In the absence of human intervention, the honeybee (Apis mellifera L.) usually constructs its nest in a tree within a tall, narrow, thick-walled cavity high above the ground (the enclosure); however, most research and apiculture is conducted in the thin-walled, squat wooden enclosures we know as hives. This experimental research, using various hives and thermal models of trees, has found that the heat transfer rate is approximately four to seven times greater in the hives in common use, compared to a typical tree enclosure in winter configuration. This gives a ratio of colony mass to lumped enclosure thermal conductance (MCR) of less than 0.8 kgW(-1) K for wooden hives and greater than 5 kgW(-1) K for tree enclosures. This result for tree enclosures implies higher levels of humidity in the nest, increased survival of smaller colonies and lower Varroa destructor breeding success. Many honeybee behaviours previously thought to be intrinsic may only be a coping mechanism for human intervention; for example, at an MCR of above 2 kgW(-1) K, clustering in a tree enclosure may be an optional, rare, heat conservation behaviour for established colonies, rather than the compulsory, frequent, life-saving behaviour that is in the hives in common use. The implied improved survival in hives with thermal properties of tree nests may help to solve some of the problems honeybees are currently facing in apiculture.
Keywords: Apis mellifera; Clustering; Heat transfer; Tree nest; Varroa.