Beekeeping Terms

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Whether you are an experienced beekeeper or just starting out, understanding the meaning of various beekeeping terms is important to success. Keeping bees is not just about regular hive tasks – you need to strive to understand bee life and behaviors. Your study or sharing of information with other beekeepers will be more productive if you know the proper bee terms to use.

A collage of beekeeping activities related to the tasks of keeping honey bees.

One challenging aspect for beginner beekeepers is learning the names and functions of so many things. Without an proper understanding of words associated with beekeeping, it is difficult to practice good hive management.

Beekeeping Terminology is Not Always Clear

While first year beekeepers have the most to learn in reference to beekeeping terminology, any of us can find ourselves a bit confused.

Some of the industry words used in the beekeeping are a bit regional. And, our pronunciation can vary a great deal too.

Perhaps, that doesn’t really matter unless you are giving a formal presentation – but it is still good to get it right.

Alphabetical List of Beekeeping Terms

This list is a guide to many of the most commonly used words associated with beekeeping. It should help you gain some clarity and confidence when discussing your bees with others.

  • Africanized Honey BeesAfricanized Honey Bees (AHB) are a hybrid created when queens of Apis mellifera scutellata escaped a research project and crossed with existing European Honey Bees. Much like our regular honeybees in many regards – they are much more defensive and can pose a threat to public safety.
  • Absconding (Abscond) – When the entire colony leaves their hive (leaving no functioning family behind) this is called an abscond. There are several reasons bees may abscond from the hive. Disease, pest infestations and constant disruptions are among the most common reasons.
  • Alarm Pheromones – 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 is a spore forming bacterial disease of bee brood. It 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.
  • Apiary – An apiary is a location where honey bees are kept. Apiaries 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.
  • Attendants (Queen’s Attendants) – The term attendants usually refers to 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.
Workers surrounding the queen bee - the proper beekeeping term for them is retinue.
  • 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.
  • Bait Hive – 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 or an old hive box with a small piece of old comb to lure in the swarm.
  • Bearding Bees – 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 – Bee bread is the beekeeping term 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 enzyme rich bee saliva, it becomes a nutritious protein source suitable for storage.
  • Bee Space – Bee space is the amount of space that bees normally keep between their comb- ¼”-3/8”.  A smaller space is likely to be filled with propolis and a large space usually filled with comb.
  • BroodBee 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”.
  • Brood Nest – 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 chamberHowever, the brood nest can change location throughout the year.
  • Brood Pattern – 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 CombBurr 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. 
Brood in a frame and drone brood in burr comb.
  • Cappings Wax – Cappings wax refer to 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.
  • Cleansing Flights – Healthy honey bees poop outside the hive – not inside. On warm days, the bees fly outside the hive near the entrance to expel wastes. If there is snow on the ground, do not be alarmed by the presence of a lot of yellow spots near the hive.
  • Cluster (The Bee Cluster) – In a cluster, bees cling together in a mass. A swarm of bees will cluster in a nearby tree or bush when first leaving the hive and before going to their new home. The Winter bee cluster allows the colony to conserve and generate heat.
  • Comb (Honeycomb) – Comb refers to a piece (or sheets) of beeswax constructed by honey bees to hold store food or rear young. These wax sheets have thousands of individual cells.
Honey bees building comb inside a beehive.

  • Drawn Comb – 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 cells finished and ready for use.
    The term is often confused with (Drone Comb). Drones are male bees. A perfect example of beekeeping terminology confusion due to pronunciation.
  • Drifting – 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 decorating beehives with designs or different colors on the front of the hive.
  • Drone Bee – A male honey bee develops from an unfertilized egg and is called a drone bee.  Drones are haploid containing only half the chromosomes of their sisters. They serve no known purpose in the hive other than reproduction.
  • Drone Brood – Cells that contain developing drone or male honey bees are called drone brood cells. Larger than worker bees, drone brood protrudes from the surface of the comb – giving it a characteristic bullet shape.
Drone honey bee brood in a beehive frame and an adult drone bee.
  • European Foulbrood (EFB)European Foulbrood is a bacterial disease caused by Melissococcus plutonius. While it can damage colonies, it is not as virulent as American Foulbrood. Light infestations often clean up on their own with better foraging conditions.
  • Festooning – When young adult bees that are engorged with honey hang in chains from the top of a sheet of comb, this is called festooning bees. It is believed the bees are involved in comb building and possible other activities.
  • Foragers – Foraging bees are the field bees. Those older workers bees that leave the hive each day in search of resources needed by the colony. 
  • Foundation – 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.
  • Honey Flow – The honey flow 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. Some areas have multiple honey flows in a year and others may only have 1.
  • Honey House – A honey house is a building or room used to process harvested honey. Inside the honey extracting and bottling of the crop takes place. In some states, a honey house must be inspected by the department of agriculture.
Inside a basic honey house where beekeeper prepares to harvest honey.
  • Laying WorkersLaying workers in a hive is not a situation favored by beekeepers. Worker bees are not capable of mating so 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 that will be drones.
  • Nurse BeesNurse bees are young workers that feed and care for developing brood. 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 – Pheromones are external chemical substances that bees release to communicate with other members of their species. This allows guard bees to recognize returning members of their hive. 
  • Propolis – Propolis, also called bee-glue, is a sticky resinous substance that bees collect from trees and plants. It is collected and stuck onto the pollen baskets of worker bees – just like pollen. Beekeepers sometimes collect bee propolis and sell it.
Bee propolis along the inside of a beehive and on the wooden frames.
  • Queen Bee – 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.
  • Queen Cell – A queen cell is a large peanut-shaped cell that protrudes from the comb vertically.  Inside is 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.
  • Queen Cups – A 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.
  • Queenright Colony – A colony that is queenright has a laying queen producing fertilized and non fertilized eggs. 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.
  • Queen PipingQueen piping signals refers to sounds that queen honey bees use to communicate with the colony. The most common are “tooting” and “quacking”.
  • Robbing – 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.
Wax queen cup cell on frame of comb in a beehive.
  • SkepsSkeps are hives 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 mini beehive skep craft replicas.
  • Small Hive BeetlesSmall 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 – 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 – 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. If needed, beekeepers use various varroa mite treatments to keep them in check.
Varroa mites on bee larvae.
  • WashboardingWashboarding honey bees is an activity 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.
  • Wax Moths – An opportunist pest of honey bees adult wax moths enter the hive to lay eggs on the comb. Adult moths do no damage in the hive. However, the moth larvae tunnel through comb leaving behind webbing and feces.
  • Worker Bee – 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. 
  • Zombie Bees – 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’s body-killing the honey bee and causing erratic behavior before death.

Final Thoughts

With practice and experience, beekeeping terms 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 (like your local beekeeping associations)and get good advice when you need help with your hive.

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