One of the most challenging aspects of beekeeping is learning the names and functions of so many things. The new beekeeper is faced with hundreds of new bee words and ideas. Without an understanding of important beekeeping terms, it is difficult to practice good hive management.
First year beekeepers have the most to learn in reference to honey bee terminology. They must master the basics of bee biology, as well as, equipment and hive management.
May contain affiliate links. Read my privacy and affiliate disclosure policy for more info.
Herein are some of the most common beekeeping terms that every new beekeeper should know. These words form a good foundation of bee knowledge.
Some of the words used in the beekeeping industry are a bit regional. And, our pronunciation can vary a great deal too. That doesn’t really matter unless you are giving a formal presentation.
However, it is necessary to understand the idea behind basic beekeeping terms. Otherwise, you might perform an action on your colonies that is detrimental to their health.
When offered advice that you believe to be reliable, do not hesitate to ask for clarification. Every beekeeper was new once. It is okay to admit to not knowing everything – you never will because the study of bees is endless.
Glossary of Terms for Beekeepers
This mini-glossary of words associated with beekeeping may help you gain some clarity and confidence when discussing your bees with others.
Africanized Honey Bees
Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) are a hybrid created when queens of Apis mellifera scutellata escaped a research project in Brazil. This race of bee was able to mate and reproduce with the existing European Honey Bees in the region.
Over the years, AHB have migrated northward and are present in many Southern parts of the United States. Dubbed “Killer Bees” by the media, AHB are much like our regular honey bees in many regards but they are much more defensive and pose a threat to public safety.
When the entire colony leaves their hive, this is called an abscond. There are several reasons bees may abscond from the hive. Disease, pest infestations and constant bother are among the most common reasons.
Pheromones are used by bees for communication. The honey bee alarm pheromone (iso-pentyl acetate) is released by guard bees when the hive is under attack. With the scent of bananas, this chemical messenger calls the troops to defend the hive.
American Foulbrood (AFB)
American Foulbrood (AFB) is a spore forming bacterial disease of bee brood. This disease is highly contagious and the spores can remain on equipment for more than 50 years. In some regions, hives with AFB must be destroyed by law.
An apiary is a location where honey bees are kept. They come in all sizes from a couple of hives in the backyard to commercial apiaries with thousands of colonies. Yes, even if you have only 2 hives – that is your apiary.
The term attendants usually refers to worker bees that care for the queen bee. In the hive, the attendants form the queen’s retinue. When a beekeeper buys a queen in a cage, she normally has a few attendants inside to care for her.
Balling the Queen
When bees form a ball around the queen bee, this is called “balling the queen”. This can happen if a new queen is released in the hive too soon and result in her death. But, it does not always result in death, bees can enclose their queen in a ball to protect her.
A bait hive is a box or structure that is placed in a location in hopes of catching a bee swarm. The beekeeper may build a simple box to serve as a bait hive. Another option is to use and older hive box with a small piece of old comb to lure in the swarm.
Bearding refers to a mass of bees that accumulates on the front of the hive on warm, humid days. Bee bearding most often takes place in the Summer and is an attempt to cool this colony. It is not necessarily a sign of swarm preparations.
Bee bread is the term often given to bee pollen that is stored in the hive. Fresh pollen is hard to digest and spoils easily. When it is converted to bee bread through the addition of bee saliva, it becomes a nutritious protein source suitable for storage.
Bee brood refers to developing bees in the colony. Eggs, larvae and pupa are all considered brood. Open or “milk brood” are bees in the larval stage. Once the larval stage ends, the cells are closed with a wax top becoming “capped brood”.
Bee space is the amount of space that bees normally keep between their comb- ¼”-3/8”. A smaller space is likely to be propolized closed and a large space usually filled with comb.
The brood nest is the part of the hive where young bees are being reared. It is often located in the bottom box of the hive called the brood chamber. However, the brood nest can change location throughout the year.
Often used to evaluate the status of the queen bee, the brood pattern refers to way brood is laid out in the comb. Overall, brood of the same age are located close together. Eggs are near eggs, larva near larva and the same for capped brood. A tight brood pattern has few empty cells in and among the brood.
Burr or Brace comb are bits of comb that bees build to fill in any empty spaces. Sometimes these bits of comb connect 2 adjacent frames of comb.
Burr comb can be found anywhere in the hive where the bee space measurements are off. These types of comb make hive inspections more difficult.
Cappings refer to light color wax that is used to cover full cells of honey. When honey is harvested, the cappings are removed to allow liquid honey to flow out. Cappings wax is some of the best quality wax and is highly prized.
Healthy honey bees do not defecate inside the hive. On warm days, the bees fly outside the hive near the entrance to expel wastes. This is normal bee behavior. If there is snow on the ground, do not be alarmed by the presence of a lot of yellow spots.
In a cluster, a large number of bees cling together in a mass. With honey bees this usually occurs in 2 instances. A swarm of bees will cluster in a nearby tree or bush when first leaving the hive and before going to their new home.
In Winter, the bee cluster allows the colony to conserve and generate heat. The Winter Cluster technique is how honey bees survive the cold temperatures.
A piece (or sheets) of beeswax constructed by honey bees to hold store food or rear young. The term honeycomb is often used as well.
Beeswax is produced by glands on the underside of young worker bees. It is shaped into a 2-sided sheet of hexagonal cells. Young bees are the best comb builders.
Drawn comb is the beekeeping term used to refer to a hive frame that is filled with finished beeswax comb. It should be complete with all the wax cell finished and ready for use by the hive.
The term is often confused with (Drone Comb). Drone comb is an area that contains only drone sized wax cells. These two examples of beekeeping terminology are very different but sound similar.
