Bee Eggs

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For every honey bee in the hive, life begins as a tiny, unremarkable honey bee egg. It is amazing to consider that these small objects are responsible for the future of the colony. The queen bee diligently lays her eggs to supply the next generation of workers that will sustain the hive. There is a delicate balance between young that need care and adults to carry only daily tasks.

Close up of honey bee eggs in wax cell.

A large colony of honey bees can easily reach over 60,000 members during peak season. But even the strongest hive has humble beginnings and this first stage of the honey bee life cycle is one that each member passes through.

What are Bee Eggs?

Most mammals give birth to live babies. But birds, turtles, fish, reptiles and insects lay eggs. Honey bees are insects with 3 distinct body parts, bees have 6 legs, and 2 pair of wings – so they begin as an egg.

Most importantly, they go through 4 distinct stages before reaching adulthood. And the journey to adult begins with a honey bee egg – the first stage of development. 

Importance of Mated Queens

The primary role of the queen is to serve as egg layer. She is the mother of all the other bees in the hive.

Reproduction in honey bees involves a mating ritual where the virgin queen leaves the hive on mating flights. Mating takes place in special drone congregation areas

Semen (from male bees) is stored in her abdomen in a special structure (spermatheca) and kept alive until needed. A well-mated queen is essential for a productive hive.

Characteristics of Honey Bee Eggs

So, what do they look like? If you are imagining a smaller version of a chicken egg – prepare to be enlightened.

Size and Shape

Honey bee eggs are tiny and have an oval shape. They resemble pieces of white rice or a bit of white thread.

Measuring about 1.5 mm long and 0.2 mm wide, it takes new beekeepers some time to learn how to recognize them in the comb.

When first laid, they are barely visible to the naked eye. I often tell new beekeepers in my beginner beekeeping class you may need a magnifying glass to help see them.

However, egg size can vary a bit though it doesn’t seem to have an correlation to quality. Mark Winston, in his book – The Biology of the Honey Bee, has some interesting thoughts on this.

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Color

When freshly laid, honey bee eggs are pearly white in color. They appear almost translucent before changing to a creamy color.

The eggshell (outer layer) is smooth and slightly curved, resembling a grain of rice

Location in the Comb

In normal situations, the queen lays one egg in each hexagonal wax cell. It is placed at the base of the wax cell and stands upright on its end.

The queen uses a special adhesive substance to anchor the egg in the bottom of the cell. Fresh eggs stand straight up but they begin to lean over during the next few days.

Queen honey bee with abdomen inserted into a wax cell to deposit a bee egg.

Number Laid Per Day

In a healthy, strong colony with a young productive queen, it is not unusual to see 1,000 to 2,000 new eggs per day. Due to the fact that honey bees do not live very long, this growing work force is very important.

Honey bees eggs mark the beginning of colony development. The presence of fresh eggs is a good sign of a thriving colony.

The Egg Laying Process

Egg laying occurs in a central location inside the hive. We call this area the “brood nest”. Here you will find 2 different types of bee eggs: fertilized and unfertilized.

The queen inspects each cell to see that it is polished and to check the size. As an egg passes through the queen’s abdomen, she chooses whether or not to fertilize it with semen.

Fertilized eggs become females and those that are not fertilized become male bees or drones.

How does the queen honey bee make this decision? The needs of the colony (as well as time of year) play a role.

But, she will only lay in cells that have been cleaned and workers will only polish larger drone cells when they are needed.

Once the cell passes inspection, the queen lowers her abdomen into the wax cell and lays the egg. 

Worker bees on comb of colony brood nest.

Development

Lacking a true shell (as we know it) the surface of the bee egg is covered by a membrane called a chorion. This outer covering dissolves after about 3 days into a new bee larva

(However, everyone I know still refers to the process as the egg hatches. Unless you are a researcher, I doubt it matters – don’t get hung up on semantics.)

Larval Stage

Once honey bee eggs enter the larval stage, the adults in the hive have a lot of work to do. Larvae grow very fast and require constant feeding and attention from nurse bees.

When larvae reach the pupal phase of development (stage 3), the cells are sealed with a wax cap. The hardest work is done.

But the developing young (called bee brood), must be kept within an optimal temperature and humidity range for good development.

The development time from egg to adult colony member varies according to the type: queen 16 days, worker 21 days, drone 24 days.

Brood nest frame from hive with all stages of bee brood.

Laying Worker Problems

The queen is the only member of the hive that can lay fertilized eggs to become workers of for colony queen rearing

But, the thousands of worker bees in a colony are also female. If a colony loses the queen and does not replace her, some of the workers begin to lay.

Because they are not capable of mating, workers can only lay unfertilized eggs that become drones. With no fertilized eggs to make a new queen, the colony will fail in a couple of months.

Males or drone bee from unfertilized egg.

Why Bee Eggs are Important

Bee eggs are vitally important to the colony for several reasons. First, they are the starting point for all the other bees in the hive. Without eggs, the colony would not be able to grow or survive.

From a beekeeper’s point of view, bee eggs are one of the most important indicators of colony health. A queen that is not laying well to support colony growth may be failing.

Or perhaps, it is not the fault of the mated queen but a lack of resources such as food or enough workers. Developing an understanding of what is or is not normal in the hive is very important.

Beekeepers must continue to examine the brood pattern throughout the warm season. Any signs of disease or signals of major problems must be addressed. The hive must be healthy well before the Winter months.

FAQs

What do bee eggs look like?

They are tiny white thread-like objects that have an oval shape. Some people say they look like tiny grains of white rice.

Can worker bees lay eggs like a queen?

No, workers can not mate and store sperm in their body. They can not produce fertilized eggs that become female like the queen.

Can a colony survive with a laying queen?

Not for long, without a queen to lay fertilized eggs all of the new bees would be drones. The colony will fail.

How long does it take for a honey bee egg to hatch into a larva?

On average, honey bee eggs hatch into larva within around 3 days. From this point, workers are constantly feed it and tending to the growing young.

Does a honey bee egg hatch?

The outer layer of a bee egg does not crack like a hen egg. Instead it dissolves releasing the tiny larva inside.

Can honey bee eggs survive without the care of workers?

Honey bee eggs cannot survive without the care and attention of workers. They regulate the humidity and temperature in the brood nest and provide food the new larvae.

Can honey bee eggs be moved of transferred between hives?

Yes, beekeepers often transfer honey bee eggs from one hive to another. This is generally done by moving a whole frame – perhaps to help fix a drone laying colony.

Final Thoughts

In short, honey bee eggs are a fundamental part of the colony, and their health and well-being are essential to the success and survival of the hive. While different than the eggs we are most familiar with, they are the first step towards a buzzing population of bees.

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