowers which the bee takes into her honey stomach. This, by the way, is not the true stomach of the bee and has nothing to do with digestion. It is simply a receptacle for storing the nectar, which is mixed with some secretion from the glands of the bee which brings about chemical changes, the chief of which is changing the cane sugar of the nectar into the more easily digested grape sugar of the honey. After the honey is emptied from the honey stomach into the cell, it remains exposed to the air for some time before the cell is capped, and thus ripens. It is an interesting fact that up to the seventeenth century honey was the only means people had for sweetening their food, as sugar was unknown.

Bee-bread is made from the pollen of flowers which is perhaps mixed with saliva so as to hold together; it is carried from the field on the pollen baskets of the hind legs of the workers; it is packed into the cell by the bees and is used for food. Propolis is bee glue; it is used as a cement and varnish; it is gathered by the bees from the leaf-buds of certain trees and plants, although when they can get it, the bees will take fresh varnish. It is used as a filler to make smooth the rough places of the hive; it often helps hold the combs in place; it calks every crack; it is applied as a varnish to the cells of the honey-comb if they remain unused for a time, and if the door of the observation hive be left open the bees will cover the inside of the glass with this glue, and thus make the interior of the hive dark.

The young bees are footless, white grubs. Each one lives in its own little cell and is fed by the nurse bees, which give it partly digested food from their own stomachs.

The removal of honey from the supers does not do any harm to the bee colony if there is enough honey left in the brood chambers to support the bees during the winter. There should be twenty-five or thirty pounds of honey left in the brood chamber for winter use. In winter, the hives should be protected from the cold by being placed in special houses or by being encased in larger boxes, leaving an opening so that the bees may come out in good weather. The chaff hive is best for both winter and summer, as it surrounds the hive with a space, which is filled with chaff, and keeps the hive warm in winter and cool in summer. Many bee-keepers put their bees in cellars during the winter, but this method is not as safe as the chaff hive. Care should be taken in summer to place the hives so that they are shaded at least part of the day. The grass should be mown around the hives so that the bees will not become entangled in it as they return from the fields laden with honey.

What may be seen in the observation hive—First of all, it is very interesting to watch the bees build their comb. When more comb is needed certain members of the colony gorge themselves with honey and remain suspended while it oozes out of the wax pockets on the lower side of the abdomen. This wax is collected and chewed to make it less brittle and then is carried to the place where the comb is being built and is molded into shape by the jaws of the workers. However, the bee that puts the wax in place is not always the one that molds it into comb.

A bee comes into the hive with her honey stomach filled with nectar and disgorges this into a cell. When a bee comes in loaded with pollen, she first brushes it from the pollen baskets on her hind legs into the cell; later another worker comes along and packs the pollen grains into the cell with her head, which is a comical sight.

The bee nurses run about on the comb feeding the young bee grubs partially digested honey and pollen regurgitated from their own stomachs. Whenever the queen moves about the comb she is followed by a retinue of devoted attendants which feed her on the rich and perfectly digested royal jelly and also take care of her royal person and give her every attention possible. The queen, when laying, thrusts her abdomen into the cell and glues a little white egg to the bottom. The specially interesting thing about this is that the queen always lays an egg which will produce a female, or worker in the smaller cells and will always lay an egg to produce a drone or male in the larger cells.


The observation hive made and sold by A. I. Root.

If there is any foreign substance in the observation hive it is interesting to see the bees go to work at once to remove it. They dump all of the debris out in front of the hive. They close all crevices in the hive; and they will always curtain the glass, if the door is kept open too much, with propolis or bee glue, which is a very sticky substance which they get from leaf buds and other vegetable sources. When bees fan to set up a current of air in the hive, they glide back and forth, moving the wings so rapidly that we can only see a blur about their bodies.

