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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Honey bee biology & behaviour


Understanding the biology and behaviour of the bee is the first step towards being able to manage them sustainably and productively. Beekeepers need to understand the biology and behaviour of bees, to understand why bees swarm, abscond, or why hives have not been colonised.

The world’s industrialised beekeeping sector is based on races of just one species of honey bee:  Apis mellifera.  The world of the honey bee is complex and fascinating and is different from most of the other animals that  people farm because it is a social insect. This fact has some far reaching practical consequences that need to be taken into account for beekeeping to be successful. The honey bee is one of the most well researched animals: the honey bee genome has been sequenced.


Image©Primo Masotti


Honey bees such as Apis mellifera build a nest containing multiple combs inside a cavity, which may be a hollow tree, a cave, or a cavity in a wall or in the ground.  They can also be kept inside a human-made container, otherwise known as a hive. The first bee hives were hollow logs or simple cylinders made of natural materials and after thousands of years these types of hives are still used. The hive enables bee colonies to be owned, sited in particular places and allows interventions by people and has ultimately led to the craft known as beekeeping.

Honey bee nests are built using a series of parallel combs made of beeswax and, depending on the types of hives used,  combs containing honey can be removed without harming combs containing brood. It was by studying the precise arrangement and measurements of honeycombs that led the Rev. Langstroth, working in the 1850s, to understand the idea of the bee space which led to the development of hive management techniques using movable comb and frame hives.

Other cavity nesting honey bee species, such as Apis cerana can also be kept in hives.  In Asia, there are other species of honey bees that nest in the open and cannot be kept in man-made hives.  Honey hunting and rafter beekeeping techniques have been developed to obtain honey and beeswax from these species.

The thousands of species of both solitary and social bees worldwide that are not exploited by mankind offer fascinating insights into the evolution of social behaviour and the mutually beneficial relationship between bees and plants.

Our top reading selectio:-

Tautz, J. 2008. The Buzz about Bees. Biology of a Superorganism. Springer, Germany.

Winston, M.L. 1987. The Biology of the Honey Bee.  Harvard University Press, London. click here to view in our bookstore

Seeley, T.D. 1995. The Wisdom of the Hive: The Social Physiology of Honey Bee Colonies. Harvard University Press, London, England.




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