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Bee Brood – {Keys to Identification}

Inside a honey bee colony you will find thousands of individuals. However, the most important part of the colony is the future generation. We call these developing young bees – bee brood. No matter how strong the colony may be today, having good brood is vital to the continuation of the hive.

What is Bee Brood?

Various stages of bee brood in honeycomb cells image.

Bee brood refers to eggs, larvae and pupae in the world of beekeeping. These developing bees are part of the 4 stage life cycle of honey bees.

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The life span of honey bees is not very long. In fact, workers only live about 6 weeks during the Summer. They literally work themselves to death.

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.

The Brood Nest

The care of developing young is quite a responsibility. Young adults “nurse bees” are constantly attending to the needs of each larvae in the brood cells.

Workers keep the temperature and humidity inside the hive within a certain range. Otherwise, bee brood will die. For this reason, brood is normally concentrated in one area of the hive.

Spread across several frames, honeycomb cells containing eggs, larvae and pupae are concentrated together for ease of care. The term brood nest or brood box is used to describe this part 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 for the nurses to eat and be able to feed the young.

Stages of Bee Brood

  1. egg
  2. larva
  3. pupa

While all members of the colony develop through these 4 stages, they do so at different rates. The timing can vary a bit from one hive to another. But in general, the time span of egg to emerged adult takes a worker bee – 21 days, a drone 24 days and queen 16 days.

Single bee eggs laid by a queen in individual beeswax cells image.

Honey Bee Eggs are Very Small

They mated queen lays a single egg in a wax honeycomb cell that has been polished and prepared by workers. She lays fertilized eggs that develop into workers or unfertilized eggs that become drones – the males bees.

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.

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The queen bee is especially equipped with a long abdomen. This allows her to secure the egg in the bottom of a cell.

Every new beekeeper needs to learn how to find eggs. Do not worry if it takes you a while. Eggs often difficult to see because they are very small. You may need to use a magnifying glass to help look for eggs 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 new beekeepers who are still learning how to find their queen. If you can not find the queen but see a good pattern of eggs, things are probably okay.

picture of honey comb filled with bee larvae or milk brood

Larvae or Milk Brood

After 3 days (on average), the shell of the egg dissolves and we see a tiny white grub. Now begins the larval stage of honey bee development.

This larval stage is a time of feeding and fast growth. The larva is often seen floating in a bed of white, milky food. This is why larva are often called milk brood.

Larvae are well fed by nurse bees. Glands inside the head of nurses produce this special food. This nutritious substance is deposited into the cells not directly feed to the larvae.

The larval stage of development lasts for different lengths of time depending on the kind of honey bee it is meant to be (worker, drone, queen).

On average, the larval stage lasts for 5-7 days. At the proper time, workers cap the cell with a wax coating.

Brood Diseases

Larvae are also called “uncapped brood”. It is a this stage that various bee diseases are often noticed. Healthy bee larvae are white and shiny.

Diseased brood is darker, often brown. Dead larva could indicate serious problems in your colony. Though not always the case, dying larvae can be a sign of infection.

Some conditions such as American Foulbrood (Paenibacillus larvae)- also called (afb) are deadly bacterial diseases. They can spread to other hives and antibiotics are not truly successful at curing the problem.

Others bee diseases, such as, European Foulbrood (EFB) are not as deadly. Infected larvae showing symptoms of sickness are always a cause for further investigation.

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.

Sacbrood virus, Chalkbrood – a fungal condition (causing chalk like mummies) and such are not necessarily a death sentence for your bees.

Bee pupa and capped brood in a honeycomb frame image.

Capped Brood

Once the brood is capped, the feeding stage has ended. Inside the cell, the larva transforms into a bee pupae. Now this developing bee is looking more like a real bee. But there are still some changes that must take place.

Again, the time spent capped inside the capped cell varies depending on the type of bee. The cells are capped for a period between 8 days and 14.5 days.

During this time, the pupal stage is completed and a fully formed adult will finally emerge. This is also the time when varroa mite infestations do some of the worse damage.

Parasitic mite syndrome weakens and kills thousands of colonies each year. Wise beekeepers do everything possible to control mites.

Types Capped Brood in the Beehive

Eggs and larva look much alike. However, once bee brood reaches the capped stage, we can usually tell what kind of bee they will become.

  1. Worker
  2. Drone
  3. Capped Queen Cells

Capped Worker Brood

Worker brood 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

Drones are the male bees in the hive. Because they are larger than workers, they require a larger cell.

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.

Drone cells protrude from the surface of the honeycomb. They have a characteristic bullet shape and are often found on the edges of the brood nest.

picture of bullet shaped drone brood on hive frame

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 contain a developing queen larva or pupa. Queens are larger than workers or drones and require a much larger cell for development.

A queen cell is built horizontal to the face of the comb. They resemble a large peanut. Each one holds a developing queen inside. As with other types of developing bees, workers cap queen cells once the larval growth stage is finished.

picture of large queen cells on brood frame in hive

Evaluating Brood Patterns

Learning to recognize the various types of bee brood is an important aspect of beekeeping. The colony can not tell us what they are planning – and probably wouldn’t want to if they could.

By reading bee frames we can learn a lot about colony conditions. If you have 1 colony with no brood and the others are growing with plenty– what’s wrong?

A colony that only has developing drones and no worker brood during the warm season can have a queen problem. Is the queen dead or is she still present but failing?

The presence of queen cells means the colony is making a new queen. Why is this happening? Does the colony think their queen is failing? Perhaps the colony is preparing to swarm.

If you find large amounts of dead larva, this can mean the presence of disease in your colony. It’s time to call for help from your area bee specialist.

Pictures of bee brood eggs, larva and capped brood in the hive image.

Honey bee brood is the future of the colony. Honeycomb cells containing healthy developing young are a beautiful thing to see.

Pay close attention during hive inspections, take notes in your beekeeping journal or notebook. During the warm season, most colonies will have all stages: eggs, larva and capped brood.

Anything that looks out of place or different from what is expected for the time of year, may be evidence of a problem you should address.

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. Our bees are mysterious creatures with some secrets we have yet to learn.