Inside A Beehive

As surely everyone knows, honeybees are vital to the pollination of many crops. The fact that they are under threat worldwide makes them important to study, apart from pure interest in how bees behave.

I remember being interested in honeybees and then slowly realising why they were the focus of so much attention in the USA. It is, if you were not already aware, because many fruit and nut trees are originally from the Old World. Therefore, they have not had millennia and more to develop along with their own pollinators. So honeybees from the Old World are imported to do the job. That is, they continue to be imported because they still have to be to replenish losses due to colony collapse disorder and the stress of being pollinators on an industrial scale.

I Wanted to Photograph Inside A Beehive

Yes, I wanted to take some photographs of bees. So when we were living in Leeds we went to see a demonstration of beekeeping. I saw the beekeeper lifting the frames from inside a beehive and examine them. But I didn’t understand the ‘why’ of what I was looking at.

Then a couple of weeks later I saw a display at the apiary of the Leeds Beekeepers Association. From seeing the display, the reason for the design of modern beehives became clear.

A traditional straw beehive was known as a skep. It is the kind of beehive that was used for centuries in England. And it continued in use until well into the 1800s. You probably recognise the shape, which is found on the labels of jars of honey. It is also used as the design for little pottery honey pots. An actual skep is made of a rope of straw. It is tied into a shape to mimic the shape of a natural hive. That’s the kind of hive than bees might look for in a hollow in a tree or between rocks.

The design varies a little. Some skeps have the entrance at the top while others have them at the bottom. But they all share one characteristic. That characteristic is that the beekeeper has to destroy the hive to get the honey out.

The Bee Space Inside A Beehive

Then, as I mentioned in an earlier article on Bumblebees and Honeybees, in the 1850s the Reverend L. L. Langstroth noticed that bees will not bring the surfaces of two combs closer together than a ‘bee space’. That’s about the width of a finger. And that piece of knowledge is what determines the interior arrangement of modern hives. They use sheets of beeswax stretched on wooden frames. The frames are hung inside the outer case of the hive with a bee space between them. A bee space is also left around the edges of the frames. That’s so that the bees can move freely inside the hive.

To encourage the bees to start building combs as quickly as possible, the sheets are impressed with a honeycomb shape. The bees could bridge the space between the frames if they wanted to. But they generally don’t want to because they want access to the cells. So the design suits the bees and the beekeeper alike.

Accessing The Frames Inside A Beehive

Honeybee on a piece of comb

Beekeepers use a hive tool, which is a flat bar of metal with a hook at one end. They use it to lever out the frames from the hive so they can inspect them. If it is time to collect the honey, then the beekeeper will use the tool to scrape honey off the combs. That includes scraping honey off the edges of the frame. That’s because even with the bee space design, the bees may still extend the combs beyond the end of the frame. And the beekeeper then has to scrape that off.

If the beekeepers didn’t scrape off the excess, they wouldn’t be able to fit the frame back in the hive.

Here is a bee sitting on a piece of comb that the beekeeper had scraped off a frame.

Bee Chains

bees chaining hanging from the hive

One other fact of honeybee behaviour is that honeybees like the dark. So when a beekeeper lifts out a frame to examine it, the bees tend to migrate to the darkest part on the frame. And the darkest part is at the bottom. And they may hang on and form what is known as a bee chain.

I actually missed the point when the chain was at its longest, which was about twice the length in this photograph. Photographing honeybees proved more difficult than I imagined.

The reason is that bees move constantly inside a hive. They have four wings, with each pair on either side hooked together when the bee is at rest. And when they are out foraging for nectar and pollen, their wings are buzz constantly, and very fast. In the hive they are constantly fanning the honey to drive off moisture before they cap the cells with wax. They are also part of the ecosystem inside a beehive that keeps the temperature at an optimum level.

With the advances in digital cameras that allow us to photograph at very high sensor sensitivities, I would find it much easier to photograph them today than ten years ago when I took these photos.

By the way, this is a follow-up article to Honeybees and Bumblebees: Which Pollinates The Most.

