Honey Bee Life Cycle: A Fascinating Journey from Larva to Adult

Honey bees play a vital role in our ecosystem, helping to pollinate plants and produce honey. Their complex life cycle takes place within colonies that are organized into three main groups: queens, workers, and drones. Each of these groups has distinct roles in the colony’s life, contributing to its growth, maintenance, and reproduction.

One fascinating aspect of honey bee life is how closely it’s tied to the life cycle of flowering plants. In the spring, bees ramp up their workforce to take full advantage of the blossoming flowers and the increase in available resources source. As the seasons change, so does the makeup of the colony and the activities its members undertake.

Understanding the life cycle of honey bees is crucial for appreciating their contributions to our environment and for implementing effective bee management strategies. Whether you’re an aspiring beekeeper or simply curious about these industrious insects, delving into the life cycle of honey bees will definitely leave you buzzing with knowledge.

Honey Bee Life Cycle Overview

Egg Stage

Honey bees begin their life cycle as eggs laid by the queen bee. Queen bees are the only ones capable of laying eggs, which can be either fertilized or unfertilized:

  • Fertilized eggs develop into female worker bees
  • Unfertilized eggs develop into male drone bees

Eggs are laid in hexagonal cells made of beeswax within the hive.

Larva Stage

After three days, eggs hatch into larvae. During this stage, larvae undergo rapid growth, fed by worker bees.

  • Larvae consume a mix of honey, pollen, and nectar called “bee bread.”
  • The queen larva receives a special food called “royal jelly.”

Pupa Stage

Around nine days after hatching, the larval cells are capped with a beeswax cocoon. Inside, the larvae transition into pupae. At this stage, they undergo metamorphosis:

  • Development of legs, wings, and eyes occurs
  • Differentiation between castes (workers, queens, drones) takes place

Adult Stage

After metamorphosis, adult bees emerge from their cells:

  • Worker bees, who have a lifespan of around six weeks, clean cells, tend to larvae, and forage for food
  • Queen bees can live up to 3-4 years, spending their lives laying up to 1,500 eggs per day
  • Drone bees have a short life focused on mating with queens and usually die after mating

Example:

A honey bee colony in the spring will focus on building up its worker population to prepare for the bloom of spring flowers.

Comparison Table:

Caste Role Lifespan
Worker Bee Cleaning, tending to larvae, foraging Approx. 6 weeks
Queen Bee Laying eggs 3-4 years
Drone Bee Mating with queens Short, dies after mating

Characteristics of Honey Bee Life Cycle:

  • Development takes place within the hive
  • The castes of bees differentiate during the pupa stage
  • Mating, food collection, and cleaning are essential roles in the colony

Three Types of Honey Bees

Queen Bee

The Queen Bee is the leader of the colony. Her primary role is reproduction, laying around 1,500 eggs per day 1. Some characteristics of the queen bee include:

  • Only one queen in a colony
  • Largest bee in the colony
  • Can live up to 3-4 years 2

Few examples of queen bees are Apis mellifera, Apis cerana, and Apis dorsata.

Worker Bee

Worker Bees are female bees that do not reproduce. They perform various tasks, such as:

  • Foraging for nectar and pollen
  • Feeding larvae
  • Guarding the hive
  • Producing honeycombs

Here’s a comparison table between worker bees and queen bees:

Worker Bee Queen Bee
Gender Female Female
Role Foraging, feeding, and guarding Reproduction
Lifespan 4-6 weeks in summer, up to 6 months in winter3 3-4 years2

Drone Bee

Drone Bees are male bees within the colony. Their primary role is to mate with the queen bee. Some features of drone bees are:

  • Bigger than worker bees but smaller than queen bees
  • Stingless
  • Shorter lifespan (8 weeks)4

Drone bees are an essential part of the honey bee life cycle as they help maintain the genetic diversity of the colony.

Honey Bee Development Factors

Diet and Royal Jelly

  • Honey bees rely on a diet of pollen and nectar from flowers.
  • Pollen provides protein needed for growth and development of young bees1.
  • Nectar is a source of energy, which bees transform into honey.

During the larval stage, a special diet of royal jelly is given to certain larvae^[1^]. This creamy substance, produced by worker bees, can turn a regular female larva into a queen bee. The queen bee has the shortest development period among honey bee castes, taking about 16 days from egg to adult^[2^].

