Inside a beehive, you will find thousands of developing young bees called – bee brood. Growing inside wax cells, this is the next generation of the colony – a most valuable resource. No matter how strong the honey bee colony may be today, having healthy growing brood is vital to the continuation of the hive.
Any colony with a shortage of worker bees is in trouble. During hive inspections, beekeepers ideally want to see all stages of the honey bee life cycle. The new adults will replace those lost from the hive.
What is Bee Brood?
Bee brood refers to eggs, larvae and pupae found inside the beehive. They represent the life cycle from egg to adult of honey bees.
Honey bees do not live very long. In fact, worker bees only live about 6 weeks during the Summer. This short life explains why the colony must have a continuous supply of new adults coming along.
As older colony members die, new workers must be ready to replace them – otherwise the colony could not survive.
Stages of Bee Brood
In general, the time span from egg to emerged adult takes: a worker bee – 21 days, a drone 24 days and queen 16 days. However, the exact timing of each stage can vary a bit from one hive to another.
Development Stages in the Hive
These are the three types of bee brood in the hive that every beekeeper should learn to identify.
- pupa – capped brood
A honey bee egg looks like a tiny piece of white rice. You will normally see 1 egg per cell and it stands on end at first.
It is the role of the queen bee to lay fertilized eggs that develop into workers or unfertilized eggs that become drones – the males bees.
Due to her larger size, the queen is especially equipped to secure the egg deep in the bottom of a cell.
Every beginner beekeeper needs to learn how to find eggs. Don’t worry if it takes you a while. Eggs often difficult – you may need to use a magnifying glass until you have more experience.
Finding properly placed eggs can tell us a lot about the condition of the colony. It verifies that the queen was likely present a short time ago (within the last 3 days).
This is especially helpful for beekeepers who are still learning how to find their queen. If you can not find the queen but see fresh eggs – things are likely okay.
Larvae (or Milk Brood)
After 3 days (on average), the shell of the egg dissolves and we see a tiny white grub. This is the beginning of the larval stage of bees.
This larval stage is a time of feeding and fast growth-these cells are commonly called open brood. The larva is often seen floating in a bed of white, milky food provided by nurse bees.
The presence of this milky substance in the cells, is why bee larva are often called milk brood as well.
On average, the larval stage lasts for 5-7 days – exact length depends on the kind of bee (worker, drone, queen). As this stage of brood growth comes to an end, worker bees cap each cell with a wax coating.
Once the brood cells are capped, the feeding stage has ended. Inside the cell, the bee larva transforms into a pupae.
Now, this developing bee is looking more like a real bee. But, there are still some changes that must take place. Brood cells remain capped for a period from 8 days and 14.5 days (queen, worker, drone).
During this time, the pupae molts several times and transforms into a fully formed adult that will emerge.
Identifying Capped Brood
However, once bee brood reaches the capped stage, we can usually tell what kind of bee they will become. This in turn can reveal some important information about colony status.
Capped brood cells containing workers is smooth and almost level with the comb surface. Older wax is used to cap the cells resulting in a beige or tan color.
A good brood pattern consists of many cells of the same type and age of young close together with few empty cells.
Some of the cappings may have a little pattern on the wax cover. This seems to be a genetic thing as it varies in colonies.
Capped Drone Brood
The males, or drone bees, require a slightly larger cell than workers. Once you learn the difference, these cells as easy to find in the hive.
Drone cells protrude from the surface of the honeycomb. They have a characteristic bullet shape – their dome tops stick up from the comb surface. They are often found on the edges of the brood nest.
Drone brood is not present in the hive year round but common in Spring and Summer. The colony has no need for drones during Winter. No new queens will need to be mated.
Queen Cells Open and Capped
If the colony is making a new queen, or preparing to swarm, you may find queen cells. These special cells provide extra space for a developing queen.
A queen cell is built horizontal (hanging down) to the face of the comb. They resemble a large peanut. If the end of the cell is not closed – you have an open queen cell. Workers cap these cells once the larval growth stage is finished.
The Brood Nest
Workers must keep the temperature and humidity inside the hive within a certain range or brood will die. For this reason, bee brood is normally concentrated in one area of the hive.
It is normal to see pollen or bee bread and nectar in the cells near the brood nest. This makes it easier to feed the young.
We beekeepers use the term brood nest or brood box to describe this part of the hive. Depending on the colony (or season), the brood nest may be a small area on a couple of frames or a whole box of developing bees.
Evaluating Brood Patterns
Being able to recognize the various types of bee brood is a necessary beekeeping skill. The brood pattern (good or bad) tells us a lot about colony conditions.
If you have 1 colony with no worker brood and the others are growing with plenty– what’s wrong? Is the queen dead or has she become a drone laying queen?
The presence of queen cells means the colony is making a new queen. Why is this happening- is the hive preparing to swarm?
If you find large amounts of dead larva (brown, dark), this can mean the presence of disease in your colony.
But, a little dead brood is no reason to panic, some brood diseases are short term and clear up on their own or with a new queen. Learn how to recognize the most common honey bee diseases to ensure protection for your whole apiary.
Another problem to watch for when inspecting bee brood is the prescience of pests. This is the time when varroa mite infestations do some of the worse damage.
Brood is the beekeeping term used to reference bee eggs, larvae or pupae in a honey bee colony. These developing bees are the next generation.
Most beekeepers includes eggs in the classification of bee brood -along with larvae and pupae. But, some may classify bee eggs separately.
Some cultures do consume honey bee larvae and pupae.
Healthy brood shows shiny white larvae in wax cells. Young larva are in a relaxed c shape and eventually fill the bottom of the cell.
Anything that looks out of place or different from what is expected for the time of year, may be evidence of a problem in your bee brood. Pay close attention during hive inspections, take notes in your beekeeping journal or notebook.
And, as I tell students in my online beekeeping class, don’t worry if it takes a while to learn how to identify everything you see in the hive. You will get there.