Honey Bee Life Cycle
(Why You Need To Know It)

The life cycle of the honeybee begins when the queen deposits an egg in a honeycomb cell. In 3 days, the egg (which looks like a microscopic grain of rice) begins 3 new stages of development: larva to pupa to adult bee. The duration of each stage depends on the type of bee.

Bee Castes

The three “castes” of bees are:

  • Queen – The queen bee is a fertilized female that normally lays all the eggs in the hive. There is usually only one queen in a colony; 2 or more queens will fight to elimination. Also, in the case of a queenless hive, workers may lay unfertilized eggs (a topic for another day). Queen bees are fully developed in about 16 days. The queen bee’s adult life span can ranges 2 to 5 years.
  • Worker – A worker bee is an unfertilized female develops from a fertilized egg. Workers make up the vast majority of bees in the hive and  go from egg to adult in about 21 days. As an adult, worker bees have a life span of 15 to 38 days in the summer (when they are working very hard) and about 140 to 320 days during the winter.
  • Drone – A drone is a male bee from an unfertilized egg. Drones are larger than workers. Their main function is to mate with a virgin queen. Drones emerge after about 24 days. Drone bees live about 8 weeks as an adult. Since their sole function is to fertilize a virgin queen, they are evicted from the hive going into winter when their services will not be needed. In winter, they would be a drain on the colony’s food resources.

This infographic on below is a great cheat sheet on the life cycle of your honey bees.

Buzzing Around: The Perennial Life-Cycle of the Western Honeybee Colony

From Visually.

Brood Nest

Bees developing in cells before becoming adults are collectively called the brood.

The section of the comb where the queen lays eggs is called the brood nest. Hive boxes with brood nest can be called brood boxes or brood chambers. Brood frames are usually toward the center of the box.

Your first hive box is a brood chamber. As the colony grows, you’ll add another box. The queen will most likely expand brood nest up into the center of the new box.

Inspecting the brood, you’ll see different types of cells.

Open Brood

Pictured nearby, eggs and the worm-like stage of larvae will be in open brood cells.

Capped Brood

Frames with capped brood may also have nectar and/or capped honey around the top and outer edges for feeding larvae.

Caps on honey are somewhat translucent or white. They may be indented (concave).

Capped brood is yellow or brown depending on the age. Unlike honey caps they are convex, jutting up above the comb.

Drone cells, housing larger bees, will protrude higher than capped worker cells.

Speckled among the capped brood you may see unused cells. Workers will enter these cells to help warm the brood if needed.

A healthy, productive, laying queen will leave a tight pattern of capped brood in her wake. Spotty brood patterns are an indication that the queen is not healthy or that you have a laying worker.

Why The Life Cycle Is Important To Know

Understanding the life cycle of the bees and the roles they play are essential in assessing the health of your queen and colony. You are better able to identify issues that need to be addressed.

For example, if you don’t see the queen but eggs are visible, you know the queen was laying within the past 3 days. If, on the other hand, you see empty cells and can’t find her royal highness, your hive may be queenless.

Use the information you gather to address issues in the hive.

Eggs

Workers prepare cells for the queen to lay eggs. As mentioned above, she will lay either unfertilized egg (to become drones) or fertilized eggs (workers). Fertilized eggs are placed in larger cells to accommodate the larger drones that will develop. (If you’ve come this far, you probably find this as amazing as I do.)

Eggs can be seen on the right side of the comb in the photo above. We know the queen has been there within the last 3 days from the neat pattern of one egg per cell.

What about a laying worker? Laying workers are not as neat as the queen. Eggs may be on the sides of the cells. You’ll also see multiple eggs in cells if you have a laying worker.

Eggs are easier to spot on black foundation or in the older, darker, reused comb. Getting direct sunlight on it helps a lot.

A healthy, productive queen can lay somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 eggs per day. If all goes well, by midsummer your hive population will be up around 40,000 – 50,000 bees. That’s quite a jump from the approximately 10,000 that you got in your bee package.

After 3 days, the egg “hatches.” This doesn’t happen the way you might imagine, like a bird breaking out of a shell. The outer shell (the chorion) gradually dissolves exposing the larva.

Larva

As pictured above, the larva at first looks like a small, white worm.

Paraphrasing my friend, John, larvae eat “like tomorrow is just a rumor, like they’re going to the chair.” Larvae are fed hundreds of times per day by the workers.