Which Bees Pollinate The Most

Bumblebees are the stuff of nature in the UK at its finest, moving from flower to flower in slow motion. But honeybees get all the press. There’s the very obvious reason that they are used commercially to produce honey and to pollinate flowers. In the US, hives are transported hundreds of miles to pollinate almond and cherry trees and others. And why are they transported? It’s because the trees are imports, or the great, great, great, grandchildren of imports from Europe. That being so, there are no natural pollinators – at least not in sufficient quantity. So European honey bees are raised to fill the need.

Honey bees are social, and that is the secret to their success. Until a better hive was invented, it was also a problem. Each year the honey bees would fill a hive with honey. And each year the beekeepers would pull apart the hive to get at the honey.

Skeps are hives made of twined rope. Here’s a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from about 1568 showing beekeepers with skeps. And one of the beekeeper is beginning to pull apart a skep to get at the honey.

beekeepers breaking open a honeybee skep - drawing by Breugel the Elder to illustrate an article on honeybees and bumblebees

As a side note, the man up the tree is taking eggs from birds nests.

All in all it is a scene of death and destruction, plundering and robbery. The people in this drawing thought that nature was inexhaustible. Modern man no longer believes that.. 

They say that there are none so wise as the experienced, so perhaps it is good that we have seen how we can break the world.

Back to Bees

The revolution in beekeeping came in the 1850s. It was then that the Reverend L. L. Langstroth in Massachusetts noticed that bees will not bring the surfaces of two combs closer together than a ‘bee space’. That’s about the width of a finger. That was the beginning of the development of the slat arrangement of modern hives. It enables beekeepers to take out the honey without destroying the hives. And it lets the bees get on with their lives, storing up food for the winter.

One very basic fact we can infer from honeybee hives is that honeybees live over winter.

Hold that thought, because it contrasts with bumblebees. They generally do not live that long. The queen might live over the winter with a brood, but many bumblebees live just a few weeks.

Bumblebees Pollinate – But How Much?

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is a UK charity dedicated to saving, studying, and educating people about bumblebees. I asked them whether in terms of overall pollination – not just food crops, but all kinds of flowers. And whether anyone has any idea of how many flower heads bumblebees pollinate compared to honeybees?

The Trust’s Reply

Annie, the Information Officer at the Trust replied, saying –

It’s not the most straightforward thing to study as there is more to it than just the number of visits each type of bee makes to a flower. Bumblebees are much more effective and efficient pollinators compared to honeybees for a variety of reasons. Their hairy bodies attract and collect more pollen than honeybees, (which are much less hairy) therefore increasing the chance of pollination. As a group, bumblebees also visit a much wider variety of flowers – the 24 different species of bumblebee have different lengths of tongue and different feeding preferences, whereas the single species of honeybee in the UK has a very short tongue and so they only visit certain types of flower. 


Bumblebees are well adapted to cooler climates and therefore, are active earlier and later in the day than other types of bee. They forage even in poor weather when honeybees won’t leave their hive. Bumblebees also forage over greater distances, at colder temperatures and for longer hours during the day. Some research shows that bumblebees also forage over greater distances than other bees, and move between flowers more frequently. Bumblebees may also selectively forage on flowers that have a higher pollen content, as discussed in this 1994 study by Wilmer et. al. In this study, looking specifically at raspberry crops, the authors estimated that bumblebees were responsible for 60% of flower visits, and honeybees for most of the remainder. You can read the full study here.

As well as this, bumblebees are also the only insects in the UK that can pollinate certain types of flower, producing tomatoes and other fruits in the nightshade family, through a behaviour called ‘buzz pollination’, which honeybees are unable to do.

Animals Pollinate Three Quarters Of Plants Worldwide

Around three quarters (estimates range from 67% to 96%) of plants across the world are pollinated by animals (this includes insects, bats, birds and other pollinators). The remainder are likely to be wind-pollinated (as with many grasses and cereal plants). As you rightly suggest, this varies by country. A study by Professor Jeff Ollerton found that an average of 78% of plants are pollinated by animals in temperate regions (where it’s likely that insects are doing most of this work), and 94% of tropical plants are pollinated by animals. In tropical regions, you are more likely to find non-insect pollinators such as fruit bats or hummingbirds.

