Updated: 28th January 2021
The life cycle of the honey bee begins firstly with the mating of the queen honey bee with drones (males). To do this, the queen will leave the hive or nest on a mating flight, where she will mate mid air up to 24 times.
You can watch this amazing spectacle on my page about honey bee mating behaviour.
The impregnated queen returns to join the rest of the colony in the nest or hive, where she will lay the eggs that will develop into adult bees.
The honey bee life cycle has 4 basic stages between egg and adult bee, whether it's a worker, drone or queen, although there will be slight variations in the time it takes for each to emerge from the egg cell.
|Average time taken for an egg to
develop into an adult bee
|Worker||18 - 22 days|
The key stages are:
Let's go into this in a little more detail:
An egg is laid by the honey bee queen in a wax, hexagonal egg cell. The egg is about the size of a grain of rice and initially stands upright in the cell, but falls onto its side by the third day. The honey bee queen may lay between to 2000 and 3000 eggs per day (1).
Fertilized eggs will become females (workers or potential queens). Unfertilized eggs will become drones (male honey bees) and are laid in 'drone cells' which are larger cells than those of worker bees.
A potential future queen honey bee is laid in a special cell, called a 'queen cell'.
After 3 days, the egg develops into a larva, which looks like a small white grub. It has no legs and is blind.
The larvae are fed by young worker bees that have not yet left the hive or nest. Initially, all the larvae are fed royal jelly for three days, and after this they are fed bee bread, which is a mixture of honey and pollen.
A larva destined to be a queen is fed only on royal jelly, which is a special substance made in special glands in the head, and the salivary glands in the mouth. Royal jelly is sometimes called 'bee milk' and is produced by young nurse bees (worker bees of between 5 and 14 days old). Royal jelly contains protein, vitamins, fats (lipids), and sugar.
As the larva grows, it will moult (shed its outer skin) several times. After about 6 days (depending on whether the bee is a worker, drone or queen), the egg cell is covered with a layer of wax by the worker bees.
Inside the sealed egg cell, the larva begins to spin a cocoon around itself and pupate. During this phase, the larva develops into a recognisable bee, with wings, legs, head, thorax and abdomen.
Eventually, a young adult bee will emerge from the egg cell, by chewing its way through the wax capping.
All in all, from the time the egg was laid, it takes new queens about 16 days to emerge from the egg cell, whereas workers require between 18 and 22 days to fully develop, and drones need 24 days.
Here is a wonderful video from National Geographic showing the development of the eggs through to the stages of larvae, pupae and finally the emerging adult honey bees:
Unlike bumble bee colonies, honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies can survive the winter, provided they have enough food resources, are able to keep sufficiently warm, and are free of diseases and predators. However, in the winter, colonies are smaller than in the summer: there are no drones, and perhaps part of the colony left the hive (in a swarm) to form a new nest elsewhere.
Some of the workers will also die naturally during the winter months, however, there may be up to 20,000 workers left, and a queen.
The queen and the rest of the colony will form a winter cluster to keep warm during the cold months. There will be no brood to tend to, and no eggs are laid during this time. However, as the days begin to warm up, and the flowers begin to bloom, honey bees will begin to go out foraging again, and the queen honey bee will begin to lay eggs.
The life spans of honey bees differ depending on their function in the colony, and when they emerged in the season.
I have written a page comparing the lifespans of the different types of bees, called How Long Do Bees Live?
The average lifespan of a drone is 55 days. Drones that mate with new honey bee queens, will die immediately after mating. However, there are reports of drones living to about 90 days - or about 12 - 13 weeks (2).
By the end of the summer, they will no longer be needed by the colony. Honey bees need reasonable weather to forage, and of course, during the winter time, there is far less nectar and pollen available.
Drones do not collect pollen or nectar, and those still alive will be elbowed out by the workers, so that winter food resources are not drained! Learn more about drones.
Workers raised in the spring and summer have shorter, busier lives than those raised later in the season, and may live 6 or 7 weeks. This is the most productive time for the colony, with larvae to be fed, nectar and pollen to be gathered, and honeycomb to be built.
Those raised in the autumn will have far less to do, with no brood to care for. Their main concern will be to survive the cold until the following spring. However, they may live 4 to 6 months.
the queen honey bee life cycle revolves primarily around mating and
laying eggs, the life of worker honey bees also progresses through various
stages of functions within the colony.
A productive queen, favoured by the
colony and free from disease should certainly live for about 2 yrs, but
could live for up to 3 or 4 years or even longer, partly depending on whether the
beekeeper decides to get rid of the queen, or whether the colony decides to replace her. The act of deposing the queen by the colony is called
‘supersedure’. Learn more about the role of the
Honey Bee Queen.
Queens are difficult for beekeepers to identify among the thousands of workers, and so they are marked with a special type of paint, as can be seen by the dot of white paint on the photograph above.
|Average size (length) of a honey bee
by colony member
|Worker||0.4 inches / 1 cm|
|Queen||0.8 inches / 2 cm|
|Drone||0.6 inches / 1.5 cm|
The diagram below give you an idea about the relative size of the honey bee drone, queen and worker.
bee life cycles
go through the stages of egg, larva, pupa then adult, although there are great variations between the
life cycles of solitary, honey and bumble bees, (as explained elsewhere
on my site - see links.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the honey bee life cycle, but you can learn a lot more about some of the specific stages, such as swarming, by exploring the site further.
(1) Fratini et al: Royal Jelly: An ancient remedy with remarkable antibacterial properties; Microbiological Research Volume 192, November 2016, Pages 130-141.
(2) Fukuda H, Ohtani T. Survival and lifespan of drone honeybees. Res. Popul. Ecol. 1977;19:51–68.
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