Environment and Climate

Honey bee colony life is heavily influenced by the life cycle of flowering plants in their environment3. As the climate changes, honey bee behavior adapts to the availability of resources. For example, they build up their workforce in spring, preparing for the arrival of blossoming flowers. Some factors affecting honey bee development include:

  • Season: Colony growth and development can vary with the seasons3.
  • Weather: Weather conditions can impact the availability of pollen and nectar, as well as bee activity.
  • Floral resources: The types and abundance of flowering plants in the area determine the diet and growth of the colony.
Factor Effect on Honey Bees
Season Varies with plant growth
Weather Impacts resource availability
Floral resources Determines diet and colony growth

Role in Pollination and Ecosystem

Honey bees, specifically Apis mellifera, play a crucial role in pollination. They transfer pollen from flower to flower, enabling fertilization and fruit production.

Honey bees are the primary commercial pollinator in the US, though there are over 4,000 types of bees in the country.

Some important factors for bee survival are:

  • Forage: Access to diverse plants with nectar and pollen sources.
  • Water: Bees need water for drinking and cooling their hives.
  • Climate: Temperature and weather conditions affect bee behavior.

When comparing honey bees with bumble bees, both contribute to pollination, but honey bees are more managed by beekeepers. Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) are crucial for pollinating wild and managed flowering plants.

An example of honey bees’ impact can be seen in the pollination of almond trees. Honey bees facilitate the pollination process, resulting in increased yields.

Here’s a comparison table between honey bees and bumble bees:

Features Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Bumble Bee (Bombus spp.)
Managed Mostly managed by beekeepers Predominantly wild species
Foraging range Visits a wider range of plants Prefers specific plants
Pollination style Efficient foliage coverage Effective for large, high-density plants

In summary, honey bees, bumble bees, and other bee species contribute significantly to pollination. They ensure the reproduction of various plant species, sustaining ecosystems for humans and other species alike.

Honey Bee Colony Behavior

Queen Mating Flights

Queen bees play a vital role in honey bee colonies as the primary egg layer. A new queen embarks on a mating flight to mate with multiple drones in mid-air (source). This process occurs:

  • Only once in the queen’s life
  • A few days after the queen emerges as an adult

Swarming

Swarming is a fascinating honey bee behavior that occurs when:

  • A new queen bee is about to take over the colony
  • The colony has grown too large for the current space

During swarming, a large group of worker bees and the old queen leave the colony and search for a new location (source).

Pros and cons of swarming:

Pros:

  • Allows for honey bee population expansion
  • Encourages exploration of new habitats

Cons:

  • Can be alarming to humans
  • Increased competition for resources

Winter Cluster

The winter cluster is an essential survival behavior for honey bees in cold climates. Throughout the winter season, honey bees:

  • Form a tightly-packed cluster around the queen bee
  • Using their body heat, maintain an optimal temperature for the queen and brood (source)

Here are some key features of a winter cluster:

  • Honey bees stay close to their food stores
  • Worker bees rotate from the outer edges of the cluster towards the center to maintain warmth for all colony members
  • The queen is primarily protected and kept warm in the cluster’s center

Beekeeping and Honey Bees

Beehive and Honeycomb Care

Beekeeping is essential for maintaining the lifecycle of honey bees. Beekeepers are responsible for:

  • Providing proper beehives
  • Ensuring honeycombs are clean and maintained

One critical aspect of beehive care is monitoring for pests and diseases, as well as limiting exposure to pesticides.

A beekeeper must have several tools, such as:

  • Hive: Housing for bees
  • Frames: Support for honeycombs
  • Smoker: Calming bees during hive work
  • Hive tool: Prying frames apart for inspection or harvesting

You can find more information on beekeeping tools here.

Importance of Beekeepers

Beekeepers play a vital role in supporting honey bees and their overall lifecycle. They help by:

  • Ensuring healthy bee colonies
  • Supporting the pollination of flowering plants

For example, bee pollination accounts for a significant portion of agriculture, contributing an estimated 10 to 20 times the value of honey and beeswax1.

Beekeeper Role Importance
Colony Health Maintains a thriving honey bee population
Pollination Crucial for crop growth and food production

Thus, beekeeping is not only beneficial for obtaining honey and beeswax but also for securing the global food supply through honey bee pollination.

Threats and Conservation Efforts

Honey bees face several threats, including pesticides, diseases, and loss of forage. These threats can affect various aspects of the honey bee life cycle, from the survival of a virgin queen to the health of mature colonies.

