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The Lifecyle of the Honeybee

29 April 2021

The Lifecycle of the Honeybee

Whether you are just starting out as a beekeeper or you are simply interested to learn about these buzzing beauties, the lifecycle of the honeybee will certainly captivate your curiosity.

In the beekeeping profession, bees are often referred to as castes. A caste is a group of individuals within the same sex that have distinctly different behaviours. There is much debate among the beekeeping community as to whether there are 2 or 3 castes for honeybees. With female bees, there are 2 distinct castes; workers and queens. Worker bees behave very differently to queens, but they are all female.

The debate arises around whether drones, or male bees, should be considered a third caste. Since all drones behave the same way, they do not fit the definition of a caste. However, when referring to females, they each take up 1 caste position. So, naturally, there are some who believe honeybees have 3 castes, while other beekeepers maintain it should be 2.

There is no right answer here. It is a simple case of interpretation.

Egg

Our fascinating journey begins when the queen bee lays her eggs. She is the only bee in the colony to lay eggs and she will do this every day of her life. A queen honeybee is capable of laying as many as 2000 eggs per day, although she may lay just a few hundred. Each egg, about the size of a grain of rice, has its own cell within the brood chamber and they remain here until they mature into adult bees. Larvae hatch from the egg after 3 days.

Fertilised eggs will hatch female larvae and unfertilised eggs will hatch drone larvae. The queen will determine which egg to lay based on the size of the brood cell. Since drones grow to a larger size, they require a larger brood cell. The queen can also control the gender ratio within the colony by choosing to lay more fertilised eggs to increase the number of workers, or more unfertilised eggs to increase the number of drones.

Larvae

For the first 3 days after hatching, all larvae are fed royal jelly, which is produced by the adult worker bees. The third day of the larval stage determines whether a female bee will become a worker or a queen. When a queen bee dies, the hive workers will select a female larvae to take her place.

Female larvae who continue to receive royal jelly after the third day will become queens. Royal jelly inhibits the development of worker characteristics, so continuing this diet for a small number of female larvae ensures there will be queens for future generations. Those that stop receiving royal jelly will become workers and will instead be provided with bee bread, made by workers from honey and pollen.

Around day 5, towards the end of the larval stage, workers will seal the egg cell with wax until the larvae are ready to pupate. The larvae will molt during this time, to make way for their adult hairs to grow.

Pupa

Inside the sealed cell, the larvae will spin a cocoon around themselves. The pupal stage is when the transition from larvae to adult bee begins. This process involves the development of key features including:

  • Eyes
  • wings
  • Legs
  • Hairs

The pupal stage varies depending on the caste of the bee. Queens enter the pupal stage on day 8 and hatch around day 16 or 17. Workers and drones both enter the pupal stage on day 9. Workers mature around day 20 and drones on day 24.

During the pupal stage, bees use their stores of amino acids, lipids and glycogen from the honey and pollen they were fed as larvae.

Adult

The lifespan of a honey bee depends upon its function within the hive. Drones will remain outside the hive, actively seeking out an unmated queen bee to mate with. Drones only live for a short amount of time during summer. Once a drone bee has mated, he usually dies. Typically, they live for 4-6 weeks, but they can live longer.

Female workers bees also have a short lifespan, but this is relative to the seasons. During spring and summer, worker bees have an average lifespan of 6 weeks, however, during the winter months, they can live far longer. This is due to the reduction in activity. During winter, the worker bees will huddle around the queen in the hive to conserve heat. This is known as clustering. A bee cluster can reach temperatures of 30°C, even if the outside temperature is below freezing. They use their stores of honey as a food source and only leave the hive to collect water.

Workers have several jobs.

Pollen/nectar collection: worker bees with the role of pollen or nectar collection will make several flights each day in search of good sources. A bee will either collect only pollen or only nectar. They collect their finds and return to the nest to deliver it to another worker. The pollen collector will also inform the colony of her find by performing a dance.

Nurse bees: these are young bees not long from emerging their egg cell. They will perform jobs such as feeding the larvae, cleaning the hive and collecting pollen and nectar from other worker bees. Nurse bees feed larvae every 2 minutes or so. This could add up to almost 800 feeds a day per larvae. After several days, the nurse bees have developed further and they will move on to other roles within the colony.

Protection: female worker bees responsible for guarding the nest will remain close to the nest entrance, keeping watch for potential danger. Drones do not take part in nest protection as they have no stinger.

Maintenance: there are several areas of maintenance within a hive, including construction of brood cells, rebuilding damaged areas, producing wax, carrying food and filling cracks around comb with wax.

Resource collection: workers bees who remain in the nest will wait for other bees to return from foraging trips. They collect nectar and pollen from the returning bees and store it in the honeycomb. To prevent it from going bad, the pollen is mixed with honey and used to feed larvae.

Removing the dead: in the first 2 weeks after emerging, young workers bees will assume the role of removing dead bees or undeveloped larvae from the nest. This helps to prevent disease or infection from spreading through the colony.

Ladies in waiting: the workers are responsible for feeding and cleaning the queen. They also spread the queen's pheromones throughout the nest, so the colony know there is still a viable, healthy queen.

Climate control: the temperature of the nest is vital to ensure the colony remain healthy and active. When the temperature increases, worker bees will distribute water throughout the nest and then use their wings to fan the area. This is essentially bee air conditioning. As the temperature drops during winter, worker bees will cluster to keep the nest warm.

Queen bees have much better life expectancies. Since their only job is to lay eggs and they do not need to leave the nest or make long flights, a healthy queen can live as long as 6 years. Queen bees only leave the nest once, to take part in a mating dance. The queen mates with several drones, collecting sperm from each to fertilise her eggs. This greatly increases the genetic diversity of her future offspring and keeps the colony healthy.

Several queens may emerge from their brood cells at the same time. If there is no queen in the hive, the new queens will fight amongst themselves until only one remains. Her body will begin to harden and she will start to produce pheromones. The pheromones are what attract the drone bees to her during the mating flight. They are also used to communicate in the colony and control the behaviour of the worker bees.

Swarming

This is a vital part of bee life and ensures the continuation of the colony or the start of a new one. When a colony becomes overcrowded, the queen will swarm with approximately half of the worker population. The swarm will travel for a 2 or 3 days, resting every few hours. Scouts will leave the resting spots to fly ahead in search of a new nesting site.

Once a new site is found, the scouts will return to the swarm and dance to show the other bees where to go. The workers will the begin the process of building a new nest. At the previous nest, a new queen will emerge.

Understanding the lifecycle of the honeybee is important for beekeepers to ensure that they can maintain the health of their hives and avoid colony collapse.

Head over to our store to find tools to save tired honey bees like our Bee Rescue Keyring designed specifically to help tired thirsty bees.

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