Of course, this doesn’t help with the breakdown of bumblebees vs. honeybees, but I hope that this helps answer some of your questions.

Here’s a link to the bee identification page on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website.

Growing Dahlias

I just ordered some dahlia tubers (see the end of this article for what I bought and why). Up to now I have never needed to grow them because I can go to the market and get the cut flowers to photograph. But the appeal of growing dahlias – despite or because of the supposed difficulties – has grown more and more. But, importantly, I want to grow the kind of dahlias that attract bees and other pollinators. Again, see the end of this article for more about that.

Just to mention that the flower of the ‘big bloom’ kind that I like most is the peony. So dahlias are not the bees’ knees for me. And of course, chrysanthemums, like this one – a chrysanthemum greeting card showing the beauty of the colours and arrangement of its petals are similar to dahlias. Click the image if you are interested in grabbing this card for yourself.

Not a dahlia but a chrysanthemum Greeting Card featuring a salmon-coloured chrysanthemum flower

And if you are not sure whether a particular plants is a chrysanthemums or a dahlia, then take a look at this article where I start with the name. You will read that the dahlia was named in honour of Andreas Dahl (1751–89), a Swedish botanist.

While I have never grown dahlias, I am interested to know how to grow them. (More about that later.) And this is what I have gathered from my researches. In the UK, dahlias will flower from the height of summer through to almost the end of the year in the right conditions. That means keeping them safe from frost. A hard frost will kill the tuber underground, and a light frost will shrivel the plant above ground. So with a risk of frost, cut back the foliage to about a hand’s width. Then dig up the tubers and hang them upside down for a day to drain any liquid out of the stems.

If you don’t, then the liquid will encourage the tuber to rot. With that job done, keep the dahlia tubers in the dark in an unheated conservatory or greenhouse.

Leaving Dahlias In The Ground Over Winter

If you don’t have anywhere to store dahlia tubers over winter, then you can leave them in the ground. You can only do that, however, if the soil is well drained. And if the soil is well drained, then you can protect them from frost by covering them with a thick layer of organic compost mixed with straw.

If you do lift them in the winter, then plant them out when the risk of frost has passed. In the south of England that wil be in the third week of May, or even the beginning of June.

If this is your first time planting out dahlias, plant them out in rich soil, in a sunny spot. Plant them so the tops are just below the surface of the soil. And plant them the right way up, which you can tell from the remnants of the previous year’s growth. Water them well and feed them regularly. The bigger the flower and the taller the plant, the more water it needs. But don’t water until the flowers are out and the plant demands water to feed its flowers and leaves.

Singles and Doubles

Singles and doubles are more tolerant of drought, and of shade. And to get more flowers during the season, deadhead dahlias repeatedly by cutting back a stem to a few centimetres above the point at which the stalk of the old head branches from the main plant.

To encourage wildlife, choose singles and doubles. Insects like open dahlias where they can see the eye and come in to feed. Compound dahlias have a less obvious landing spots, so while they are more showy, they are less attractive to insects.

My Main Concern Is To Encourage Wildlife

Now that I know something about dahlias, and given that I want to encourage wildlife more than I want a showy flower, that guides me in my choice. Frankly, if it was a choice between a lovely looking flower and wildlife, then wildlife would win every time.

Luckily, I don’t have to think about that because I prefer singles and doubles ‘in situ’ in the garden. Of course, for photographing a flower, then something more ‘present’ is a plus, but for the garden itself I am more than happy with a simpler flower.

I Bought Some Dahlia Tubers

So no surprise, I bought singles. I bought ‘Bishop Of Oxford’, which is described as a single with stunning orange flowers with a dark centre to the flowers and dark foliage. They make good pot plants as well as looking stunning in the border. Loved by bees and butterflies. height 60-70cm.

I also bought ‘Bishop Of Dover’, which is described as a lovely free flowering dahlia with white single flowers with a flush of pink, that make a stunning contrast to the dark foliage. Like with all the bishops they are much loved by butterflies and bees. Introduced in 2005 by Van Der Linden, so a relatively new one to this group, ht 60-90 cm

So the tubers will go in a south-facing border. And mentally I can look forward to photographing them for a greeting card if things go well.

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