Bee Larvae

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Bee larvae are the second stage of honey bee development. They are not small replicas of their parents – but small white grubs. Bee larvae are the promise of the future for the colony as they will become the new work force. They grow rapidly and molt through several steps as they move closer to adulthood.

Various stages of bee larvae in honeycomb cells.

This stage of the honey bee life cycle is a testament to the dedication of the workers who care for young that are not their own. However, this process is necessary to maintain viable colony populations.

Bee Larva: Characteristics and Development

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, these tiny white maggot-like grubs are the next generation of bees. 

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 larva. In fact, they are almost as hard to find as bee eggs.

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.

Larval Stages: Instar and Molting

The larval stage in honey bees begins with the “hatching” of the egg.  They 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 developing larvae.

As the coating dissolves, a tiny white worm appears. These white c-shapes in the bottom of cells are hard to see. But, once they are several days old (3-4) even the most inexperienced beekeeper can find them.

Each larva goes through 5 stages of growth called instars. At the end of each instar -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. Workers close the cell with a wax covering and the bee larvae spins a cocoon and enters the pupal stage.

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

Nursing Behavior and Larvae Care

Young workers are attracted to brood cells by bee pheromones. They secrete a nutritious milky white liquid (brood food) 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.

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Several days prior to beginning their duties of feeding 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. They can not leave the cell so food must be delivered.

Members of the colony also take care of the area surround developing young. The brood nest must be kept at a viable temperature and humidity for optimum development.

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

Nutrition

The diet of honey bee larvae varies a bit. The composition and amount of food they receive depends on the type of bee they will become.

Larvae that develop from fertilized eggs will be female. They can become workers or queens. Those that are unfertilized become drones (male bees of the colony.

At first, all young 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.

But, those larvae destined to become queens, are fed large amounts of royal jelly throughout this development stage. 

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

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.

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 consume royal jelly for possible health benefits.

Brood frame from a beehive.

Threats and Challenges

Bee larvae do face some challenges along the way. 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.

They are also 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.

Also, there are a couple of diseases that affect brood – such as European Foulbrood (EFB) and the more serious American Foulbrood (AFB). Monitoring for these is an important part of beehive management.

FAQs

What do worker bees feed larvae?

Workers feed brood food produced by special glands to bee larvae. It contains royal jelly and other nutritious substances.

How many instars do bees go through?

Bee larvae go through 4 instars during the growth stage. Each instar has a period of growth followed by molting of the exoskeleton.

How long does the larval stage last for honey bees?

On average, the larval stage lasts about 6 days – a bit longer for workers and drones.

Can environmental factors affect bee larvae development?

Yes, humidity and temperature can have a substantial affect on developing bees.

Finally

Bee larvae play a pivotable role in the success of the colony. Their transformative journey to adulthood prepares them for the job ahead. But, they rely on good growing conditions and care from a population of healthy workers.

Also, beekeepers are responsible for knowing when to test for mites in their hives and how to react. Does the colony have a good brood pattern? If not, finding out why is very important.