Honey bee life cycle

Honey bee life cycle: from Egg to Adult, a Journey Through Apis Mellifera’s Life

honey bee cycle

The honey bee life cycle initiates with the queen’s mid-air mating flight, where she mates with drones up to 24 times. After mating, the impregnated queen returns to the nest or hive to lay eggs, marking the beginning of the 4-stage life cycle. This cycle spans from egg to adult bee, encompassing workers, drones, and queens, with slight variations in emergence times.

In line with other insects, bees undergo metamorphosis from larva to adult. The drone’s development spans about 24 days, while queens and workers mature faster. The average development times for each bee type are as follows:

Worker: 18 – 22 days
Queen: 16 days
Drone: 24 days

The universal bee life cycle comprises four key stages: Egg, Larva, Pupa, and Adult, a pattern consistent across all bee species, including honey bees.

Egg Stage: The Blueprint for Future Generations

The honey bee queen deposits an egg in a hexagonal wax cell. Initially upright, the egg, roughly the size of a grain of rice, tilts onto its side by the third day. The queen can lay an impressive 2000 to 3000 eggs daily. Fertilized eggs develop into females (workers or potential queens), while unfertilized ones become drones (male honey bees) placed in larger ‘drone cells.’ A prospective new queen is laid in a distinctive cell known as a ‘queen cell.’

Larva Stage: Nourishment and Transformation

Following a 3-day period, the egg transforms into a larva resembling a small, white grub. Devoid of legs and sight, these larvae are nourished by young worker nurse bees within the hive. They receive either ‘worker jelly’ (for female workers), ‘drone jelly’ (for males), or ‘royal jelly’ (for queens).

Initially, all worker bee larvae are fed jelly for 3-4 days, after which they transition to a slightly different jelly with reduced protein content. Unlike adult worker bees, a larva destined to become a queen exclusively consumes royal jelly throughout her life.

Royal jelly, often referred to as ‘bee milk,’ is produced by young nurse bees (workers aged 5 to 14 days) in glands located in the head and salivary glands in the mouth. This nutritious substance contains water, protein, vitamins, fats (lipids), sugar, and mineral salts.

As the larva grows, it undergoes several molting phases, shedding its outer skin. Around 6 days later, depending on the bee’s role as a worker, drone, or queen, the egg cell is sealed with a layer of wax by the worker bees.

Pupa Stage: Metamorphosis Unveiled

Inside the sealed egg cell, the larva begins to spin a cocoon around itself and pupate. During this phase, the larva develops into a recognizable bee, with wings, legs, head, thorax and abdomen.

Adult Stage: Emergence and Development Timeframes

Eventually, a young adult bee will emerge from the hexagonal-shaped egg cell, by chewing its way through the wax capping.

All in all, from the time the egg was laid, it takes new honey bee queens about 16 days to emerge from the egg cell, whereas worker bees require between 18 and 22 days to fully develop, and drones need 24 days.

What happens to the honey bee colony?

Unlike bumble bee colonies, honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies can survive the winter. They survive by ensuring ample food reserves, maintaining warmth, and avoiding diseases and predators. In contrast to their summer size, winter colonies are smaller, devoid of drones (evicted during this season), and some members may have departed to establish a new colony elsewhere through swarming.

While natural worker losses occur in winter, a surviving colony may retain up to 20,000 workers and a queen. The colony, including the queen, forms a winter cluster to conserve warmth. Notably, there’s no brood to care for, and egg-laying ceases during this period.

With the advent of warmer days and blooming flowers, honey bees resume foraging activities, and the queen recommences laying eggs, marking the renewal of colony life.

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