  • Pesticides: Exposure to harmful chemicals can weaken or kill honey bees.
  • Diseases: Viruses and parasites can compromise the health and population of a colony.
  • Loss of forage: A decline in flower availability due to habitat loss can limit the food resources for bees.

To counter these threats, conservation efforts have been put in place. Some examples are:

  • Reducing the use of harmful pesticides
  • Promoting bee-friendly plants
  • Supporting research on bee health

The EPA encourages individuals, groups, and governments to participate in pollinator protection by reporting bee kills, learning about best management practices, and reducing dust from treated seed.

Here’s a comparison between healthy honey bees and bees exposed to threats:

Characteristic Healthy Honey Bees Bees Exposed to Threats
Appearance Bright colors, active Dull colors, lethargic
Colony numbers Steady growth Declining population
Virgin queen Successful mating Reduced mating success
Aging Normal life span Shortened life span

In conclusion, addressing the threats faced by honey bees is essential to ensure the healthy development of their life cycle and the sustainability of their crucial role in agriculture.

Interesting Honey Bee Facts

Honey bees are fascinating creatures with unique characteristics. They play a crucial role in pollination and contribute significantly to our ecosystems and agriculture. Below are some interesting aspects of honey bee life.

  • Workers: Honey bee colonies consist of worker bees, which are female and carry out various tasks, including collecting pollen and nectar from flowers 1.
  • Color and shape: They vary in colors ranging from golden brown to darker shades and have a distinct oval shape.
  • Fine hairs: Honey bees have fine hairs on their bodies, which help collect pollen while they’re feeding on flowers. You can see these hairs clearly under a microscope.
Feature Worker Honey Bee Queen Honey Bee
Development time 21 days 16 days
Function in the colony Collect pollen/nector Lay eggs
Physical characteristic Small Larger in size
  • Behavior: Honey bees exhibit complex social behavior within the colony. They work together to maintain and protect their hive, as well as communicate the locations of food sources through intricate dances.
  • Grubs: Before transforming into adult bees, honey bees develop as grubs. These are fed and taken care of by the worker bees in the colony.
  • Hexagon: The honeycomb structure that bees build within their hive is made up of hexagonal cells 3. These cells are used for storing food (honey and pollen) and raising new generations of bees.

By understanding these aspects of honey bee’s life cycle, we can appreciate their crucial role in nature and help protect their numbers for the future.

Footnotes

  1. All About Honey Bees | Ask A Biologist 2 3 4

  2. Helping Agriculture’s Helpful Honey Bees | FDA 2

  3. Honey Bees, Bumble Bees, Carpenter Bees and Sweat Bees 2 3 4

  4. The Life of a Honey Bee – University of Idaho

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Honey Bees gathering pollen from endangered California Black Walnuts

 

Subject:  Honey Bees gather pollen from California Black Walnuts
Geographic location of the bug:  Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
Date: 03/18/2018
While working in the garden Sunday, Daniel noticed a Honey Bee flying around the catkins of an endangered California Black Walnut.  He thought this was unusual since the male flowers have no nectar.  Upon doing some research, Daniel learned on several sites, including Bee Spoke Info and Beeginner Beekeeper, that Honey Bees gather pollen from such trees as alder, hazel and willow, but no mention of black walnuts.

Honey Bees gather pollen from Walnut Trees

 

 

Letter 2 – Honey Bee with Milkweed Pollinium, we believe

 

Subject: What’s on The Tongue?
Location: Hawthorne, CA
September 18, 2013 3:38 pm
Hi Daniel,
I saw a bee on the bird bath today and was lucky enough to have my camera with me. Can you tell me what those odd gold colored things are on it’s proboscis? It sat there for quite some time ”cleaning” it with its front feet.
Signature: Thanks, Anna Carreon

Honey Bee with Milkweed Pollinia
Honey Bee with Milkweed Pollinium

Hi Anna,
We believe this might be the pollinium or pollen sac of a milkweed.  We know you grow milkweed.  See Nadia’s Yard and scroll down the milkweed page to see milkweed pollina attached to a honey bee.  We first learned of Milkweed Pollinia from Julian Donahue who commented on a Orchid Bee posting.  Your photos are positively gorgeous.

Honey Bee and Milkweed Pollinium
Honey Bee and Milkweed Pollinium

Hi Daniel,
Thank you for clearing that one up for me, and for the compliment.  I’m enjoying the new camera.  Finally went from a point & shoot to a DSLR.  It makes a huge difference!
Anna

Hi again Anna,
While we believe that the camera is only as good as the photographer, we also believe that photographers should have the best equipment for their needs.