For the first few days, all larvae are fed royal jelly secreted from the glands of nurse bees. After 3 days, non-queen larvae are switched to a diet of bee bread (stored pollen) and honey. Potential queens continue to get royal jelly.

Stages of drone pupae
Pupae of drones (honeybee). Here we see drones in various stages of development. On the left, a stretched prepupa (age 11 to 14 days from the egg being laid). At this stage the cell is already capped. After 14 days, the prepupa has shed its skin, and the final form of the bee can be seen. At first, it is all white (second from left). Later it starts to gain colour, first with the eye, then the whole pupa. The developing bee remains as a pupa from 15 days after the egg being laid until day 24. In the background is a foundation wall of wax imprinted with cells for the workers. Waugsberg [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

With all this feeding, the larvae grow substantially and gain a lot of weight. Maybe

(I am going through a larval stage myself? I hope not because the larva gets to be about 1,000 -1,500 times larger in this period.)

After about 9 days, the cell is sealed with wax and propolis. You now have capped or sealed brood.

The larva then spins a cocoon around itself and enters the next phase of development.

Pupa

Within the capped cell, the pupa begins to develop into a recognizable bee: wings, legs, hair, eyes, and yes, a stinger on the females.

Eventually, the bee chews its way through the cap and emerges to join the colony and assume its role starting with clean up and maintenance.

Raising brood requires that bees have enough food stores to make comb for the brood nest, feed the young (and themselves), and maintain proper temperatures in the hive. You can see why it’s important to feed your new bees when they arrive.

The pictures below are from a split we did a couple of years ago.

Capped brood
Capped brood
Capped brood with nectar in the corners
Capped brood with nectar in the corners
Capped brood with larvae
Capped brood with larvae
Capped drone brood - larger convex cells
Capped drone brood – larger convex cells

Adult Bee Life

One of the fascinating things about bees (to me, anyway) is how these tens of thousands of individuals effectively function as one. It is often called a superorganism. (Not to be confused with the band.)


Superorganism – Wikipedia 
The term superorganism is used most often to describe a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labour is highly specialised and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods. Ants are the best-known example of such a superorganism.

Superorganism: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Identifying the Castes

Workers are the smallest bees in the hive and may constitute as much as 98% of the population. These are the girls you’ll see darting in and out of the hive in search of food.

The queen is one of the largest bees in the colony. She is long with a tapered body and looks very different from the other bees. Other bees will be attending to her in the hive.

Drones are much larger than the workers.

Comparison of queen, drone and worker sizes
Comparison of queen, drone and worker sizes

Worker Bees

Worker bees hold down a variety of jobs during their lifetime

Age (along with other factors such as hormones) generally determines the role of workers. Younger bees remain in the hive early when their glands are particularly suited to internal tasks like drawing comb.

Workers move to outdoor work when older.

Despite these general behaviors, bees can adapt to changes in the colony moving to different tasks as needed.

Worker bees are often given names that define their role.

Housekeeping

After emerging from a cell, the worker’s first task is to clean up the mess she made. Fecal matter and other debris are removed. Cells get a new wax and propolis coating. The queen will inspect a cell to make sure it’s clean enough for receiving her egg.

Note: Over time, cells that get reused darken with age. If you’re keeping track of your hive with a journal or markings on the frames, it’s a good idea to clean out comb after 3 years.

Other junk is removed: grass, sugar granules, etc. Cracks are sealed with propolis.

Removing dead bees is part of cleaning; hence you get undertaker or mortuary bees. (Reminds me of Monty Python: “Bring out your dead”. It’s here on YouTube.)

Part of the job includes capping the older larvae about to become pupae.

Nurse Bees

Nurse bees feed the larvae.

In your second or third year of beekeeping, you will probably try a split. Splitting entails moving some frames with brood to a new hive (probably a nuc). Don’t shake off the nurse bees. They are essential.

Attending to the Queen

Attendants care for the queen so she can focus on her primary job: laying eggs. The attendants will feed and groom the queen.

Caring for the queen serves another critical purpose. Attendants pick up pheromones from the queen that they spread to the rest of the colony.

If the level of pheromones is deemed adequate, the colony will be stable. However, low pheromones are a message for the bees to take corrective action.

