From its beginning, until the end, the honey bee life cycle is designed to help each member contribute to the colony. Honey bees go through several stages of development before reaching adulthood. Good health is necessary at each stage of the life cycle of honey bees to ensure productive colonies with healthy adults capable of sustaining the hive.
Successful beekeepers learn the basic bee facts regarding development early on. We have to be able to recognize these stages during hive inspections. It is sometimes necessary to diagnose problems in the colony.
About the Life Cycle of Honey Bees
Honey bees are insects and they go through complete metamorphosis. This means they have individual stages of development that are very different from each other. For instance, a honey bee egg is certainly very different than a bee larva or pupae.
4 Stages Of the Honey Bee Life Cycle
Like other insects, the life cycle of a honey bee consists of 4 stages. All bees in the hive go through these development stages – regardless of the sex of type of bee. However, the amount of time spent in each stage is slightly different.
The first 3 stages are when development and growth occur. During this time, they are referred to as bee brood. The last life stage of the bee life cycle is of course adulthood.
The egg is the first stage of the life cycle of honey bees. Bee eggs are very small and hard to see for beginner beekeepers. They look like tiny grains of white rice and usually there is only 1 per wax cell.
The queen bee is capable of laying both fertilized eggs and unfertilized eggs. This is a remarkable aspect of how bees reproduce.
Fertilized eggs become females (workers or queens). Unfertilized eggs are destined to become drone bees or males.
Three days after the egg is laid – instead of hatching, the egg shell dissolves. Now, we have a bee larva and the second phase begins.
Bee larvae resemble white grubs. From a beginning that is almost too small to see, they grow at a fast rate – soon filling the bottom of the cell.
The larval stage of bees is a time of eating and growth. Therefore, it is often referred to as the eating phase. Female worker bees, known as nurse bees, constantly feed the growing larva.
Producing royal jelly and brood food from glands in the mouth – workers feed the babies hundreds of times a day.
The time spent at the larval stage varies -especially between the female and male bees. For a worker bee the average larval stage is 6 days and drones stay in the eating phase another day or so.
Once the larva has finished feeding, it begins to spin a cocoon. Now, it is ready to enter phase 3 and become a bee pupa.
Several changes occur during the pupal phase. As the larva spins a cocoon, it still looks very much like a bee larva. This is called the “pre-pupal” stage.
Hive workers seal the pupa in the cell using wax caps made from scraps of beeswax. During the remainder of time as a pupa, our bee begins to look more like an adult.
The outer skin is shed, the 5 eyes of the bee form, wings and legs develop. All internal organs become complete – readying the bee for the outside world.
When the final pupal skin is shed, our fully winged adult honey bee is ready to chew her way out of her cell.
When the adult bee emerges from a cell, the race begins to fulfill the intended role in the colony.
How long bees live depends on their function in the hive and the time of year. Worker honey bees live from 6 weeks in Summer – literally working themselves to death.
As a measure of colony survival, special fat Winter bees can live up to 6 months. Drones live a couple of months in the Summer and normally do not over-winter.
Queens typically live for the longest time. In good conditions, it is not unusual for one to live several years.
Any chart outlining bee development is only a guide. Bee genetics and even temperatures can affect the time of the stages.
** Some resources include a “pre-pupal stage” between the larva and pupal phase. Don’t be alarmed if you see slightly different numbers from the ones in this chart.
One of many areas in beekeeping that is sure to create lively conservation is the subject of castes. This is due to many beekeeping books and reference materials that define “caste” in a different manner.
What is a Caste?
The technical definition of caste is “a group of individuals of the same sex that behave similarly to each other-but differently from other members of their sex”.
A good example in the honey bee colony is our female bees. Worker bees act like other worker bees – but different than the also female queen honey bee. Therefore, workers and queens count as 2 separate castes.
Drone bees are the males in the hive and they act like all the other drones. There is no different behavior within their group. They should not be considered a caste.
Yet, most beekeeping books and materials count the drones as a caste of their own. This gives us a total of 3 in the colony. For the sake of simplicity, I will do the same in this article.
The honey bee life cycle consists of 4 separate stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult. The time from egg to adult varies among members of the colony. On average, queen bees take 16 days, workers 21 days and drone bee 24 days.
The shell of honey bees eggs – dissolves “hatches” in about 3 days – leaving behind a tiny bee larva.
The four stages are egg, larva, pupa, adult.
A Final Word
For the honey bee colony, rearing thousands of young during the warm season is vital to a survival. During the development stages of the life cycle of honey bees, the adult present in the hive feed and care for young. A new work force is always needed. It takes the efforts of many individuals to support the hive and prepare for Winter.