Honey bees are insects that go through development stages to reach adulthood. Each phase of bee development contributes to a healthy adult honey bee. From it’s beginning as a egg laid by the queen – until the last day of flight, the honey bee life cycle of each member contributes to colony life.
Honey Bee Life Cycle
The life span of individual honey bees varies a bit. Among the different kinds of bees in the hive, queens typically live for the longest time.
Drone bees – the males of the hive- live the shortest time in reference to days. And the worker bees (who are the backbone of the colony) have a life span that is between the queen and drones.
Like most insects, honey bees 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 pupae.
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Stages Of Bee Development
The life cycle of a honey bee has 4 stages. Each member of the hive experiences all 4 regardless of the sex or type of bee. The first 3 stages are referred to as bee brood.
The egg is the first stage of bee development. 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 honey bee is capable of laying both fertilized eggs and unfertilized eggs. A remarkable aspect of bee reproduction. Fertilized eggs become females. Unfertilized eggs are destined to become drones or male bees.
Three days after being laid, instead of hatching, the egg shell dissolves. Now, we have a bee larva that is ready to move to the next phase.
The larval stage of bees is a time of eating and growth. In fact, it is often referred to as the eating phase.
Bee larva 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.
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. Once the larva has finished feeding, it begins to spin a cocoon. This marks the end of the larval phase.
Despite the cocoon spinning the developing bee maintains a larval skin for a bit. It still looks like a bee larva. This is called the “pre-pupal” stage as the bee begins to transform into an adult.
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 and eyes, wings and legs develop.
When the final pupal skin is shed, our fully winged adult honey bee is ready to chew her way out of her cell.
After maturing for a couple of days, the adult bee is ready to take on her role in the colony. For the worker bee, her first few weeks (3 week avg), are spent on duties inside. Then, she becomes a forager working outside the hive.
The life span of a bee varies depends on their function in the hive and the time of year. Workers live from 6 weeks to 6 months. Field bees work themselves to death during Summer. Fat Winter worker bees live longer. For the others, drones may live a couple of months and the queen can live several years.
Development Timelines Among Castes
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.
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.
All members of the hive go through the 4 stages of the honey bee life cycle. However, their development timeline is slightly different.
Of course, 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.
All Bee Life Cycles are Not the Same
Among thousands of species of bees in the world, there is much variety in their life cycle and life span. Yet, even in our honey bee colonies we see a lot of diversity during development.
Rearing thousands of young during the warm season is vital to a successful colony. It takes the work of many tiny individuals to meet all the needs of the hive and prepare for Winter.