Letter 3 – Honey Bees nest in flower pot

 

What type of bee is this
Location: Melbourne, Florida
October 9, 2011 3:26 pm
I found some bees making a hive in an old flower pot. I’d like to identify them in order to deal with them properly.
Signature: Jeff Cyr

Honey Bee Hive in Flower Pot

Hi Jeff,
These look like common Honey Bees,
Apis mellifera, the domestic bees that are kept by bee keepers across the world.  See BugGuideas well as numerous other education websites for more information.  You can probably contact a local bee keeper and have the entire flower pot removed.  With Colony Collapse Disorder sweeping the nation, bee keepers are always in need of new hives.

Honey Bee Hive in Flower Pot

Letter 4 – Honey Bees: Odd Winter Behavior

 

Subject: Bees – and behavior?
Location: Morgantown, WV
January 13, 2013 10:48 am
Hello Bugman,
We are having a January thaw in W. Virginia and I’ve had an invasion of what I think are honeybees – they’ve been excavating my birdfeeder. I was wondering if you could tell me what exactly they are doing and if I need to do anything about them? They have already kicked out about half of the bird seed and show no sign of stopping. I’m not terribly worried given that the weather is supposed to change again tomorrow. But I am very curious!
Signature: Bugwatcher Guitry

Honey Bees

Dear Bugwatcher Guitry,
Probably the person most qualified to answer your questions would be a local bee keeper, but we will try to speculate.  These are definitely Honey Bees.  This odd behavior is definitely linked to the unseasonably warm weather.  Perhaps it triggered a swarming activity and these workers are searching for a new location for a hive.  They are certainly not eating the bird seeds, but they might be emptying the feeder in a futile effort to create a new hive.  Alas, they will most likely perish when the weather changes.  We wonder if there are any other examples of this occurring right now.

Dear Bugman,
Thank you so much for your reply and speculation. The bees emptied the entire feeder – and then left. Sadly I suspect they will perish if not tonight then very soon. It was about 68°F here yesterday. Now we are at the high temperature for the day at 43°. Watching them over the weekend was quite fascinating. My neighbor, who lives about a quarter of a mile away does keep bees. I will have to ask him – perhaps they were some of his bees.
As always – I cannot thank you enough for your wonderful website. Thank you for your time and insights.
Bugwatcher Guitry

Let us know if your beekeeper neighbor has a theory.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts

34 thoughts on “Honey Bee Life Cycle: A Fascinating Journey from Larva to Adult”

  1. We too saw honeybees way late in the season here in northern IL..just a few scouts out and about in late December. It was chilly but not freezing.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your input. It is not unusual for worker Honey Bee scouts to venture out on a warm day during the winter in search of nectar. The fascinating mystery about this posting is that the Bees seemed to be interested in the feeder for something other than food.

      Reply
  2. In the absence of pollen, they are searching for a protein source. They pack the dust off of bird feed or, in my case, goat pellets, much the same as they store pollen. It is caused by several warm days in a row telling them to lay eggs. They need the pollen to feed the brood.

    Reply
  3. Comment for Anna Carreon or details on how to contact her. I’m the production manager for 5m publishing and we’re about to publish a book called Managing Bee Health and the author would like to use this picture in the book. Can you grant permission to use the picture? We can use the credit line: Courtesy of Anna Carreon, featured on whatsthatbug.com

    Thanks
    Denise

    Reply
    • Hello Denise,

      I’d be happy to give you permission to use my photo and can also send you the high resolution version of the file if you provide me with an email address. Thank you for your interest, it’s quite an ego booster!

      Thank you for facilitating, Daniel.

      Anna

      Reply
  4. Comment for Anna Carreon or details on how to contact her. I’m the production manager for 5m publishing and we’re about to publish a book called Managing Bee Health and the author would like to use this picture in the book. Can you grant permission to use the picture? We can use the credit line: Courtesy of Anna Carreon, featured on whatsthatbug.com

    Thanks
    Denise

    Reply
    • Hello Denise,

      I’d be happy to give you permission to use my photo and can also send you the high resolution version of the file if you provide me with an email address. Thank you for your interest, it’s quite an ego booster!

      Thank you for facilitating, Daniel.

