Honey Bee Life Cycle
Most of us know that a honeybee produces honey. But would you like to learn more about the honeybee life cycle? I’ll cover how honeybees of all castes and genders mature. You’ll also learn how these insects reproduce, and the average lifespan of a honeybee.
What Are the Life Cycle Stages of a Honeybee?
The honeybee life cycle consists of four stages. Each bee is hatched from an egg as a larva. After a time, the honeybee forms a pupa and then emerges as a developed adult.
These stages aren’t identical for every honeybee. These insects are social and live in colonies, meaning they have a caste system.
Honeybee colonies have three classes of bees. They have a queen, the workers, and the drones.
Gender dictates what a bee will grow into. Drones are exclusively male, workers and queens are female. The queen is the sole ruler of the colony—there aren’t any king bees.
Honeybees incubate in eggs. The queen lays her eggs in cells made from beeswax inside the beehive. A bee will only come out of these cells after it pupates and is fully mature.
The gender of a honeybee is determined by the queen before she lays the egg. If it’s fertilized, the egg will hatch a female. Unfertilized eggs produce males.
Honeybee workers sometimes lay eggs, however, these are always males (drones). The worker bees don’t mate, so their eggs are not fertilized.
As with all species of bees, honeybees are hemimetabolous. They go through a physical transformation on their way to adulthood.
When the egg hatches, a larva appears. Larvae look nothing like mature bees. They look like small, white worms or maggots.
The larvae depend on female workers for care and sustenance. The worker bees ensure the larvae are fed and stay clean.
The diet of honeybee larvae depends on what he or she will grow up to be. All larvae are initially fed royal jelly during the first few days of life.
Young female workers, known as nurses, secrete royal jelly, otherwise known as bee’s milk. This milky white liquid is also fed to the queen bee.
Larvae that are born to be workers or drones will be fed bee bread after a few days. Worker bees prepare bee bread from pollen, honey stores, and their own saliva.
The larvae that are destined to mature into queen bees get a special diet. They eat royal jelly for the entirety of the larval stage until they pupate.
Queen bees stay larvae for shorter periods than workers and drones. These larvae take an average of six days to pupate.
Before it pupates, a larva will have grown significantly. The typical larva is 1,500 times larger than its original size as it reaches the pupal stage.
The pupal stage is when the transformation takes place. Larvae begin molting— shedding their skins—when the time to pupate has come.
Workers know larvae are ready to pupate when they stretch upright in their cells. The workers seal off the cell with beeswax in preparation.
The length of time it takes a bee to develop is also caste-specific. For European honeybees (Apis mellifera), queens are the quickest to emerge. They spend eight days as pupae.
Workers take an average of 12 days. Drones are the slowest to mature, emerging from their pupae after roughly two weeks.
Each bee performs functions for the colony based on his or her caste. The anatomy of each caste differs to suit their purpose.
As the largest class of honeybee, workers are crucial to the honeybee colony. Most of the eggs a queen honeybee lays turn into workers. Sexually immature, most of the workers are incapable of laying eggs.
As you may expect from the name of this class, honeybee workers do all the labor. They maintain the beehive, keeping it clean and structurally sound.
They’re also the caretakers for every other member of the colony. Workers feed queens and raise larvae. When drones are produced, the workers feed them too.
The queen is the ruler of the colony. She is always surrounded by workers whose principal function is to cater to her needs. The queen’s primary duty is to lay eggs. She won’t leave the beehive unless the colony is due to swarm.
Drones are males born in beehives that are highly populated. A drone is born to mate with virgin queens. This may not sound like much, but drones help propagate the species.
They don’t have stingers and can’t forage for food on their own. Drones are wholly reliant on worker honeybees for care before their mating flights.
How Do Honeybees Reproduce?
Workers feed female larvae royal jelly to produce new queens for a few reasons. This can happen in hives where the old queen is sick or dead.
New queens are also conceived when a hive is sufficiently large enough and drones are born. The old queen will leave the beehive with most of the colony, leaving a group of workers behind.
This phenomenon is known as swarming. The swarm leaves right before the new queens emerge from their pupae. The old colony heads out to find a new location to build a beehive.
The virgin queens fight each other once they come out of their pupae. There can only be one queen in the colony, after all.
A queen honeybee doesn’t mate continuously throughout her life. Rather, she mates with one or more drones shortly after she emerges from pupae.
Drones die after mating—their reproductive organs are ripped out. The queen stores drone sperm in her spermatheca. From this stored sperm, queen honeybees sustain their colonies through ceaseless egg-laying.
How Long Do Honey Bees Live on Average?
The length of a honeybee’s life is, once again, contingent on the caste. Queens have the longest lives of all. They can live for two to five years.
Workers generally live for six weeks. If a worker is born in autumn, however, she may survive the winter.
The male drones live for approximately eight weeks. Drones that don’t mate are not allowed to return to the colony over winter. This gluttonous caste consumes too much of the colony’s precious stored honey.