Honey bees are very industrious and well organized creatures. As a unit, they work to build their colony and expand their population through a process called swarming. When bees swarm, about 60% of the colony will leave with the queen to find a new place to raise their brood. The remaining bees and a new queen will start raising a new brood of bees in the original hive. This is the basic life cycle of a bee colony, but not the honey bee life cycle itself.
Since there are three adult castes of bees you might find in a hive—the queen, the drone, and the worker—the individual life cycle of a honey bee depends on which bee you are exploring. Although all three castes go through the same four stages of development—egg, larva, pupa, and adult—there are differences in each stage that help determine what type of bee is being created.
It all starts with an egg
All bees start out as an egg laid by the queen. The queen will carefully check each brood cell before laying an egg. Slightly larger cells are used for drones and queens. The queen will also choose to fertilize eggs to produce workers and other queens, or not fertilize an egg to produce a drone. The eggs appear as just a small dot at the back of cell and are easy to miss when checking for healthy queen activity. When you inspect a frame to look for eggs, tilt it slightly to spot them more easily. Once an egg is laid, worker bees feed the eggs by filling the cell with royal jelly.
After about 3 days the eggs hatch into larvae and brood nurse bees will feed them constantly. Future queens will continue to be fed royal jelly from the glands of the young brood workers, while future workers and drones will receive a mixture of pollen, honey, and bee secretions called “bee bread.” After about six days, the cells will be capped with wax and the larva will start to spin a cocoon. Between day 8 and 9, depending on the caste, the larva develops into a pupa when it then starts to take on the characteristics of a bee.
If you have the opportunity to pull a frame of brood from an active hive, you might see one bee that is larger (about 2 cm) than the others. That would be the queen.
It will take a total of 16 days for a queen to develop from an egg and chew through the wax cap of her large peanut shaped cell. The first queen to emerge will then seek out the other queen cells and insert her barb-less stinger to eliminate the other potential queens. Within a few days, she will take off on a mating flight where she will collect enough sperm to produce almost a million eggs in her lifetime.
The queen’s responsibilities are mostly related to the production of brood and depend upon chemical communications called pheromones. One of the primary purposes of the queen is to lay eggs, laying up to 2000 per day! This is why many beekeepers will utilize a queen excluder to avoid cross-contamination with their honey comb.
The life cycle of the hive is directly related to the life cycle of the queen, which is regulated by the workers more than most people realize. The queen and workers regularly share messages about the brood, how many and where eggs have been deposited, and when it is time to find a new home.
The real champions: female worker bees
At 21 days from fertile egg to adulthood, a worker bee will emerge from the cell. These are the smallest bees you will see in a hive, and happen to be the ones that do all the work, giving us the well-known adage, “busy as a bee.” Young worker bees will start out working in the hive, caring for the brood, cleaning, creating honey, foraging and protecting the hive. Their duties and the way they communicate both through chemical messaging and movements like the foraging dance, are what makes the hive run smoothly.
Once a worker bee can no longer produce royal jelly for the larvae, they will move on to other hive tasks, like receiving nectar and pollen to make honey and bee bread, creating honey comb, and guarding the hive. As the worker bee becomes older it will be oriented to out-of-hive tasks like scouting and foraging. Typically, once the worker bee reaches forager status, that will be the last job role it assumes. The last week or two of the 6-week span of an active worker bee will be spent carrying pollen and nectar to the hive until it’s wings literally wear out. This work ‘til you drop life cycle of a worker bee is delayed for workers that maintain the hive throughout the winter.
An active summer hive may have as many as 60 to 80 thousand worker bees with only a portion of those directly working the honey flow. Most active worker bees only live around 6 weeks, which means the worker bees hatched in the spring will not make it through a full honey flow season. You could say there is a lot of turnover at their workplace! However, worker bees hatched in the autumn will have less to do. Their many duties involve keeping the hive clean, adjusting temperature during the cold months and feeding the queen from the honey reserves. These late season workers can live up to 5 months with most activity occurring in the early spring as they prepare for the next brood to develop.
Um. Are there any males around here?
Yes, there are male bees—sometimes hundreds of them—all hatched from eggs that are not fertile. In the event of an emergency, like the untimely death of the queen, worker bees can produce drones to mate with a new queen. It takes around 24 days for the drones to fully develop from the non-fertile egg to adult bee, and will be tended to by the worker bees until they go off in search of a queen on her mating flight.
Drones have large, broad bodies and are not equipped to do any hive duties. Their only purpose is to mate with a virgin queen, where the process of depositing sperm will end with their death. After the mating flight, the queen will have stored up to 6 million sperm to fertilize her eggs. At the end of the honey flow, after all swarming activity has ceased and it is important to reserve honey stores for the winter, remaining drones are no longer needed and will be killed off by the worker bees.
The circle of life
When spring arrives and pollen is available the whole process starts again. A continual, well-orchestrated life-cycle that produces a sweet outcome and pollinates a large portion of our world.