If drones are developed in the hive, it is interesting to see how tenderly they are fed by their sister workers, although they do not hesitate to help themselves to the honey stored in the cells; and if the observation hive is working during September, undoubtedly the pupils may be able to see the murder of the drones by their sisters. But the children should understand that this killing of the drones is necessary for the preservation of the colony, as the workers cannot store enough honey to keep the colony alive during the winter if the drones were allowed to go on feeding.

If you see the worker bees fighting, it means that robbers are attempting to get at the stores of the observation hive. The entrance to the hive should at once be contracted by placing a block of wood in front, so that there is room for only one bee at a time to pass in and out.

Lesson CV

The Industries of the Hive

Leading thought—In the hive are carried on the industries of wax-making, building of honey-comb, storing of honey and bee-bread, caring for the young, keeping the hive clean and ventilated and calking all crevices with bee glue.

Method—This lesson should be in the nature of a demonstration. If there is an apiary in the neighborhood, it is quite possible that the teacher may show the pupils a hive ready for occupancy by the bees; in any case she will have no difficulty in borrowing a frame of brood comb, and this with a section of honey which can be bought at the grocery store, is sufficient if there is no observation hive. This lesson should be an informal talk between teacher and pupils.

An observation hive in the schoolroom is an object of greatest interest to the pupils, as through its glass sides they may be able to verify for themselves the wonderful tales concerning the lives and doings of the bees which have been told us by naturalists. Moreover, the study thus made of the habits of the bees is an excellent preparation for the practical apiarist, and we sincerely believe that bee-keeping is one of the ways by which the boys and girls of the farm may obtain money for their own use.

The observation hive is very simply constructed and can be made by anyone who knows how to use ordinary carpenter tools. It is simply a small, ordinary hive with a pane of glass on each side which is covered by a hinged door. A hive thus made is placed so that the front end rests upon a window sill; the sash is lifted an inch or so, a strip of wood, or a piece of wire netting being inserted underneath the sash except in front of the entrance of the hive, to hinder the bees from coming back into the room. A covered passageway should extend from the entrance of the hive to the outside of the window sill. This window should be one which opens away from the playground so that the bees coming and going, will not come into collision with the pupils. The observation window should be kept carefully shut, except when the pupils are using it, since the bees object to light in their homes.

The A. I. Root Co., of Medina, Ohio, sell a pretty observation hive which we have used successfully by stocking it afresh each season, it being too small for a self-sustaining colony. But it has the advantage of smallness which enables us to see all that is going on within it, which would be impossible in a larger hive. This hive comes in several sizes, and will be shipped from the makers stocked with bees at prices ranging from $1.25 to $4.00.

Observations—Industries and care of the hive—

1. What is the hive, and what do wild bees use instead of the hive? Describe as follows:

2. Describe a brood chamber and a super and the uses of each.

3. How many and what bees live in a hive.

4. How the honey-comb is made and placed and the purpose of it.

5. How the wax is produced and built into the comb.

6. How honey is made.

7. What bee-bread is and its uses.

8. What propolis is and what it is used for.

9. How young bees look and how they are cradled and fed.

10. Does the removal of the honey from the supers in the fall do any harm to the bee colony?

11. How much honey should a good-sized colony have in the fall to winter well?

12. How should the hives be protected in the winter and summer?

What may be seen in the observation hive—

13. Describe how a bee works when building honey-comb.

14. How does the bee act when storing honey in a cell?

15. How does a bee place pollen in a cell and pack it into bee-bread?

16. Describe how the nurse bees feed the young, and how the young look when eating.

17. Describe how the "ladies in waiting" feed and care for the queen.

18. Try to observe the queen when she is laying eggs and describe her actions.

19. How do the bee workers keep their house clean?

20. How do they stop all crevices in the hive? If you keep the hive uncovered too long, how will they curtain the window?

21. Describe the actions of the bees when they are ventilating the hive.

22. If there are any drones in the hive, describe how they are fed.

23. How can you tell queens, drones and workers apart?


A wasp's nest with side walls removed.

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