[How Big Can a Bee Hive Get?]

After 3 months in the ceiling of this man-cave, this beehive grew to a surprising size. 

I was initially called to this house in Mapelton on 24 September after some builders working on the property had witnessed a swarm of bees move into the space between the upper and lower level a few days earlier.  At the  time the tenant was away and I could not access the room with my infrared camera to find out the exact location and size of the swarm.  

After 3 months, I was finally called back last week to do this beehive removal.  Needless to say, the hive had grown in size and population, but what I found surprised me.  What makes this hive look bigger is the smaller than usual floor joists, resulting in shallower combs and a hive that spread out in area quicker than one in a more voluminous  space.  The shallow combs also had me changing my usual practice of inserting the cut brood comb into Standard sized frames, instead opting for the perfect fit of Ideal fames, which are a little over half the height of Standard frame. For now I will run this hive with a Standard brood box plus Ideal brood box.

But how big could this hive grow?

Knowing how big a beehive can get is a little like asking, “how long is a piece of string?”. There are a combination of factors that will determine how quickly a hive will grow and to what size.  The perfect storm combines the right population balance, an abundance of resources (especially nectar and pollen), favourable weather conditions,  ample space for expansion, good health and of course a great queen.  If all of these factors align, a hive can explode to monumental proportions over a relatively short period of time as the colony goes about packing away resources in preparation for leaner times ahead.

A large population means a greater work force to bring in these resources, however it’s not that simple. What is essential is a balanced population, a good spread of bees of different ages to really get the super-organism working well. 

Bees have different roles within the hive depending on their age. Beside foraging bees, there needs to be younger bees inside the hive performing all the necessary jobs to ensure everything runs to plan.  Not enough bees of wax building age, 10 to 20 days old, and there won’t be sufficient comb to store the resources.  Likewise, every hive needs a good population of young nurse bees to attend to the eggs and larvae in the hive.  

Not enough nectar, the essential carbohydrate for wax production, then the wax producing bees will be inhibited in their ability to build and draw new comb.  Nurse bees rely on a good source of high protein pollen, converted to bee-bread and used to produce the royal jelly that is feed to the developing larvae. A hive that experiences a dearth of pollen will be severely stalled in its development. The queen and colony will not only slow down producing young, the worker bees have been known to consume the protein rich eggs as a means of population control.

If a good supply of nectar and pollen is a key ingredient for the hive to succeed, then weather can hugely effect these supplies. Excessively hot and windy conditions can quickly dry up nectar sources.  Rain washes pollen and nectar from flowers and delays the availability of these resources even when the sun comes out.  Days of rainy weather will mean the worker bees will be hive-bound, unable to forage.  Instead the colony will dig into their stores of honey and pollen.  Prolonged unfavourable conditions can not only stall the expansion of a hive, but also send it backwards as the resources dwindle and the population is regulated.

Perhaps the most important catalyst for hive growth is the queen.  

Her genetics influences temperament and hygienic behaviour which as a result effects the foraging ability and the hive's ability to deal with disease. Ultimately, it is her virility, how well she has been able to mate, that will determine how many eggs she can lay in a day and for how long she will remain a viable queen.  A well mated queen, one that has been able to mate with 10 to 20 drones on her mating flight, will lay approximately 1500 to 2000 eggs a day.  With worker bees living for about 6 weeks and a hive attrition rate of about 500 bees a day, the hive population can grow to 60 to 80 thousand bees.

Of course, physically a hive needs enough space to reach full potential.  As discussed in an earlier post, when scout bees search for a new home they will usually choose a cavity that is at least 0.04 cubic metres.  A space such as a bird-box, with a finite space will only allow the hive to grow to a size that fills that box (however I have seen examples where the hive starts to build comb on the outside of the box).  In comparison, a hive that moves into a space with relatively unlimited space will not be restricted in its potential and can result in a monster hive.

Bees are amazing creatures that will adapt to the space they have available to them.  In this situation, despite the shallow space, the colony had plenty of room to expand which would have been one of the main things considered by the scout bees prior to them leading the swarm to this spot. While this hive only occupied about 0.08 cubic metres of space so far, they had about 0.5 cubic metres available to them, space I’m sure they would have fully used if all of the stars had aligned for this colony over the coming months and years.

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