The Secret World of Wild Honey Bees

Viewed from inside a tree hole nest cavity, a Honey bee (Apis mellifera) swarm arriving at the entrance to establish a hive, viewed from inside, Germany.

New discoveries and previously unseen behaviour

Arndt wanted to create a portrait of these amazing insects unlike anything ever seen before, so he set up a natural nest in his garden. He was given permission to remove a fallen beech tree from a German forest. The tree contained an abandoned woodpecker nest. Arndt cut a window into the cavity, which allowed him to sneak his macro lens inside. Then he moved a honeybee queen from a nearby colony into the woodpecker burrow, and the rest of the colony followed. Arndt shot more than 60,000 pictures over six months, capturing some fascinating behaviour, including the honey bees excreting wax scales used to build their combs, forming living chains for temperature regulation, and newly formed bees chewing their way out of their wax-capped brood cells.

Some of the most amazing images from the project show the epic battle between honey bees and intruding hornets, which end with ingenious bees ganging up to roast the hornet alive!


We asked Ingo to select some of his favourite images from the project and to tell us the story behind them and the fascinating facts they reveal.

Colonising a woodpecker nest

The image on the left shows a honey bee nest in an abandoned black woodpecker nest high above the forest floor in a beech tree.

“I climbed the tree with a rope and photographed the picture, 20 metres above the ground. It took me an hour to get the shot.”

The bees cluster around the queen

In the image on the right we now see the bees colonizing the abandoned woodpecker nest. About an hour and a half after moving in, most of the bees gather together to form a cluster around the queen at the top of the cavity.

“I photographed this picture from a hide that I built on the back of the tree cavity.”




The original comb

The original drop-shaped comb is expanded substantially within just a few days.

“To do this, the bees repeatedly create new saucers in tightly packed spheres, then stretching them out into tubes and warming up the wax. The internal stresses in the wax cause the walls separating it from the six neighboring cells to organize themselves into homogeneous sections on their own, forming the perfect, hexagonal cell structure.”







The comb emerges

Roughly two weeks after the bees move in, this colony’s first combs start to become visible.

“Construction began right from the outset, but it had remained hidden beneath the bodies of the bees.”






Chains of bees

The bees remain locked together in chains, but but apparently are not engaged in any active tasks.

“They do not produce any wax scales, and they do not participate in building the combs. They remain steadily in the same position, anchored to their respective neighbours, for many minutes or even hours at a time.”

These images document the phenomenon of  “construction chains” which has been a focus of recent honey bee research.






The queen and her court

This close up shows the queen bee laying eggs.

“Court bees steer the queen to an empty cell – parking in reverse! In order to take this picture, it was necessary not to disturb the bees. I worked with red light and waited for hours for the right moment. The queen moved in front of my camera several times, but it took ages to get her in the perfect spot with the workers perfectly positioned around her.”





The workers hatch

Here we see three worker bees hatching. Remnants of the clear, skintight shell surrounding the bodies, legs, feelers, and wings of the pupae cling to their heads.

“We can only speculate as to the purpose of this shell. Perhaps it provides protection against water loss? Bees that are ready to hatch begin gnawing open the lid to their isolation unit from the inside. In order to open the lid completely, worker bees on the outside usually come to their aid.”







Bringing the pollen home

While visiting flowers, pollen gets caught on the “fur” of the foragers and is carried back to the nest, clinging to the back legs in a small package.

“The colour of the pollen indicates which flowers were visited. ”




Closing the entrance

“The opening of the bee nest in trees is sealed by bee bodies on warm nights. Beekeepers know that in artificial hives bees congregate in masses on warm nights just outside the entrance slot. Their interpretation of this behaviour is that the bees leave the nest because they are getting too hot inside. However it turns out that this is a misconception. Clumping in front of the entrance makes no sense in a hive with a small slot as entrance. ”



Honey bee in flight, showing opened Nassanov gland, Germany.

Navigation and Communication in the Forest

Over the course of evolution, honey bees have adapted to life in the forest, which involves orientation, navigation and communication.  As Ingo explains, “The conditions and challenges in this milieu are completely different from the test conditions under which honey bees have been studied for the last 100 years.

Bees are capable of orienting themselves based on the polarization pattern of the sunlight in the sky. This pattern changes gradually across the sky from one point to another. Bees are also able to communicate about newly discovered feeding stations, such as individual blossoming trees or aphid colonies with honeydew.

The abdomens of worker bees contain a Nasonov gland, from which geraniol can be released as a lure. The bees make extensive use of this pheromone lure when the swarm is led to a new abode and when experienced bees take fledglings to a feeding station.

This project has raised a number of exciting questions which may lead to future research on this subject.”


Foraging, water collecting, communicating and dispensing with drones!

Click on the image in the gallery below to read all about the  fascinating behaviour shown.


The last of the images in the gallery above shows behaviour known as washboarding. As Ingo explains: “Beekeepers are familiar with a conduct known as washboarding among their bees, where bees gather in large groups to scrub the boards inside the hive, and sometimes the landing board, with their mandibles. This does not make any sense in the artificial hive.

In a hollow tree, however, washboarding removes all loose particles and, if present, scrapes away any microorganisms that have colonized the interior walls of the hollow. Afterwards, the entire inside wall is coated with a layer of propolis. The bees also washboard the tree trunk around the entrance hole, up to five centimetres away from the nest opening.”

Bees defend nest by “cooking” intruding hornets

A hornet, an invincible mortal enemy of the honey bee outside the nest, falls victim to the concerted defence effort of many honey bees at the entrance to the nest.

“The bees immediately recognize the intruding hornet as an enemy, but they do not attack it with bites and stings. The bees have another means of defence at the ready… The hornet is quickly wrapped in bee bodies, which crowd tightly around the foe in multiple layers. All ongoing activities are interrupted for these lethal hugs.”

Teamwork defeats the solitary intruder

“The bees then raise their own body temperature to just below the limit that would otherwise be fatal to them, but above the temperature that hornets and wasps can survive. The hornet’s desperate attempts to escape the tight embrace by biting and stinging are futile. It dies of hyperthermia and asphyxiation, buried below countless bees, within just a few minutes.

Once the hornet is dead, the ball of heat dissipates, and it is dragged out of the beehive or dropped onto the floor of the cavity, where the honey bee’s housemates take care of the corpse.”

Honey bee research

Ingo worked closely with scientists conducting research into honeybees. Click on the images in the gallery below to find out more.

The shot of individually harnessed honey bees shows an experiment on classical conditioning. The most famous example of this is Pavlov’s experiment with dogs, published in 1897. Pavlov sounded a bell each time the dogs were fed, and the dogs learned to associate the sound with the presentation of the food. Over time, they began to salivate in response to the bell tone, even if food was not offered.

Importance of honey bees in neuroscience research

Today, honeybees are commonly used in similar studies of associative learning. In the laboratory, they are trained to associate odours and other stimuli (such as changes in CO2 concentration, humidity, temperature and so on) with a reward of sugar water. The odour gradually gains control over the bees’ proboscis extension reflex, so that they will extend their proboscis in response to the odour alone. Such studies have been used to model learning and memory formation, highlighting the importance of honeybees in neuroscience research.




The photographer at work

Ingo Arndt takes pictures from his specially constructed observation hide with a view into the bee nest. The hide was built onto the tree in order to provide a view into the nest within the tree cavity.



To explore in more depth the secret world of wild honey bees, browse our new Wild Honey Bee gallery with more than 100 photographs from this project.




Honey Bees – The Book

The English language edition of Ingo’s Honey Bees book was recently published by The Natural History Museum in the UK and Princeton University in the US.