Pheromones may be low because the colony has grown too large. Expecting the queen to swarm (depart with a large group of bees), bees may build swarm cells to develop replacement queens. A swarm is a sign of a healthy, productive hive. It’s nature’s way of doing a split.

Low pheromones indicating queenlesssness or an aging queen will cause the colony to build supersedure cells for a replacement queen.

Drawing Comb

Younger bees build new comb necessary holding and capping brood, honey, nectar, and pollen.

Food Storage

Bees in the hive accept delivery of pollen and nectar from foraging bees for storage.

Pollen is packed into cells with nectar and saliva to keep it from spoiling. Thus, it becomes bee pollen (or bee bread or ambrosia).

Bee bread
Bee bread

Temperature Control (aka Thermal Homeostasis)

Fanning helps direct airflow as needed to warm or cool the hive. In winter they will form a tight cluster to stay warm.

Guard Bees

Some honey bees stand guard at the entrance to defend the hive from invaders (robbing bees, wasps, etc.) and predators. They also roam the colony to ferret out intruders such as wax moths and beetles.

While a bee can only sting you (or a large animal) once, it can sting other insects multiple times.

Here’s a great article from the Journal of Experimental Biology on the defensive response of the western honey bee. It has in-depth information about the role of guard bees in the hive.

Foraging

As workers age, changes in glands reduce their ability to perform many in-hive functions. It’s time for them to become field bees or foragers and bring back nectar and pollen.

Foragers come back with valuable information about the location and quantity of food. They transmit this info to other bees through the waggle dance.

The Smithsonian has a great video about the waggle dance.

Worker Life Span

In the summer, these bees work hard and expend a lot of energy foraging. Their life span is only about 30 – 45 days. “It’s a hard knock life.”

Workers going into winter have a much longer life span without having to work so hard. Many of them may die from harsh weather but the ability to survive for several hundred days assures the colony’s survival.

Drones

The male drones serve one purpose: to mate with a virgin queen. They are not built for foraging. With no stinger, they are worthless guard bees.

Once the queen is mated, the only purpose of the drones is to hang around in case something happens that requires a new virgin queen. Otherwise, they hang out watching TV and eating food.

Drone Life Span

With this laid-back lifestyle, drones have a life span of about 2 months; except if they mate with the queen, in which case they die immediately as their abdomen is ripped open when they separate from her.

However, in bad times (nectar dearth or winter), drones are just a drain on resources and workers may take action. Drone cells may be destroyed. In preparation for winter, drones are evicted from the hive (see the video below). The queen can make new drones with unfertilized eggs come spring.

Drones driven from the hive will die of starvation (remember, they don’t forage) or from exposure to the elements.

Queen

Queens live longer than other bees in the colony with a life span of up to 5 years.

The queen is typically the longest bee in the colony. Mistaking larger drones for the queen is easy. Hopefully, you got a marked queen which makes her easier to find.

The colony revolves around the queen because of her ability to lay eggs. Development of brood keeps the colony alive. Her pheromones signal that all is well.

I used to think that the queen ran the hive. I now believe that her ability to continue the colony makes her the center of attention but, as a superorganism, the colony runs the hive collectively.

Workers build cells to hold eggs and direct the queen to them. The colony can decide if the queen’s time is up.

Here’s a quick video of one of our queens:

Quick View of the Queen

Virgin Queen

Emerging from the brood cell, the queen is a virgin.

She starts out searching for other queen cells to destroy. If she finds another queen, one of them will be killed in a fight. A virgin may be co-habit with an old queen for a short time, but eventually, there will be only one queen.

Within about a week, the virgin queen will take a mating flight with the drones. She will mate with 10 to 20 drones accumulating enough semen to fertilize eggs for her lifetime.

Queen Life Span

The queen can have a life span of 2 – 5 years. As a beekeeper, you’ll have to make decisions about “dispatching” (a nice euphemism for killing) the queen before her natural time is up.

Some beekeepers requeen on a schedule, not waiting to see if a queen’s production has dropped off. We’ve had some colonies make the decision for us by swarming. The queen took off with a bunch of bees and left the hive to raise a new queen in her stead.

Related Articles From Other

American Bee Journal: The Honey Bee Superorganism in Perspective

Wired: The True Hive Mind – How Honeybee Colonies Think

Bee Culture: A Closer Look – Foraging Behavior

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