Honey bee life cycle

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The honey bee life cycle, here referring exclusively to the domesticated Western honey bee, depends greatly on their social structure.

Honey bee swarm pitched on a high limb

Colony life[edit]

Unlike a bumble bee colony or a paper wasp colony, the life of a honey bee colony is perennial. There are three castes of honey bees: queens, which produce eggs, workers, which are all non-reproducing females and drones, males whose main duty is to find and mate with a queen. The queen lays eggs singly in cells of the comb. Larvae hatch from eggs in three to four days. They are then fed by worker bees and develop through several stages in the cells. Cells are capped by worker bees when the larva pupates. Queens and drones are larger than workers and so require larger cells to develop. A colony may typically consist of tens of thousands of individuals.

While some colonies live in hives provided by humans, so-called "wild" colonies (although all honey bees remain wild, even when cultivated and managed by humans) typically prefer a nest site that is clean, dry, protected from the weather, about 20 liters in volume with a 4 to 6 cm² entrance about 3 m above the ground, and preferably facing south or south-east (in the northern hemisphere) or north or north-east (in the southern hemisphere).


Stages of development of the drone pupae.

Development from egg to emerging bee varies among queens, workers and drones. Queens emerge from their cells in 15,16 days, workers in 21 days and drones in 24 days. Only one queen is usually present in a hive. New virgin queens develop in enlarged cells through differential feeding of royal jelly by workers. When the existing queen ages or dies or the colony becomes very large a new queen is raised by the worker bees. The virgin queen takes one or several nuptial flights and once she is established starts laying eggs in the hive.

A fertile queen is able to lay fertilized or unfertilized eggs. Each unfertilized egg contains a unique combination of 50% of the queen's genes[1] and develops into a haploid drone. The fertilized eggs develop into either workers or virgin queens.

The average lifespan of a queen is three to four years; drones usually die upon mating or are expelled from the hive before the winter; and workers may live for a few weeks in the summer and several months in areas with an extended winter.

TypeEggLarvaCell cappedPupaAverage Developmental Period

(Days until emergence)

Start of FertilityBody LengthHatching Weight
Queenup to Day 3up to Day 8½Day 7½Day 8 until emergence16 daysDay 23 and up18–22 mmnearly 200 mg
Workerup to Day 3up to Day 9Day 9Day 10 until emergence (Day 11 or 12 last moult)21 days

(range: 18–22 days)

N/A12–15 mmnearly 100 mg
Droneup to Day 3up to Day 9½Day 10Day 10 until emergence24 daysapprox. 38 days15–17 mmnearly 200 mg

The weight progression of the worker egg, larvae.

Worker bee emerging from cell
DaysDevelopmental stateWeightLengthFood source
1egg0.132 mg1.2mmyolk
2eggnot listedyolk
3egg0.09 mgyolk
4larvanot listedRoyal jelly
5larva3.4 mgRoyal jelly
6larva33.3 mgRoyal jelly/honey and pollen (bee bread)
7larva100.1 mghoney and pollen (bee bread)
8larva134.5 mghoney and pollen (bee bread)
9larva155.2 mghoney and pollen (bee bread)

Source: Stone, David M. Overview of Bee Biology University of Illinois Laboratory Highschool; web accessed Oct. 2006

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