Honey Bee Life Cycle

picture of a honey bee

Life Cycle Stages

Honey bees undergo complete metamorphosis, which involves four developmental stages:

  1. Egg
  2. Larva
  3. Pupa
  4. Adult

Reproduction
Virgin queens fly to a location where she may encounter hundreds of male honey bees waiting for her to arrive so they can inseminate her. Each female will likely mate with several males and each male is able to mate from 7 to 10 times.

After mating, the males die. The mated queen lives on and uses the male sperm to fertilize the eggs she produces, a process that continues to occur throughout her life. When she dies or discontinues to produce eggs, a new generation of queens will mate and produce their own colonies. Each colony will only have one fertile queen.

Eggs
Honey bee queens control the sex of their offspring. As eggs pass through the queen’s ovary into the oviduct, she can determine whether a particular egg is fertilized or not.

The development of each member of a colony differs depending on caste: male honey bees need 24 days for proper growth from eggs to adult, workers need 21 days, and queens require only 16. In order for a colony to survive, the queen must lay fertilized eggs to create worker bees, which forage for food and take care of the colony.

Honey bee eggs are small, only being about 1/2 the size of a grain of rice. When the queen lays her eggs, she moves through the comb, closely examining each cell before laying her eggs. The process of laying one egg takes only a few seconds, and a queen is capable of laying up to 2,000 eggs within a single day.

Larvae
Honey bee larvae are legless, wingless grubs. After about 3 days eggs will hatch into larvae, which will be fed by the workers with honey, royal jelly, and other liquids from plants. These larvae have no legs, eyes, antennae, or wings, and resemble a grain of rice with a small mouth.

Larvae develop inside their egg chamber and will eat and grow into adult workers, queens, or drones.

Pupae
Larvae shed their skin and molt several times before they enter the pupal stage. After another molt, these pupae will emerge as adult honey bees and begin to perform their specialized tasks for the colony.

Adults
Each colony is made up of adults that have various specialties. Each colony contains three kinds of adult known as castes, with each caste given specific jobs within the colony. Honey bees castes are:

  • Egg-laying queens
  • Non-reproductive female workers
  • Sperm-producing male drones

Castes

Workers
Worker bees are the smallest members of the colony, but have the largest number of individuals. A typical honey bee hive may contain from 20,000 to 80,000 workers.

The  first few weeks of a worker’s life are spent working within the hive, while the last weeks are spent feeding the larvae, foraging for food, and gathering pollen or nectar. Since honey bee workers sting to defend the hive, more than likely you’ve been stung by a worker if you’ve gotten too close to the hive.

The workers do most of the work of feeding the members of the other castes, maintaining the hive, and defending the colony against predators or intruders.

Drones
The only job the drone has is to mate with the queen during seasonal mating flights. Soon after discharging their sperm, drones die.

Queens
Within each colony, a single queen rules her workers and drones. Future queens develop inside larger hive cells by constantly consuming royal jelly, while workers and drones are only fed royal jelly during the first few days of their lives.

When an existing queen dies or becomes incapable of laying eggs, worker honey bees raise a new queen. As the new queen becomes a young adult, she attends a nuptial flight where she mates with several drones. With sperm stored from copulation during the mating flight, she begins to lay eggs inside the hive.

When a young and healthy queen lays eggs, she packs them closely together within the cells. As a queen ages her sperm stores decrease and she produces fewer eggs and the pattern of the eggs within each cell begins to appear less orderly.

Lifespan

The lifespan of a honey bee depends on the caste and various behavioral and environmental factors. Workers have a lifespan of only about 5 to 7 weeks. However, the death of a generation of workers does not cause the entire colony to perish.

The lifespan of a honey bee colony depends upon the survival of a variety of bees within it. If only the queen lives, for instance, a colony cannot survive, as she cannot produce honey or pollinate flowers on her own. Queens, who spend their lives laying eggs inside the hive, could live for several years.

More Information:

Mechanics of Honey Bee Mating

Honey Bee Eggs

Anatomy of a Honey Bee

Why Honey Bees Have Their Color

Honey Bee Life Span

Honey Bee Genetics

Honey Bee Queen