The Life of a Honey Bee

We brought our bees home just over a month ago and we’ve checked in on them a few times since then. One hive has exploded with growth and now has four supers, one hive is moving right along and has three supers, and one hive is lagging behind a bit with only two supers, but they all look exactly how they are “supposed to” regardless of their population size. Every hive has plenty of eggs and larvae and each is exhibiting all of the signs of a growing colony. They are all just growing at their own rates. We are trying to be a bit more hands off in our beekeeping this year by doing less frequent inspections, by intervening less, and by letting the bees do what they want (to a point). So far so good. That mixed with the new apiary location has made beekeeping really fun and enjoyable for us again. It has been wonderful. Since bees are such complex and interesting creatures, we figured that we would dedicate an entire post to them and their roles throughout their life cycles, so read on if you’re interested in learning more about the life of honey bees! 

Life Cycle of a Bee

Honey bees develop in four distinct life cycles: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The total development time varies depending on the type of bee: 24 days for drones (males), 21 days for worker bees (females), and 16 days for queens. 

Queen bees can lay up to 1500 eggs a day during spring and summer. The queen will lay one single egg into each empty wax cell, and she decides what kind of egg – fertilized (female) or unfertilized (male) – that she will lay. If the queen lays an egg in a standard sized cell, the fertilized egg will become a female worker bee. If the queen lays an egg in a larger and wider drone cell, the unfertilized egg will become a male drone bee. Although the queen is the one who lays the eggs, the workers that build the wax cells are the ones who actually regulate the ratio of male to female bees in the hive. The workers achieve this by building and demolishing drone cells depending on the time of year and what is going on in the hive. 

Three days after an egg is laid, it hatches and a larva emerges. In the beginning of the larval stage, nurse bees feed the larva royal jelly – a nutritionally dense secretion – to help it grow quickly. After a few days of being fed royal jelly, the larva is weaned to a mixture of honey and pollen called bee bread. The exception to this is if the larva is a female destined to become a queen – the queen larva will be fed royal jelly throughout its entire larval stage. On the fifth larval day (the eighth overall day), the worker bees seal the cell with a wax cap and the larva surrounds itself with a cocoon inside the cell. The larva spends the rest of its time in the cocoon growing all of the parts of an adult bee such as wings, legs, and eyes. This process takes approximately twelve days. On the twenty first day, the baby worker (female) bee is fully developed and at this time has the ability to chew through the wax capping to become the newest member of the hive. Drones (males) take an extra three days to pupate, and they will emerge from their wax capped cells on day twenty four. A queen bee only takes sixteen days to mature, at which time she will exit her wax capped cell. 

Occupations of Honey Bees

During the active season, the lifetime of a worker bee is five to six weeks whereas overwintering worker bees may live for four to six months. Worker bees perform a variety of jobs throughout their lifetime depending on their age.  Younger bees remain in the hive to draw comb and raise brood, and as they bees get older they will move to more outdoor work.

After emerging from a cell, the worker’s first job is to clean all of the debris out of her cell and coat the cell with new wax so that it is ready for a new egg to be deposited by the queen. Young bees generally serve as nurse bees who feed larvae and raise brood. These nurse bees also have the responsibility of capping the older larvae with wax before the larvae begin to pupate. Another duty for young worker bees is building new comb to house brood, honey, nectar, and pollen. Young worker bees will also serve as undertaker bees that remove dead bees and other debris from the hive. Some younger bees may even serve as attendants to the queen. Attendant bees care for the queen by feeding her and grooming her so that she can focus on laying eggs. Because queen attendants interact so closely with the queen, they pick up the queen’s pheromones and spread them to the rest of the colony as they move throughout the hive. The pheromone level in the hive will determine if the colony will be stable, or if the colony will prepare to swarm or supersede (overthrow and replace) the queen.  

Middle aged bees in the hive accept the delivery of pollen and nectar for storage from older foraging bees. The pollen is accepted by the bees and packed into cells with nectar and saliva to turn it into bee bread and to keep it from spoiling. Bees of this age will also regulate hive temperature by fanning their wings to direct airflow to warm or cool the hive as necessary. Some middle aged honey bees serve as guard bees at the hive entrance to defend against invaders and predators. They also roam the colony to detect and destroy pests such as was moths and hive beetles.

As worker bees age, changes in their glands reduce their ability to perform many of the in-hive functions such as creating wax and feeding brood. At this point, it is time for them to become foragers. Forager bees, or field bees, locate and bring back nectar and pollen to the hive. Foragers also bring back valuable information about the location and quantity of food sources which they transmit to other bees through a phenomenon called the waggle dance. 

In contrast to the female worker bees, male drones serve one main purpose: to mate with a virgin queen. Drones do not forage and do not have a stinger, so they are worthless as workers or guard bees. Drones do not perform any of the in-hive duties that workers perform, but they may take part in helping to regulate the temperature inside the hive by beating their wings and redirecting airflow.  Drones typically will not mate with a queen from their own hive, but the queen ensures that there are always some drones around during the summer months in case something happens that requires a new virgin queen. Drones will occasionally leave their hives and go to drone congregation areas in hopes of mating with a virgin queen who is on her mating voyage. 

Bee Life Spans

In the summer, foragers work hard and expend a lot of energy foraging for and bringing food back to the hive. The average lifespan of a worker bee in peak season is only 30-45 days. Workers going into winter have a much longer lifespan because there is not as much to forage for, therefore they are flying less frequently and expending less energy. Ultimately, female worker bees will fly themselves to death. 

Because drones don’t expend much energy, they have a lifespan of about two months. The exception to this is if they mate with a queen, in which they will die immediately as their abdomen is ripped apart as they separate from her. During the fall, the queen will stop laying unfertilized drone eggs and all of the drones will be kicked out of the hive to prepare for winter. Drones driven from the hive will die of starvation or exposure to the elements. The hive will be drone-less until the queen begins laying drone eggs again in the spring. 

The queen lives longer than any other bee in the colony with a lifespan of up to five years. The queen is also the largest and longest bee in the colony. The colony revolves around the queen due to her ability to lay fertilized eggs, but the workers ensure that the colony is functional. 

So there you have it! Everything you ever wanted to know about the development of bees and their different occupations throughout their life stages. We are continuously amazed by our honey bees, and we hope that this helps you gain a better appreciation for these phenomenal creatures as well!

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