      Anna

      Reply
  5. Hi Anna
    Thanks for letting us use the great picture of the bee and milkweed great picture. It will be great to show other vets, advisors and other bee keepers this as an issue for our bees!

    John

    Reply
    • Dr. John Carr,

      I apologize for not having responded to your comment nor to Denise Power’s comment below until now. I am also curious, as is the bugman, as to why pollinium is an issue for the bee keepers. Would you please give us some detail when you have the time? I will email Denise the high resolution files straight away and thank you for the interest in my photographs and for the compliment.

      Anna

      Thank you,
      Anna

      Reply
  6. Hi Anna
    Thanks for letting us use the great picture of the bee and milkweed great picture. It will be great to show other vets, advisors and other bee keepers this as an issue for our bees!

    John

    Reply
    • You are most welcome, but we are curious why it is an issue for the bee keepers. We did not realize the pollinium had a negative impact on the Honey Bees.

      Reply
    • Dr. John Carr,

      I apologize for not having responded to your comment nor to Denise Power’s comment below until now. I am also curious, as is the bugman, as to why pollinium is an issue for the bee keepers. Would you please give us some detail when you have the time? I will email Denise the high resolution files straight away and thank you for the interest in my photographs and for the compliment.

      Anna

      Thank you,
      Anna

      Reply
  7. Denise,

    I have emailed you two photos. I hope the format meets your requirements for publication. If not, please let me know via email and I will resend. Thank you again!

    Anna

    Reply
  8. Denise,

    I have emailed you two photos. I hope the format meets your requirements for publication. If not, please let me know via email and I will resend. Thank you again!

    Anna

    Reply
  9. You’re welcome, Denise. Do you think you might be able to send me a copy of the book once it is published?

    Anna

    Reply
  10. You’re welcome, Denise. Do you think you might be able to send me a copy of the book once it is published?

    Anna

    Reply
  11. Hi Anna
    I will see what I can do once the book is published – you need to send an email to my email address with a postal address.

    The issue is that some bees can get tangled and ensnared with the pollinia and not be able to release the double from their bodies. Normally other works come to help.

    John

    Reply
  12. Hi Anna
    I will see what I can do once the book is published – you need to send an email to my email address with a postal address.

    The issue is that some bees can get tangled and ensnared with the pollinia and not be able to release the double from their bodies. Normally other works come to help.

    John

    Reply
    • How nice to hear that the worker Honey Bees assist one another. I watched a drama one day after releasing a female California Mantis that was found on the garage. I put her on the basil plant and within seconds she caught a Honey Bee. I couldn’t believe that another Honey Bee started to hover nearby, watching her hive mate getting eaten. I guess she was assessing the futility of providing aid.

      Reply
  13. Dr. John Carr,

    I have Denise’s email address but not yours. The Bugman does not publish them here at his website. If I send my physical address to her, will she be able to get it to you?

    Anna

    Reply
  14. Dr. John Carr,

    I have Denise’s email address but not yours. The Bugman does not publish them here at his website. If I send my physical address to her, will she be able to get it to you?

    Anna

    Reply
  15. Hi
    My email address is swineunit1@yahoo.com – I do pigs as well.
    Yes honey bees are fascinating how they will help each other – and there is some evidence it is full sisters first and then the other sisters in the hive (note the queen was mated by 20 drones) so how they even recognise full sisters!. But propolis cannot be removed by the collecting bee it has to be removed by other workers.

    Reply
  16. Hi
    My email address is swineunit1@yahoo.com – I do pigs as well.
    Yes honey bees are fascinating how they will help each other – and there is some evidence it is full sisters first and then the other sisters in the hive (note the queen was mated by 20 drones) so how they even recognise full sisters!. But propolis cannot be removed by the collecting bee it has to be removed by other workers.

    Reply
  17. I second what Beeman said… they’re gathering the dust, which is most likely crushed seed kernels from processing, as a protein source, like pollen.

    Put out a pile of wheat flour or something like that and you may deter them from messing with your bird feeder.

    This is common behavior when it gets warm enough that the colony breaks cluster and begins to rear brood. They will be back again next time until the first big spring blooms hit.

    If you really want to help them out, pick up a pollen supplement like Bee Pro from Mann Lake and put out a pollen feeder (a quart jar on a chick feeder from TSC works well if you put an overhanging board over the jar with a brick on top to keep out rain).

    Don’t leave it out in freezing weather or you’ll only be feeding pests like rodents.

    Hope this helps!

    Reply

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