Bees located in an apiary can become confused and go into the wrong hive. This is called drifting. Beekeepers often strive to reduce drifting by painting hives different colors or painting symbols on the front of the hive.
A male honey bee that develops from an unfertilized bee egg is a drone bee. Drones are haploid containing only half the chromosomes of their sisters. Drones are usually reared in drone cells that are slightly larger than regular worker cells.
Cells that contain developing drone or male honey bees are called drone brood cells. Drones are larger than worker bees. Therefore, drone brood protrudes from farther from the surface of the comb – giving the characteristic bullet shape.
When young adult bees that are engorged with honey hang in chains from the top of a sheet of comb, this is called festooning. These bees are excreting wax and using the wax scales to build comb.
Foragers are also called “field bees”. These are female worker bees that leave the hive each day in search of resources needed by the colony.
Foragers are normally about 3 weeks old and will continue in this task until their death. They bring nectar, pollen, propolis and water back to the hive.
Sheets of foundation are inserted into frames that fit inside the hive boxes. Embossed cells on the surface of foundation guides comb building.
Foundation may be beeswax or plastic and both can work well in the hive. Some beekeepers favor one type over the other.
The honeyflow is the time of year when plentiful nectar is available in your region. This is when bees are able to make honey for themselves and the beekeeper.
Ask local beekeeper when the honeyflow occurs in your region as it is different in each locale. Some areas have multiple honey flows in a year and others may only have 1.
A honey house is a building used to process harvested honey. Inside the extracting and bottling of the crop takes place. In some states, a honey house must be inspected by the department of agriculture.
Laying workers is not a situation favored by beekeepers. Worker bees are females that are not capable of mating. Therefore, they can not lay fertilized eggs.
However, in situations where a colony has been without a queen bee or brood for a long while-workers may begin to lay eggs.
These unfertilized eggs will develop into drones that do not work and eventually the colony will fail. Perhaps this is natures way to at least release some of the colony’s DNA into the world.
Nurse bees are young worker bees that take care of all the developing brood in the hive. They are usually between 5 and 10 days old but this can vary. After serving as nurse bees for a few weeks, they will go on to do other duties for the colony.
Pheromones are external chemical substances that bees release to communicate with other members of their species. This is one way that guard bees are able to recognize returning members of their hive. The queen also has special pheromones that identify her presence.
Propolis, also called bee-glue, is a sticky resinous substance that bees collect from trees and plants. Conifer trees are excellent sources of propolis. It is collected and stuck onto the pollen baskets of worker bees – just like pollen.
Back in the hive, propolis is used for many purposes including sealing and cracks in the hive. Propolis has anti-microbial properties and contributes to a healthy colony. However, every beekeeper learns the frustration of removing frames that are stuck down with a lot of propolis.
The queen honey bee is a mated female bee that lays eggs for the colony. In addition to laying up to 1000 eggs a day in the warm season, she produces queen pheromones that stabilize the colony.
A queen cell is a large peanut-shaped cell that protrudes from the comb vertically. Bees construct the special cells to hold a developing queen and plenty of food for her. The queen bee develops from an egg in 16 days and emerges from the bottom of the queen cell.
The queen cup is a small acorn shaped wax cup. It may or may not ever be developed into a regular queen cell. Some colonies keep a few queen cups in place through out the season.
There seems to be a genetic link to how many cups are in a hive. Once the queen lays an egg in the cup – it is a “charged queen cup” and has now become an official queen cell.
A colony that is queenright has a laying queen. Whether she is the best queen in the world or not, she is producing at least some worker brood and seems to be in good health.
Honey bee robbing behavior is when bees from one colony steal honey from another. This is usually a strong colony with a large population that overwhelms a small colony. Robbing can continue for days until the smaller colony is dead.
Skeps are beehives that are dome-shaped and were traditional made from twisted straw. Their use is discouraged and even illegal in some regions. This is because they do not contain removable frames that makes hive inspections possible.
Though they may not be practical in modern beekeeping they are the icon representation of bees and some folk enjoy making small skep replicas.
Small Hive Beetles
Small Hive Beetles are a major pest of honey bee colonies particularly in the warmer regions of the US. Native to tropical regions of Africa, SHB were discovered in the US in 1998. Southern beekeepers must monitor beetle levels carefully in their colonies.
Supering refers to placing supers or bee boxes on the hive in anticipation of a honey crop. The decision of when to add a honey super depends on local factors and the condition of the hive.
Varroa mites are external pests of honey bees. The small reddish mite is visible to the naked eye. Feeding on adults and brood, varroa mites weaken colonies and spread diseases.
Washboarding refers to a bee behavior that continues to puzzle beekeepers. Bees gather outside on the front of the hive and sway out and back. We truly don’t know why it happens. But, it is most common in late afternoons during a time of nectar scarcity.
An opportunist pest of honey bee colonies wax moths enter the hive to lay eggs on the comb. Adult moths do no damage in the hive. However, the wax moth larva tunnels through comb leaving behind webbing and feces.
The wax moth is not threat to a strong colony. However, a colony weakened by pest or disease can be destroyed by a wax moth infestation.
Most of the bees in a colony are female worker bees. They develop from fertilized eggs that are laid by a mated queen.
The worker bee does all of the tasks that make hive life possible. Incapable of mating, the worker bee cannot lay fertilized eggs but in certain conditions may lay unfertilized eggs.
The term zombie bees refers to honey bees that are serving as a host to a parasitic fly. The Apocephalos borealis fly, lays eggs inside the bee body. Killing the honey bee and causing erratic behavior before death.
With practice and experience, the words in a beekeeping glossary do become easier to understand. And seriously, the bees don’t care if you spell or pronounce them exactly right.
The important thing is to understand what they mean so you can read or talk to other beekeepers and get good advice when you need help with your hive.