9.1. Introduction

Honey bee (genus Apis) nest architecture can be easily utilized for visual studies of eusocial insect behaviour. Nests are primarily comprised of flat combs of uniformly sized and shaped hexagonal cells laid out on a vertical plane (Fig. 19). Combs can be constructed to utilize cavities of a variety of sizes and shapes. The uniformity of honey bee combs and flexibility of bees to accept a variety of cavity shapes allowed agricultural researchers to develop hives with removable, uniformly sized "frames" of comb. The hive designed by Langstroth in the 19th century is still utilized today, worldwide (Graham et al., 1992). The observation hive is a valuable tool for investigating the behaviour and life history of bees inside the nest. Rösch began using this type of hive to study honey bee lifespan and behaviour in the 1920s (Rösch, 1925, 1927, 1930) and the design has changed little over the last century (von Frisch, 1950; Lindauer, 1952; Seeley, 1982; Calderone and Page, 1991; Seeley and Kolmes, 1991; Wang et al., 2010). The topics that observation hives can be used to investigate are extensive (e.g. dance language, food transfer between nest mates, disease response, thermoregulation, temporal polyethism). This tool takes advantage of the natural flat quality of honey bee comb. The hive is constructed so that all comb surfaces can be observed. To facilitate this, combs are stacked with only the edges, and not the comb surfaces (as would be found in commercial or natural hives; Winston, 1987), facing each other. Additionally, the hive walls facing the combs are constructed of clear glass, Plexiglas®, or plastic (Fig. 20). Honey bees are behaviourally flexible and will readily accept this atypical colony shape as long as the queen has space to lay eggs, the workers can forage, and the hive is kept warm. Individual bees can be tagged using paint, or coloured-numbered plastic discs and placed in the hive (see section 2.3.; Fig. 1). The visibility of all surfaces allows researchers to categorize the behaviour of individually marked bees using a behavioural catalogue (Table 5; Seeley, 1982, 1995; Winston and Punnett, 1982; Kolmes, 1985; Robinson, 1987; Calderone and Page, 1991, 1996; Seeley and Kolmes, 1991). Observations can be conducted by following a single tagged bee over an extended period of time, or conducting daily behavioural surveys of many tagged workers to study group behaviour. Another advantage of observation hives is the ability to manipulate environmental conditions such as temperature and food storage (Riessberger and Crailsheim, 1997; Crailsheim et al., 1999b). The remainder of this section will detail the setup and use of an observation hive for a study of temporal polyethism (change in task performance in the hive over time). This is one of the most commonly studied topics that employs an observation hive setup. However, the general setup described below could be used for many topics with slight modification.

Fig. 19. Newly built honey bee comb cells with thorax-tagged bee inspecting a cell (no abdomen paint mark). Note the uniform size and shape of the cells. Photo: A. J. Siegel

1293PN revised Fig 19

Fig. 20A. A two-frame observation hive from the Starks Laboratory at Tufts University. B. A four-frame observation hive from the Page Laboratory at Arizona State University. Photos: A J Siegel

1293PN revised Fig 20

Table 5.
Honey bee worker behavioural catalogue.



cell cleaning

removing debris from used brood cells (cocoons, larvae excretion), cleaning cell walls. Takes place in a cell not currently being used

general nest sanitation

removing debris from nest (mouldy pollen, old cappings, dead brood, and dead adults)

brood care

feeding larvae (head in brood cell >1.3 min), attending queen


smoothing wooden hive parts with mandibles and manipulating wax and propolis in cracks and corners of the hive

fanning wings

flapping wings while standing in hive/at entrance

food care

insertion of head into a cell containing nectar, receiving nectar-on bridge

grooming a nestmate

running nest mate body parts through mandibles

grooming self

running own body parts through mandibles

inspecting a cell

momentary insertion of the anterior portion of the head into an empty cell

nest care

manipulating wax of cells (not cappings), building new empty cells


walking around nest

standing and chaining

standing stationary or hanging while stationary on nestmates

brood cap manipulation

trimming or smoothing wax cappings on brood cells and capping brood with wax

honey cap manipulation

trimming or smoothing wax cappings on cells of honey and capping honey with wax


nestmate exchange of food (not near entrance), receiver thrusts tongue at donators mouthpart, donator opens mouthparts pushes tongue forward, and regurgitates a drop which is lapped up


fast rhythmic body vibrations (non-dance)

head in pollen

insertion of head into a cell containing pollen

inspecting brood

head in brood cell, < 1.3 min


dancing without/with pollen

washboarding/ plaining

standing and rocking back and forth with mouthparts open



dance attendance without/with pollen