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Bee Larvae- A Beginners Guide

In many life forms the young look like small replicas of their parents.  This is not so in the world of the honey bee.  On the journey from egg to adult, bees go through several stages.  One is the larval stage. This is an important time in honey bee development.  Bee larvae are the future and the hive depends on them.

Appearance of Bee Larvae – What They Look Like

Various stages of bee larvae in honeycomb cells.

New beekeepers are often surprised by the appearance of bee larvae.  In fact, they sometimes think they have little white worms in the hive.  But, instead of being a pest – these tiny white maggot-like grubs are the next generation of bees. 

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In the beginning, they are so small that they are hard to see.  A very close visible inspection is necessary to see the legless white grubs. In fact, they are almost as hard to find as bee eggs.

Honey Bee Larval Stage

The larval stage in honey bees begins with the “hatching” of the egg.  Bee eggs don’t truly hatch in the same manner as chickens – but this is a common terminology. This happens about 3 days after it is laid by the queen.

Wax cells with single bee eggs and developing larvae.

As the coating of the egg dissolves, a tiny white worm appears.  Now the young adults of the hive take action. Attracted to larval cells by pheromones, nurse bees approach and secrete a nutritious milky white liquid into the cells.  This food for very young larvae is called royal jelly.

How do these nurse bees produce this nutritious food? They must consume protein from gathered pollen. However, fresh pollen is not digestible due to it’s hard outer covering.

Several days prior to beginning their duties of feeding the young, nurses consume bee bread. This helps their brood food glands mature and be able to secrete food.

For the first few days, nurses provide much more food than a larva can consume.  The young are floating on a bed of royal jelly.  That’s why bee larvae are often called “milk brood”.

In the larval stage, bees grow at an amazing rate.  All they do is lay there and eat. Larva can not leave the cell. Their food must be delivered.

A healthy honey bee larva (plural: larvae) is shiny and white in color.  Seeing any that are brown or dark is a sign of diseased or dead larvae.

Milk brood worker bee larvae floating in pool of royal jelly.

Instars and Molting

First, they are tiny white c-shapes in the bottom of a wax cell and very hard to see. Once they are several days old (3-4) even the most inexperienced beekeeper can find them.  This is also the time when they are consuming food as fast as the nurse bees are providing it.

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Each larva goes through 5 stages of growth called instars. At the end of each the larva molts. A common occurrence in insects, molting allows the outer covering (skin) to shed off and a new larger one takes place. This allows the grub to grow.

By day 5-6, their size fills the bottom of the cell. At this point the feeding stage is ending. Before long, they enter the next stage of the bee life cycle

House bees finished capping the cell with a wax covering and the larvae spins a cocoon and enters the pupal stage.

It is estimated that a nurse bee makes 3,000 visits to a brood cell during the larval stage.  This makes it easy to understand why you need a healthy, strong colony to rear brood. Only hives with plenty of young adults are capable of optimal brood rearing.

Young nurse bees clean the cells in brood nest of hive.

Diet of a Larva

The queen lays two types of eggs: fertilized and unfertilized. Fertilized eggs will be female and can become either workers or queen. Unfertilized eggs become drones – the male bees of the colony.

All honey bees (and other insects) go through a larval stage.  However, the diet of a bee larva varies a bit. The composition and amount of food they receive depends on the type of bee they will become and their role in the colony.

Most of the brood in a hive will develop into worker bees. But depending on the needs of the colony (and the time of year), you may see drone larvae or developing queens too.

Royal Jelly

Royal jelly is produced by the pharyngeal and mandibular glands of young adult bees. It is often called “bee milk” and is a combination of water, proteins and sugar.

In fact, it is considered such a nutritious substance that some humans consumer royal jelly for possible health benefits.

Young workers are the best nurse bees and able to produce the most brood food. In the beginning, all of the youngest larvae are fed royal jelly. However, when they reach about day 3, the diet changes a bit.

Those destined to become workers are fed a mixture that includes some honey and pollen. Developing drones are fed pretty much the same brood food as workers.

The main nutritional difference is for the larvae destined to become queens. They are fed large amounts of royal jelly throughout their larval development. 

Also, and perhaps more important, they are not feed honey and pollen. Researchers believe this diet is what allows some females to develop into reproductive queens instead of regular female workers.

Brood frame from a beehive.

Checking Brood Status

Larval life is not always easy.  They must be well fed and kept within a certain range of temperature and humidity. During early Spring, a late freeze may result in some of the brood on the edges of the comb to die due to chilling.

Bee larvae are a prime target for pests and parasites such as the varroa mite.  Mites invade the cells of developing bees and weaken them through feeding and spreading disease.

There are a couple of diseases that affect brood – such as European Foulbrood (EFB) and the more serious American Foulbrood (AFB). Colonies should be monitored for these.

The loss of a small number of developing young is not a major problem. However, if it is a symptom of a larger issue – the beekeeper needs to know.

Having a good population of healthy workers on the way is critical to colony survival. This means that beekeepers should always check the brood pattern of a hive during inspections. Lack of healthy brood is always a call for a deeper evaluation of the colony status.