LIST: Common Beekeeping Terms You Should Know

Do You Know Your Bee Terms?

LIST: Common Beekeeping Terms You Should Know

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It seems like every hobby comes with its own set of words and sayings. Beekeeping is no exception. I recall the first time I heard an experienced beekeeper talk about her “ladies” during a beginning beekeeping course.  Looking around the room and seeing both woman and men, I was all sorts of confused.

Here is a list of some of the common beekeeping terms used throughout the hobby. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it should at least help you sound knowledgeable at your bee club meetings and super-cool at cocktail parties.

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Beekeeping Terms Explained

Apis melifera – This is the scientific name for our pal, the European honey bee. When people around the world talk about beekeeping, they are almost always talking about this species. You may also hear about Apis cerana from time to time. That’s the Asian honey bee, a close relative to the European honey bee.

ApiaryAlso known as a “bee yard,” this is the term for the location at which the beekeeper keeps their colony or colonies. It’s a general term that can be used to describe a wide variety of places. For example, I have an apiary in my back yard where two of my colonies live in Langstroth hives.  My home sits on a tenth of an acre and my backyard apiary is in a small space of roughly 6 feet by 6 feet. A commercial beekeeper might have an apiary location with 500 individual hives in an agricultural area covering hundreds or thousands of acres.

Bee Space – Not to be confused with the human, “personal space,” bee space is a term referring to the space necessary for two bees to freely pass by each other within a hive. Most modern bee hive equipment is built to allow for bee space which measures between ¼ to 3/8 inch. Any space in a hive smaller than bee space is typically filled in, by the bees, with propolis (see below) while any space larger than bee space is typically filled in with wax comb.

Brood – A large section of a working beehive is dedicated to raising new bees. The queen will lay eggs in cells within this area. These eggs hatch into tiny little larvae. Over time, the larvae grow large enough to pupate and, eventually, emerge as new adult honey bees. From egg through pupae, so long as these young bees occupy a wax cell we refer to them as “brood.”

Brood Chamber – The area of the hive where brood is raised. This is typically roughly the size and shape of a basketball right in the center of the hive.


Colony – The entire collection of worker bees, drone bees, a queen bee, and all their brood within a single hive is called a colony. In many ways, honey bees are several thousand individuals combining to make a single organism and this term represents that. As a colony, and if health and environment allow, the honey bees will persist year over year in the same hive making them a truly unique, social insect.

Cell – No, this isn’t the jail the bad bees go to. This term refers to the individual, hexagonal unit that combines to make the beautiful wax comb bees naturally build in their nest. Each cell is perfectly crafted from wax the bees excrete from glands on their abdomen. During its functional life, a cell may serve as a compartment for a variety of items such as pollen, nectar/honey, or brood.

Corbicula – Also known as the Pollen Basket. This is a flattened depression on the outside of the bee’s back legs. It is used to carry collected pollen from flowers back to the hive. As the bee returns to the hive the beekeeper can often see full pollen baskets in a variety of vibrant colors.

Drone – This is the male honey bee. Much larger than the female worker bees, the drone has one purpose in life; to mate with a virgin queen. He has massive eyes to help him see and catch a virgin queen in flight. He also has no stinger. During the spring and summer months, colonies may raise hundreds or thousands of drones.  However, as the fall and winter dearth arrives the workers recognize there is only so much food (eg, stored honey) to go around until the next spring bloom. With so many mouths to feed the female workers come together and kick all the drones out of the hive. In short order, the boys perish and it’s an all-girl adventure through the winter.  When spring arrives, the workers will raise new drones for the new season.

Foundation – All good homes have a strong foundation. One might think we’re referring to the base on which the beehive sits. Actually, this term refers to the material the beekeeper provides the bees on which to build their wax comb. Within a Langstroth beehive are several wooden frames. Beekeepers typically place a sheet of foundation – often plastic or pure bee’s wax – within the frames to give the bees a place to start building their comb. This keeps the hive nice and tidy so the beekeeper can easily remove and manipulate frames for inspection.

Hive Tool – Beekeepers refer to two types of people, Bee Havers and Bee Keepers. Bee Havers are those that live with bees. Bee Keepers are those that take care of bees. Taking care of bees means getting in our bee hives with regularity. Manipulating the hive equipment can be difficult (or impossible!) with just our hands. That’s where the trusty hive tool comes in handy. A metal device, roughly 6-8 inches in length, the hive tool is typically flat with a curled or L-shaped surface on one end, and a blade on the other.  Beekeepers use this to separate pieces of hive equipment, scrape excess wax and propolis (see below) from the equipment, remove frame from the hive, and a variety of other things.

Honey – Foraging bees bring back, among other things, fresh nectar from flowers.  Nectar is packed with carbohydrates and other nutrients the bees can consume and feed to their brood. However, nectar has a high water content and will ferment in the warm bee hive. So, the bees store the nectar in wax cells and dehydrate by flapping their wings to blow air across it. Eventually, the nectar reaches a water content of less than 18%. At this point, it has become honey, a nutrient-packed (and delicious!) liquid that does not ferment, go rotten, or expire. Perfect for storing for those winter months of no natural nectar availability!

Honey Stomach – This is a special organ bees have at the end of their esophagus that allows them to store the fruits of their foraging labor.  Large amounts of nectar collecting on foraging flights can be kept in this stomach and returned to the hive for processing.

Ocellus – A simple eye, the plural is ocelli. Honey bees have 3 ocelli on the top of their head. These simple eyes detect light and allow the honey bee to navigate by the position of the sun.

Pheromone – A chemical substance released externally by the honey bee that stimulates a response in other bees. The honey bee uses a variety of pheromones to communicate with each other. For example, the defense pheromone (which, interestingly, smells like banana!) alerts other guard bees to a potential threat to the hive and recruits them for support.

Proboscis – The tongue of a bee, the proboscis can be extended like a straw to draw up water or nectar from flowers.

Propolis – This is a resin collected from trees and other plants by the honey bee. Propolis is used in a variety of ways such as to strengthen the honey comb (especially in the brood chamber) or seal cracks/small holes in the hive.  It also has a natural antimicrobial property and may serve as a protective sheath within the hive.

Royal Jelly – Bees have a specialized gland in their head called the hypopharyngeal gland. This gland allows them to convert nectar/honey into a super-nutritious product called royal jelly. Royal jelly is then fed to young worker and drone larva and, in much larger amounts, to queen larva.

Super – While I do find honey bees to be the heroes of the insect world, I’m not referring to their super powers here. A “super” is a hive box used by the beekeeper to collect excess honey. Placed above the brood chamber, a healthy colony may fill several honey supers for the beekeeper in a single season.

Swarm If we think of a colony of honey bees as a single, “super” organism, swarming is how the colony reproduces. A natural process for healthy colonies, a swarm occurs when the queen and roughly half the worker bees leave the hive all at once, collect in a ball on something nearby, and search for a new home in which to build a new nest. The bees left behind will raise a new queen and, thus, one colony becomes two. Contrary to popular cartoons, swarms are absolutely NOT aggressive.

Varroa MiteThe bane of a beekeeper’s existence, the varroa mite is an external parasitic insect that attaches to and feeds on honey bees. Aptly named, Varroa destructor, these tiny bugs can wreak havoc on a honey bee colony.

Varroa mite on brood.

Beekeeper or not, you should now be prepared to “wow” your friends and colleagues with your special insight into beekeeping terms!

What other bee terms would you like to know more about?

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