Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Honey Bees Live in Nests

The insects that we know as honey bees have existed on earth since the Eocene geological period. That's about 50 million years, or many, many millennia. All the while, the industrious bees produced honey and stored it as food. A few thousand years ago, humans began to satisfy their sweet tooth by eating honey produced by the bees.

Humans procured honey either by hunting for bee nests in the wild or practicing honey bee agriculture. The latter we know as bee keeping.

According to their nesting habits, honey bees can be divided into two groups. The first type of honey bee builds single-comb nests in the open. These outdoor-nesting bees can produce massive combs, sometimes 6 feet across and more than 3 feet high. Such nests can contain more than 100 pounds of honey.

These are the types of bee nests that are collected by the honey hunters of Nepal. The nests are suspended from rocks high on cliffs and are protected from most predators. However, the honey hunters hang suspended by ropes on the face of the cliff while dislodging the nests into bamboo baskets. Just the kind of exciting activity that makes a good National Geographic TV special!

The single-comb, outdoor-nesting bees are common in tropical regions of the world where low winter temperatures do not exist. Some 5 million years ago, a second group of honey bees appeared.

These honey bees are called cavity-nesting species, and they build a nest with a number of parallel combs. The cavity-nesting honey bees were able to survive in temperate regions of the world.

Not only do these bees benefit from the protection provided by the cavity where they nest, but they also “cluster.” During cold weather, the bees form a ball, and the mass provides insulation and concentrates body heat in the center of the ball to keep the insects from freezing.

Cavity-nesting bees look for natural nest sites in the wild. They are found in caves, rock hollows or holes in trees. In modern settings, honey bees are sometimes found in wall spaces of buildings or even in the attic of homes.

Historically, finding honey bee nests in forests was one way that people in the United States procured honey. Many times the so-called bee trees were cut down and the bees smoked out before the honey-filled combs were collected. This resulted in destruction of the colony.

In parts of northern Europe, some people practiced what has become known as tree beekeeping. This activity involved preserving the nest in the hollow tree so that honey could be harvested on an annual basis.

Eventually, humans began to keep bees. The earliest hives were just sections of a hollow tree cut for the purpose of providing a nesting site. Another early nesting site provided by humans was an inverted basket made of woven plant stems. These wicker bee baskets are called skeps. Coiled straw was eventually more commonly used for skeps than wicker. Today, either straw or wicker skeps are popular decorations for gardens.

Eventually, wooden boxes were constructed for bee nests. Such boxes varied in size and shape. Some were highly decorated and looked like miniature houses, complete with sloping roofs. Others were hexagonal in shape. Some were merely rectangular or square boxes. This is the general shape of hives used by most beekeepers today.

The shape of the hives used to house bees is for the convenience of the beekeepers. To bees, the appearance of their home is of no importance. All they need is protection from the weather and a space to store honey.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox